Friday the 13th, 2007 is a day that will dwell in infamy for Australian football fans. I pondered the depths of their despair as I tramped along the dusty perimeter of Rajamangala Stadium in the aftermath of Australia’s 3-1 defeat to Iraq, where I stumbled upon a group of young Thai’s playing street-ball in the expansive forecourt of Thailand’s national stadium. Their movement was fast and fluid – they played purely for the love of the game. Their football was in stark contrast to Australia’s. There’s nothing fun about being an Australian football fan at the present moment in time.
Australia’s debut at the Asian Cup has been an unmitigated disaster thus far. History will show that a turgid performance in the 1-1 draw with Oman was followed by that humiliating 3-1 loss to Iraq. What the scoreline fails to reveal is the sheer depth to which Australian football plunged in those catastrophic ninety minutes. Just over a year after Australia went within a whisker of knocking eventual champions Italy out of the World Cup, the Australians have suddenly gone from potential world-beaters to easy-beats in their Asian Cup group.
The warning signs were all there. In September 2006 a predominately European-based Australian team lost 2-0 to Kuwait in Asian Judi Online Cup qualifying. That defeat went unheeded, brushed off as a mere bump in the road. Worryingly perhaps, several of the Australian players blamed the oppressive heat for their lacklustre performance. It didn’t prevent Australian coach Graham Arnold from later claiming that “anything less than an appearance in the Asian Cup final would be a failure.”
Now, as Australia stands on the brink of elimination at the group stage, it appears that the joke is on them. The finger of blame will be pointed squarely at Arnold. He appears to lack authority within the Australian camp, as his team constantly loses shape courtesy of players seemingly incapable or unwilling to obey his tactical commands.
Yet part of the blame must surely lie at the feet of Football Australia. It was they who appointed Arnold as national coach after Guus Hiddink left for greener pastures, and it was they who have put Arnold in a virtually untenable position by refusing to fend off constant speculation over his tenure. With the likes of Johan Neeskens and Dick Advocaat seemingly linked to the Australian job on a weekly basis, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Arnold has been unable to stamp his authority on the dressing room.
Indeed Football Australia have seemingly cut off their nose to spite their own face. They suspended long-time skipper Craig Moore after he over-slept and missed a training session prior to a friendly in Brisbane in October 2006, and the key central defender subsequently informed Australia that he would prefer to concentrate on club commitments rather than take part in the Asian Cup. To compound the problem, 1.FC Nürnberg central defender Matthew Spiranovic was then inexplicably overlooked. That left fellow Nürnberg defender Michael Beauchamp to battle for selection ahead of Leicester City man Patrick Kisnorbo, and despite Kisnorbo’s decidedly shaky performance in the 1-1 draw with Oman, he was retained for the match against Iraq – with disastrous consequences.
It has been no picnic for Australian fans in Bangkok either. Delighted by the fact that Australia reputedly sent the third-largest contingent of travelling fans to the FIFA World Cup in Germany, a complacent Football Australia then sat back and offered little assistance to fans willing to fork out and travel to Thailand. Australia’s main supporter group, The Green And Gold Army, has struggled valiantly to coordinate a cohesive support base for the Australians. Yet not even their efforts have prevented a series of horror stories emanating from the Australian camp, with fans ripped off by unscrupulous taxi drivers, caught in monsoonal downpours and generally left to their own devices to find their way to a cavernous concrete bowl on the outskirts of town.
All this has left Australia in the humiliating position of needing to beat co-hosts Thailand in their final group game to have any chance of progressing to the quarter-finals. Graham Arnold – belatedly – has suggested that he will make wholesale changes to his starting eleven, which has so far wilted disastrously in the heat and humidity of the Thai capital.
If Australia beat Thailand, and on current form that is a big if, then arguably the best that they can hope for is to book a knock-out date with a Japan side itching to avenge their defeat to Australia at the World Cup. Moreover it seems likely that Australia will meet the Thai’s on the verge of their greatest ever result, with Thailand having recently recorded their maiden Asian Cup win over Oman – re-igniting the interest of a hitherto indifferent Thai public.
Whichever way they look at it, wherever they turn, Australia seem to be caught in a nightmare that is spiralling out of control. They simply must beat Thailand in their final group game, but it would take a brave soul to bet against a repeat of Friday the 13th – Part II.