This article is part of the Guardian’s World Cup 2022 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 32 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 20 November.
While most nations were busy booking hotel complexes in Doha and entering existential national debates on final squad selection, Australia were still treading the path to qualification. To say that road, which stretched thousands of kilometres across Asia, was a long one would be an understatement – Graham Arnold’s side played a mammoth 20 qualifiers over 1,008 days before finally sealing their place in Qatar via an intercontinental playoff against Peru in June this year – after extra time and penalties, of course, just to prolong the journey that bit longer.
A fifth consecutive appearance at a World Cup ranks as a major feat for a nation where football remains a fringe sport in a competitive domestic market. So too for this squad of players, whose limitations are at times all too evident, despite setting a world record for the most consecutive wins in a single qualification campaign at one point last year. That streak quickly gave way to a run of poor form – including defeats to Saudi Arabia and Japan (twice), and dropped points against the Saudis, China and Oman – that resulted in the Socceroos ceding what seemed to be a nailed-on automatic qualification spot, and forced them down the playoff route.
However, they arrive in Qatar with the euphoria of that shootout win over Peru still fresh in minds and off the back of wins over New Zealand in their only two outings since. Arnold cut a buoyant figure after the second of those warmup games, joking that he planned to “reach out to Panadol for a sponsorship”, such were the selection headaches his players were giving him.
That has since been somewhat tempered by injury clouds hanging over a number of players, including the attacking midfielder Ajdin Hrustic, key defender Harry Souttar and winger Martin Boyle, although when confirming the final 26-man squad, Arnold appeared upbeat over all three players’ chances of proving their fitness in time for the opener against France.
Graham Arnold has ridden extreme high and lows – mostly lows – since taking over after the 2018 World Cup. In March, the 59-year-old was seemingly facing the sack with the qualifying campaign imploding. By June, once Australia had won two unlikely playoffs, he was being hailed a tactical genius. Arnold’s philosophy has divided opinion for a decade of mostly domestic club management, particularly around his reliance on dead balls and transitional play. But his realism is a strength, and he understands the virtues of deploying players in roles similar to the ones they fill with their respective clubs.
This Australian vintage may lack a standout star of the calibre of Tim Cahill, Mark Viduka or Harry Kewell but, when on song, Ajdin Hrustic can lay claim to being the Socceroos’ top dog in 2022. The creative midfielder, who poses a goal threat from open play as well as set pieces, was an integral part of the qualification campaign and how he responds to an ankle ligament injury sustained while playing for his club Verona will be key to his country’s hopes in Qatar.
Jackson Irvine rarely makes headlines – defensive midfielders rarely do – but his growing importance to the Socceroos should not be underestimated. The Melbourne-born player greases the wheels of Arnold’s machine from a deep-lying central position, while providing a goal threat from set pieces and late runs into the box. He played a crucial part in the qualification campaign and, having been installed this season as co-captain of St Pauli in Germany, the 29-year-old is becoming a leader on and off the pitch for Australia.
Sixteen Australian players released a video at the end of October, raising their concerns over the human rights issues in Qatar. The group – which included captain Mat Ryan – became the first collective voice of players to be heard in the build-up to the tournament. Football Australia, which had until that point been relatively silent on the issues, and the players’ union, Professional Footballers Australia, also released statements condemning the suffering of migrant workers and LGBTQ+ people and calling for reform in the country. Arnold has since indicated he expects the focus of his players to be on the pitch in Qatar, saying “once they arrive, it’s all about football. The statement has been made, the players now just need to focus on the game, focus on the football and come here and enjoy this World Cup.”
Advance Australia Fair was published in 1878 by Scotland-born composer Peter Dodds McCormick and first replaced God Save the Queen as the national anthem in 1974 after being preferred to Waltzing Matilda and The Song of Australia in a national survey. The controversial lyrics are divisive though and were finally changed in 2021 to recognise the legacy of Indigenous Australians. The second line now reads “for we are one and free” instead of “young and free”.
All-time cult hero
Ever since 16 November 2005, the name of John Aloisi has been indelibly etched into Australian sporting folklore. “Here’s Aloisi for a place in the World Cup … he’s scored! Australia have done it!” So went the commentary as the big striker’s winning penalty in the playoff shootout against Uruguay sparked bedlam in Sydney and sent the Socceroos to the World Cup for the first time in 32 years. “I still get asked to run around with my top off,” Aloisi wrote 17 years later, soon after another dramatic penalty shootout secured the nation’s latest World Cup qualification and produced a natural heir to Aloisi in the shape of jelly-armed goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne.
Mike Hytner and Emma Kemp write for Guardian Australia. Follow Mike here and Emma here on Twitter.