The Asian Cup and Australia’s future
(This article originally appeared on The Footy Almanac)
When Jock Stein of Celtic, the first British manager to take a team to win what was then the European Cup (now the European Champions League) in Lisbon against the mighty Inter Milan in 1967, fought his way into the dressing room, he was met by the legendary Bill Shankly of Liverpool. Shankly said simply, ‘John, you are immortal’. I now get to use these words of Ange Postecoglou.
Now strictly Ange is the coach of the winner of our third or fourth Asian international trophy at national level. Australia won the Independence Day tournament in Vietnam in 1967 in the middle of the war. We also won the Merlion Cup in Singapore. But these were regional trophies. The Matildas triumphed in the Asian Cup of Nations in 2010. Once again our women led the way. But this is the first Asia-wide male competition and it can only be equaled, never exceeded, until we win the World Cup, that is.
So that, as Johnny Warren exhorted us all, is the next goal. Not taking part in the World Cup, actually aiming to win it. Ange has the ambition for his fellow countrymen to do so and will never go to make up the numbers. He is a romantic at heart, but hard headed on what is required to overturn conventional wisdom in the service not just of Australia but of the whole Asian Confederation. This is why the most short-sighted thing I have heard recently is the suggestion that some of the West Asian members of the AFC want Australia expelled for monopolising Asian trophies and a place at the top table—the World Cup. Nothing would do more for Asian football than a win for Australia, China, South Korea or Japan and these four countries, plus Iran, Iraq and even the United Arab Emirates can push each other toward such a goal. We have a long way to go, but last night’s triumph is not the end, it is just the beginning.
So while the rest of us can bask in the triumph of the Socceroos in Sydney, the national coach has already consigned that result to the fish wrappers and is focusing on the World Cup qualifiers for Russia in 2018. He is beginning to build the nucleus of the team which will play in the qualifying matches. That is why Terry Antonis of Sydney FC, who did not kick a ball in a match in the competition just finished, will have had the most important experience of all. He will have been exposed to what it takes to win a major international senior competition and by taking part in the training and preparation have realised what is necessary to gain a playing spot. Tomi Juric of Western Sydney Wanderers did play, coming on as substitute and making a critical contribution in the final and he will be the better for that. Many others would have contented themselves by going down and winning a free kick, but he got up, got past his man and set up the crucial goal. That moment was a metaphor for Australia’s performance throughout, and helps explain why they won the fair play trophy as well as the Cup itself.
So where do we stand as Asian champions embarking on the next round in World Cup qualifiers? Mat Ryan enhanced his European reputation in goal, and we have first class back-up in Mitch Langerack and the experience of Eugene Galekovic. Across the back-line, Ivan Franjic, Trent Sainsbury—the player of the final—Matthew Spiranovic, and Jason Davidson can give us a degree of solidity for years to come. Spiranovic has to curb his tendency to get booked for infringements. Sometimes he takes one for the team, but a player with his ability needs to avoid missing games through suspension. Aziz Behich will keep Davidson honest and Ben Garuccio of Melbourne City, if he can get himself free of injury and Alex Gersbach of Sydney FC are two of the most promising full backs of the next generation. Nick Ansell at Melbourne Victory is another whose card has been marked. He is comfortable on the ball but has been playing in a porous defence this season.
Massimo Luongo was the find of the tournament. He already had a place, but he has come so far so fast that he convinced the hard-headed judges he was the most effective player in the whole Asian Cup. Mark Milligan and Mile Jedinak have another campaign in them in central midfield, while Aaron Mooy and Mitch Nichols should get a chance at some stage along with Antonis and Luongo. Up front the irrepressible Tim Cahill will continue to put his hand up as long as his battered body holds out. His special blend of skills is irreplaceable, but he will probably be able to do the job for us in the qualifiers along with Matthew Leckie and Tomi Juric, but it looks like we will miss the unlucky Robbie Kruse, whose achilles injury was virtually the only downside for the Australians.
One word about our South Korean opponents in the final. They gave us a lesson in how to take an excruciating defeat. Dignified, distraught but able to behave as sportsmen who had given their all though it was not quite enough. The rivalry between the two countries will continue and both will be better for it.