At the 2014 World Cup, Australia were one of those entertaining minnows who have no real shot at escaping the maws of the big fish hunting them down but still make the chase interesting. In a hellacious group along with Spain, the Netherlands, and Chile, Australia lost all three matches, as was expected. What’s lost in the plain results of those matches, though, is how surprisingly tight a couple of those matches actually were, which was thanks to then-manager Ange Postecoglou’s exciting if suicidal style of play.
Like many a big-talking national team manager, Postecoglou promised upon taking the job in 2013 that his Australia team would play with bravery, ambition, and attacking, high-pressing gusto like the big boys so often do. Unlike many a big-talking national team manager (we’re looking at you, Klinsi), Postecoglou actually managed to implement this philosophy.
Thus was born the Australia of the last World Cup. Playing an exotic three-at-the-back formation with (overly?) adventurous instructions like “try to win the possession battle against Spain, the greatest possession side in the world” and “jump out and press every opponent as soon as they get the ball, even if that opponent is Arjen Robben who will slip on by you with a swish of his crooked left arm before you get close enough to smell his cologne,” Australia somehow actually made a contest out of at least two of their matches in probably the toughest group in the whole tournament. They scored three goals in total—a very respectable tally for a World Cup bottom feeder—and despite losing to both, played both Chile and the Netherlands deceptively close. Sure, they gave up three goals in each of their three group games, but at least it was an entertaining spectacle, which is more than you can say for the vast majority of teams expected to remain glued to the very bottom of their group’s table. And anyone who saw it will always remember this:
Unfortunately for spectators around the world, Postecoglou’s magic eventually ran out. Australia’s qualifying campaign for this World Cup was tougher than anyone would’ve liked, which turned up the heat on Postecoglou and his methods. Even though Australia eventually did qualify under Postecoglou’s leadership, the proud Greek coach resigned toward the end of last year, not long after his team cemented their place in Russia.
Australia hired Bert van Marwijk to take Postecoglou’s place on the Socceroos’ bench. But van Marwijk is no Postecoglou. The new manager has already gone about cutting out that adventurous spirit that made Australia such a good show at the last World Cup, and this Aussie team will be much more bland and safe than the one we saw in Brazil four years ago. A more pragmatic style might be smarter for a relatively under-talented team like Australia, but only by a little. Talent is talent, and Australia just don’t have it. And so Australia have exchanged a percentage point or two better chances of getting a dull draw again Peru for the thrill of potentially losing 4-2 to France. Which is a shame. If you’re going to be bad, might as well entertain some people while doing it.
Goalkeepers: Mathew Ryan (Brighton & Hove Albion), Brad Jones (Feyenoord), Danny Vukovic (Gent)
Defenders: Milos Degenek (Yokohama F. Marinos), James Meredith (Millwall), Matthew Jurman (Suwon Samsung Bluewings), Aziz Behich (Bursaspor), Josh Risdon (Western Sydney Wanderers), Trent Sainsbury (Grasshopper)
Midfielders: Mark Milligan (Al-Ahli), Massimo Luongo (Queens Park Rangers), Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield Town), Mile Jedinak (Aston Villa), Daniel Arzani (Melbourne City), Dimitri Petratos (Newcastle Jets), Jackson Irvine (Hull City), Tom Rogic (Celtic)
Forwards: Tim Cahill (Unsigned), Mathew Leckie (Hertha Berlin), Tomi Juric (Luzern), Robbie Kruse (VfL Bochum), Andrew Nabbout (Urawa Red Diamonds), Jamie Maclaren (Darmstadt)
Bert van Marwijk
Tim Cahill was old at the last World Cup four years ago. You could be forgiven for assuming that tournament would be the well deserved swan song for the then-34-year-old Aussie legend as he entered his third World Cup with an eye on scoring in three consecutive editions of the big tournament. He did in fact accomplish that feat, and in some style, crushing a volley past Dutch keeper Jasper Cillessen for a goal so good we’re gonna show it to you twice:
And yet Cahill, now an ancient 38 years of age, will be on the plane to Russia looking to make history as only the fourth player ever to score in four different World Cups. That Tim Cahill, an Australian, has a chance to write his name in the history books alongside Pelé, Uwe Seeler, and Miroslov Klose, is flat out insane.
If it’s something of an indictment of Australian soccer that a crusty old man like Cahill, who didn’t score a single goal all of last season and currently isn’t employed by anyone, can make the World Cup roster in the first place, it’s a slightly mitigated one. Cahill won’t start or anything, and his somewhat controversial inclusion in the squad probably has as much to do with his intangible contributions to the team—his experience, his leadership, his marketing potential—as any sporting ones.
Still, Australia have only a microscopic chance of doing anything real at this tournament. If things go as expected in the Socceroos’ first two matches and France and Denmark beat them, it might be worth giving old man Cahill some extended run in the Peru game. By that point, with knockout round qualification probably impossible, Australia wouldn’t be able to do anything special anyway. But Cahill sure could.
Does it really matter? No, it does not. Australia are enormous underdogs and will go into every game expecting to have the sword put to their necks. All they can realistically do is hold on for dear life. The precise formation (most likely a 4-2-3-1, for the record) a team uses isn’t terribly relevant when all 11 players are pinned down near their box for most of the game.
All times Eastern
June 16, 6 a.m.: France vs. Australia at Kazan Arena
June 21, 8 a.m.: Denmark vs. Australia at Samara Arena
June 26, 10 a.m.: Australia vs. Peru at Fisht Stadium