Seventeen years after Mark Schwarzer threw his hulking figure in the way of Uruguayan penalties and John Aloisi forced his shirt off his chest, the Socceroos still have a ‘where were you when’ moment.
Andrew Redmayne, who ousted Simon Cowell as Australian favorite Gray Wiggle, threw the Peruvian goalkeeper’s water bottle over the fence and then saved the sixth goal, sending Australia to the World Cup.
After years of agony, the Socceroos have made it to the big dance for the fifth time in a row, and it’s a feat we shouldn’t take for granted.
But for the game’s power brokers, this should be a wake-up call, as the Socceroos were close to missing the World Cup, and as the sport continues to fade in relevance in Australia, missing the World Cup would have been a bitter disappointment. Blow to the health of the game.
Reaching the World Cup should not simply be seen as the plaster that solves the countless problems with the game at the local level.
Yes, qualification brings money, eyeballs, and relevance. Still, the game’s stakeholders can’t rely on a sugar rush every four years – there has to be something sustainable that brings people together annually.
Camera icon Goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne celebrates Australia’s World Cup qualifier. Credit: Channel 10/Channel 10
How the qualification was established left a lot to be desired. They were a penalty shootout from failing to qualify for the World Cup after an uninspiring performance against an equally distasteful Peru.
The match in Peru mirrored the tough playoff win against the UAE, which reflected their surpassed performances against Saudi Arabia and Japan in the qualifying group stage, which resembled all too much the disappointing effort against Oman and Japan. China is costing Australia. Expensive.
Graham Arnold’s team produced a strict brand of football; for all the pre-game ‘Aussie DNA’ rhetoric, for a long time, the Socceroos seemed content to let their opponents dictate possession while offering next to nothing on creating chances.
It’s a system emulated by most A-League men’s teams, with most coaches taking a defensive approach that focuses on beating teams with quick transitions between defense and offense.
The decline in A-League Men’s quality has been noticeable over the past decade. Still, the lack of quality teams has further exacerbated in recent years, and I don’t think you can blame the pandemic.
If players are not asked to channel their creative inclinations regularly, how can they be expected to thrive when they go to foreign clubs or play international football?
A cursory look at Australian clubs’ record in the AFC Champions League since Western Sydney Wanderers’ fairytale win in 2014 shows how far the A-League Men’s is behind eight-ball compared to rival countries’ domestic competitions.
Camera Icon Perth Glory’s Callum Timmins celebrates after scoring against Melbourne City in an A-League match. Credit: Will Russell/Getty Images
Football Australia also needs to include feedback on the matchday experience and schedule, which has not helped.
There have been complaints for years about over-monitoring active support from nearly every fanbase, accusing heavy-handed security of overreacting to vibrant displays of support.
Other fans said the league’s dedication to midweek and Sunday night games last season – admittedly, the former was due in part to the sheer number of games having to be rescheduled due to COVID – significantly reduced their appetite to watch games.
If you build it, they will come — and while COVID may have had an impact on declining attendance, the average attendance has fallen every year since the 2013-14 season, from 13,479 then to 5,598 now.
Fans have to feel a connection to a club to support this week in, and week out, so there has to be something lasting in the relationship that brings them back year after year. Current evidence suggests that this is not the case.
The round ball code is a new lifeline thrown into relevance.
If the game is to become a force in Australia – and there’s no reason it couldn’t be, considering how many people have invested in it in any way – then it has to seize its opportunity as Andrew Redmayne did.