Garang Kuol is yet to start a league match at senior level, but the 18-year-old striker will go to the World Cup after being included as a wildcard selection in Australia’s 26-man squad for the tournament in Qatar.
Labelled an “impact player” by Socceroos coach Graham Arnold, Kuol will be joined on the plane by his Central Coast Mariners teammate Jason Cummings, but in shock selection decisions there was no place for experienced defender Trent Sainsbury or in-form goalkeeper Mitch Langerak on the final list announced on Tuesday.
Kuol, who will join Newcastle United in January, has been rewarded for a string of eye-catching performances off the bench for the Mariners since making his A-League Men debut in April.
The teenager has made just 12 league appearances as a substitute and was called up to his first national squad in September before making his international debut, again off the bench, in a friendly against New Zealand.
His ability to change the course of a game in an instant was the main reason for his inclusion, and Arnold said the youngster had the potential to be a breakout star of the tournament.
“We’ve seen these types of things happen many times before at World Cups and massive games where players who are unknown come out and shock the whole of the country” he said.
“He is really a player that has absolutely zero fear who just goes out and wants to entertain. He did that against New Zealand and he’s shown from the start of the A-League this season that he’s a player that can change a game.”
Kuol’s club teammate Cummings also made his Socceroos debut in that win over New Zealand, finding the net with a penalty after coming on as a second-half substitute.
The Scotland-born forward, who qualifies for the Socceroos thanks to his Australian mother, got the nod over Adam Taggart in Arnold’s squad, with a lack of form and minutes ultimately costing the Cerezo Osaka player despite having featured heavily in the qualification campaign.
Sainsbury, a former Socceroos captain and Arnold’s son-in-law, paid the price for a lack of recent playing time and a dip in form.
“It was a very difficult decision,” Arnold said. “He hasn’t played for a number of weeks, but overall I’ve gone for players like [Harry] Souttar and [Kye] Rowles who are doing exceptionally.”
In goal, captain Mat Ryan appears assured of his place in the starting XI, after Nagoya Grampus keeper Langerak was overlooked in the most surprising of Arnold’s decisions.
Langerak, who stepped away from the Socceroos last year due to the impact of the pandemic, was coaxed back out of international retirement and selected in the squad for September’s games with New Zealand.
His strong form – 14 clean sheets from 33 appearances this season – and regular minutes in the J-League hinted he might push Ryan for the No 1 jersey, but he did not feature against New Zealand and now Arnold has overlooked the 34-year-old in favour of Central Coast’s Danny Vukovic.
Arnold said Langerak was a “fantastic” goalkeeper, but bringing him back into the fold for the New Zealand games was only ever about providing potential cover for others.
The qualification playoff penalty shootout hero Andrew Redmayne is the other keeper included.
Ajdin Hrustic, one of the first names on Arnold’s team sheet, will fly to Qatar having recovered from an injury picked up while on club duty for Hellas Verona. Arnold said the attacking midfielder was “fit and ready to go” and expecting to get some game time in Serie A this weekend.
Harry Souttar and Martin Boyle, both likely starters, have also been included despite clouds over their fitness. Key defender Souttar made a non-playing return to Stoke City’s matchday squad at the weekend after a knee reconstruction, while winger Boyle sustained a knee injury playing for Hibernian last month.
Boyle is expected to hit the ground running in Qatar. “Once he puts those boots on he’ll be ready to go,” said Arnold, who admitted he was taking risks with some of his selections.
“But this is what it’s all about,” he said. “I have taken risks before and I am prepared to do that again.”
Tom Rogic, who has barely played this year and pulled out of the Socceroos qualification playoffs without citing a reason, misses out. “We need players who are fit and ready and I just felt at this moment in time it was a decision to make on the playing side of it,” Arnold said of the West Brom midfielder’s absence.
The squad features nine members of the Tokyo 2020 Olyroos’ squad in Nathaniel Atkinson, Keanu Baccus, Thomas Deng, Cameron Devlin, Joel King, Riley McGree, Kye Rowles, Souttar and Mitchell Duke, who was the overage player.
“We have worked hard to give younger players an opportunity over the campaign, to expose them to international football, to test them against the best and I’m thrilled with the development and maturity of this group who now get a chance on the biggest stage possible,” Arnold said.
Australia kick off their Group D campaign against two-times champions France on 23 November, before meeting Tunisia three days later and then Denmark in the early hours of 1 December AEDT.
Australia squad: Mat Ryan (captain), Nathaniel Atkinson, Keanu Baccus, Aziz Behich, Martin Boyle, Jason Cummings, Milos Degenek, Thomas Deng, Cameron Devlin, Mitchell Duke, Craig Goodwin, Ajdin Hrustic, Jackson Irvine, Fran Karacic, Joel King, Garang Kuol, Mathew Leckie, Awer Mabil, Jamie Maclaren, Riley McGree, Aaron Mooy, Andrew Redmayne, Kye Rowles, Harry Souttar, Danny Vukovic, Bailey Wright.