Last night’s 1-1 draw with a second string South Africa side gave no insight as to how the Socceroos will cope with their group in Brazil. Since the draw, the Socceroos have been snickered at by most pundits, as well as, one expects, most of the football following residents from the other nations in our group. The “Group of Death” seems a less macabre prospect for the current World Cup holders, last tournament’s finalists, and Chile, than it does for Australia. Certainly it will be difficult for the Ange Postecoglou’s team, in all the games. Most are of the opinion that small, relative victories are the only thing Australian supporters can hope for; not conceding more than 3 to Spain, or the very faint possibility of achieving a goalless draw somewhere (although the exciting, attacking verve that Postecoglou’s side came out playing last night suggests that ultra-defence will not be a mentality adopted in Brazil). Of course, it goes without saying that the heroics of 2006, where we finished second in our group and were only narrowly beaten by Italy in the Round of 16, will not be repeated this year, not even close. So, we can ‘look forward’ to small victories, the retention of dignity, maybe a show of some Australian fighting spirit (not to be confused with an excess of kicks to the shins of the opposition).
The squad that Postecoglou has picked reflects the lack of genuine expectation. It’s a younger squad than Australians have been used to seeing, and, unlike the squads of Verbeek and Osieck, it’s filled with A League players, many of whom Postecoglou has coached at club level. But it’s not an entirely experimental side; placing all responsibility in a team of youngsters would be a very haphazard philosophy to adopt. No, the veterans are there in Cahill and Bresciano, as well as the steady, war-worn presence of Mile Jedinak, one of Crystal Palace’s (and the Premier League’s generally) outstanding performers in the season just finished. Cahill will be important, one feels; his composure in front of goal will be needed, as well as his still incredible aerial prowess. The equaliser he scored against South Africa was exactly the type of soaring, physical header he made his name on. With Tommy Oar an electrifying dribbler on the flanks, but a nervy, erratic finisher, he and Cahill linking up ought to be a productively symbiotic partnership.
For all their imperiousness in qualifying, the best chance Australia have of getting a result in the group may well be against The Netherlands. The Dutch have themselves also picked a team filled with promising youngsters, mixed with experience. Talents like Memphis Depay and Bruno Martins Indi are no doubt learning from the likes of Sneijder, Van Persie, Van der Vaart and Robben. But, Martins Indi aside, their defence will be their biggest weakness, with Vlaar having not played all that well with Villa this season, and few other world-class performers in that area. And with Van Gaal already announced as Manchester United manager, and Robben a key but unstable character in the team, an implosion a la Euro 2012 is always a possibility. They were in the ‘Group of Death’ in that tournament too, losing to Germany and Portugal, but also to Denmark, the team they were favoured to beat. Maybe Australia can play that role this year. It might be that the gap between the old and new guard is too big, with Sneijder, Kuyt and Van Persie fading, but Jordy Clasie and the other youngsters not matured to World Cup level just yet.
Still, these hopes are faint at best. Considering how many decades Australia went without qualifying before Guus Hiddink and the class of ’06 changed history, the expectations have been raised considerably for the national team since, maybe too high. At the risk of sounding trite, qualifying alone really is a victory in and of itself for Australia, and anything gained in Brazil is just a bonus. This thought, however true it is, will be of rough comfort if Australia are three down at half time against Spain.