On the outskirts of subtropical Sochi, the Australian national team look nonchalant while running through final preparations ahead of their opening game of the 2017 Fifa Confederations Cup. As the cloud-covered sun dips towards an azure Black Sea, there are no visible signs that the pressure of forthcoming clashes with Germany, Cameroon and Chile weighs on the 23-man squad.
But these Socceroos are not blind to the magnitude of the task in front of them. While the Confederations Cup is often derided as a meaningless series of friendlies, the outcome of Australia’s campaign in Russia will have broader ramifications. The three games this week, and August’s World Cup qualifier in Japan, could come to define coach Ange Postecoglou’s reign.
The Postecoglou era began with hope. After successive thrashings in late 2013 at the hands of Brazil and France, the Australian national team was in disarray. Holger Osieck was asleep at the helm. Postecoglou’s appointment represented fresh thinking from Football Federation Australia: for the first time in almost a decade, the managerial position would be held by an Australian. ‘In Ange we Trust’, the headlines suggested.
Combative and in his own words “pretty grumpy”, the 51-year-old has a varied managerial record. From a National Soccer League championship with South Melbourne to picking up cones for Football Federation Victoria, from the Greek third division to A-League glory, Postecoglou has endured the sport’s highs and lows.
Following his appointment, Postecoglou did an admirable job of balancing generational transition and competitive results. Even three straight defeats at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil could not dampen the spirits of Australian fans, as Postecoglou’s side played with poise against highly fancied opposition. The crowning glory of his reign to date would follow seven months later, when Australia won the Asian Cup on home soil.
Lately, though, the Socceroos have looked listless. The defence has conceded nine goals in five games since November, while 37-year-old Tim Cahill remains the most potent attacking threat. Recent draws with Thailand and Iraq leave Australia’s qualification hopes for the 2018 World Cup on tenterhooks. Last week’s 4-0 loss to Brazil hardly improved the mood.
The team’s performances in Russia this week will therefore set the tone for the remainder of Postecoglou’s tenure – the manager has already signalled that he will step down when his contract expires in July 2018. Successive defeats to the world, African and South American champions would see Australia demoralised heading into their all-important August encounter with Japan. Disaster at the Confederations Cup and a failure to automatically qualify for the World Cup might even see Postecoglou countenance an early exit.
On the other hand, a strong showing from the Socceroos would give them much-needed confidence. Football fans and analysts have notoriously short memories; if Australia progress to the semi-final in Russia and then qualify for the tournament’s grander sibling, Postecoglou will again be vaunted. Having acclimatised to Russia at the Confederations Cup, the Socceroos would find themselves well-placed for a successful return visit in June 2018.
Following the recent run of subpar results, a siege mentality has developed within the Australian camp. Last week defender Trent Sainsbury hit out at the media’s “nitpicking”, telling the Sydney Morning Herald: “We have the support of the fans, it would be nice to have the support of the media as well.”
Postecoglou did little to mend fences at the pre-match press conference on Sunday, appearing visibly irritated by several critical questions. “We are here as an award for something we have achieved [winning the Asian Cup] – it was not given to us,” the manager retorted to one query. “If people dismiss that they will dismiss everything else, so I do not really care.”
Whatever Postecoglou’s attitude, the criticism will become more pronounced if the Socceroos cannot manage a creditable display against an inexperienced Germany. With the usual suspects of Manuel Neuer, Mesut Özil, Mario Gómez, Toni Kroos and Thomas Müller all absent, the Socceroos have a golden opportunity to start the tournament on a positive note.
Australia’s encounter with Cameroon in Saint Petersburg on early Friday morning (1am AEST) could then prove decisive. On paper the African champions are the most beatable of the Socceroos’ opponents, sitting just 16 spots above them in the Fifa rankings. Regardless of the result against Germany, triumph over Cameroon at the billion-dollar Zenit Arena would leave Australia’s hopes alive.
Just six days after it began, the Socceroos’ group-stage concludes in Moscow against a dangerous Chile team (1am Monday AEST). Headlined by Alexis Sánchez, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Bravo, the South Americans might prove an even tougher opponent than the world champions. Spanish coach Juan Antonio Pizzi has continued tactical traditions begun by mentor Marcelo Bielsa, and Australia can expect a strategic duel against Chile.
With the Black Sea gently lapping on one side and the snow-dusted peaks of the Caucasus mountains standing resolute on the other, the Olympic Park in Sochi offers a picturesque location for a football match. But this natural beauty will go unnoticed on Monday. All eyes are on the Socceroos and manager Postecoglou, as they begin what could prove an era-defining run of games.
- Join Nick Miller from 12:30am Tuesday (AEST)/4pm Monday (BST) on the Guardian’s liveblog for coverage of the Socceroos’ clash with Germany.
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