New generation of Socceroos plant seedlings of a new identity at World Cup | Australia

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Seventeen World Cup debutants walk into a bar. They’re all asked for ID, questioned on whether they are grown-up enough to be here. Six of them, after all, only had their first drink in September against New Zealand. Nine have thrown back five or fewer. Now here they all are, in Qatar, seeking a bit of Dutch courage against reigning champions France.

For many Australians back home setting their alarms for Wednesday’s early morning kick-off, this 26-man Socceroos squad will feel unfamiliar. Granted, some quarters of the nation still live long in the past, as if they cryogenically froze themselves in 2010 and cannot work out why the so-called golden generation are no longer around.

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But times have changed significantly, and so has the national team. These days those better-known figures such as Mark Schwarzer are asking the questions, sitting with the media and inviting one of those debutants, Kye Rowles, to recount his rapid rise from the Central Coast Mariners to Hearts and the national team.

“It’s real but it still feels surreal, if that makes any sense,” the defender tells him. “Still sinking in at the moment. We were in club football on the weekend. It’s just one of those pinch-yourself moments, as you would know. That was my first one. I can’t even explain it. I made my debut in June and now it’s November and it’s had a World Cup. It’s just been so quick, I’m almost lost for words.”

For context, Rowles was seven when Schwarzer famously saved two penalties in the 2005 qualifying playoff shootout against Uruguay to help send Australia to a first World Cup in 32 years. Now 24, it remains “pretty much the most iconic football memory in my lifetime”.

“That’s really the moment that set off me wanting to get to this moment. It wasn’t as dramatic, but we recreated our own moment as well in June,” he says, referring to Andrew Redmayne’s own penalty heroics in the playoff against Peru.

And this, really, is the point. While expectations for this tournament are realistically humble, this new generation are planting the seedlings of an identity.

“I think it’s great to see the next generation coming through,” Schwarzer says afterwards. “What I actually also am really happy about is we’ve got more and more coming to Europe, because I still believe 100% that that’s the best place for our players. If they really want to progress, and really want the Socceroos to get to the highest possible level we can, we need as many players as possible playing at the best leagues around the world.”

That is the fruition of four and a half years under coach Graham Arnold, who made the ambitious decision to also manage the Under-23 team so he could oversee young players’ transition to senior international football.

He qualified the Olyroos for the Olympics for the first time in 12 years. Eight Under-23 members of that Tokyo 2020 team made the World Cup squad, notable by the absence of some more senior players including Tom Rogic, Adam Taggart and Trent Sainsbury.

“I do feel, if there is a legacy, it is the young kids coming through,” Arnold said last week. “When I took over in 2018 it was an ageing squad, I was thinking, ‘where am I going to get these players?’ Losing players like Jedinak, Cahill, Milligan and Kruse, where was I going to replace them?”

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The Olympics acted as a springboard, with a dozen of that squad soon earning Socceroos caps and a chunk signing with overseas clubs. The most popular destination has been Scotland, where Rowles, Cameron Devlin and Nathaniel Atkinson now play for Hearts and Keanu Baccus for St Mirren, while older heads Aaron Mooy and Martin Boyle are at Celtic and Hibernian respectively.

“Credit to all the boys who are here because we worked hard to get to that Olympics, and that gave us the experience of men’s football,” says Baccus. “It was 23s, but for us it was a big step up from where we were all playing. Most of us were playing in the A-League, so it was a good challenge and good experience for us to go through together. And obviously Arnie there with us, which helped integrate us into the national team.”

Schwarzer described club football in Scotland as “a stepping stone”. “Some would say it’s only Scotland, but it’s Europe and it’s on the doorstep,” he says. “The chance of moving to other European leagues is far greater when you’re in Europe.”

The more senior squad members who were at Russia 2018 under Bert van Marwijk already have experience playing two of Australia’s 2022 Group D opponents France and Denmark, to whom they lost 2-1 and drew 1-1, with the less familiar foe of Tunisia sandwiched in between.

“I remember [France] being a close game and feeling we were a little bit unlucky,” says Aaron Mooy, who believes this squad is capable of taking something from their opening game.

“There’s no point being here if you don’t believe that. We need application, focus. These sorts of things are hugely important to make the most of this opportunity. We want to have a positive performance, maybe surprise a few people. That’s the goal.”

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