So here we were again, a soccer World Cup on the other side of a penalty shootout, that wickedly stressful and capricious lottery used to resolve deadlocked matches. It wasn’t quite like 2005, when John Aloisi nailed his penalty against the Uruguayans, because that triumph secured Australia’s first World Cup appearance in 32 years. But this felt just as unlikely. For the past three years, since World Cup qualification began, the Socceroos have been rather rubbish. Where we once considered Japan and South Korea competitive peers, we were now struggling against China, Jordan and Oman.
The Socceroos had taken the maximally difficult path to qualification. Having finished third in their group, well behind Saudi Arabia and Japan, they were obliged to play a sudden death match against the other Asian group’s third-placed team – the United Arab Emirates – and then another against South America’s fifth-placed country, Peru. The difficulty was compounded by the removal of five home fixtures, casualties of Covid-19 restrictions, and by the Socceroos’ dramatic inability to score from open play.
But if the Socceroos’ play has offered little entertainment these past three years, their coach’s revisions of ambition have provided comic relief. Before this week’s game, Graham Arnold admitted that South Americans play “an attractive style of game, they’re very technically individually very good … But we’ve got to get in their faces. We’ve got to make a fight of this, a war of this, and make sure that when we go out on the pitch that we rattle them. When we do that, that’s our best chance.”
For those with a memory, this was hilarious. In late 2018, Arnold was saying that he wanted Australia to play like Liverpool – a beautiful and powerfully fluent team – but was now declaring that the Socceroos could beat Peru only by better resembling wrestlers. Wanting Australia to play like Liverpool was like wanting to pimp your ’87 Mazda into the Saturn V, but Arnold got it in his head that feverish proclamations of ambition were somehow nine-tenths of the battle, and the best way to manifest your destiny.
So at the beginning of the World Cup qualification campaign in 2019, Arnold declared: “In my mindset, I believe that at the end of this we’ll be the greatest Socceroos team ever.” The word “mindset” was obviously doing some heavy lifting here, qualifying the statement from bold prophecy to some weirder and more private admission about his mind.
That mind had been influenced by the bizarre “coach whisperer” Bradley C. Stubbs, who peddles quack theories about motivation and “energy”. While holding no qualifications in either coaching or psychology – nor having ever professionally coached a team – Stubbs celebrates himself as “this century’s most successful sporting coach”.
Stubbs often hawks his incredibly expensive time to real estate agents lacking confidence, but has also found the ears of Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson, Brisbane Broncos coach Kevin Walters and Graham Arnold – whose effusive praise of Stubbs almost attributes to him supernatural powers.
Stubbs’s influence has somehow survived his patent gibberish. He says things such as “there’s a universe there that’s the biggest energy there is in the world” and recently claimed to have saved the lives of seriously ill Covid patients by sending them voice messages. “Belief is a living energy, which is physics,” he said. “You can increase frequency, through physics, in the subconscious mind. It’s not motivation, it’s about transferring physics, at a high frequency, to the person I’m working with, through their heart, their body, their soul and mind.”
Before this week’s dramatic match, I wondered how many players had secretly developed allergic reactions to their coach’s inane woo-woo, and his enchantment with a “guru” that believes his own voice can cure Covid. But now, perhaps, it doesn’t matter – in the glow of an unlikely victory, it may be seen as a harmless eccentricity (or, in Arnold’s head, that special unquantifiable but decisive factor).
As thrilling, unlikely and welcome as the Socceroos’ qualification for the World Cup is, the problem remains: we aren’t generating the talent we used to. During the 2006 World Cup, the majority of the Socceroos starting XI played their club soccer in the English Premier League. Today? None. Despite qualifying, Arnold’s vision of ending these three years of qualification with the greatest Socceroos team ever was hardly fulfilled. We have largely had a lumpen and uncreative mob, and I’d argue we need fewer “coach whisperers”, and more Kewells, Vidukas and Cahills.
The Socceroos began the match against Peru as underdogs, and Graham Arnold had tried to fortify his players by telling them they contained magic “Aussie DNA”. But as it was, Australia were the better team. For much of the match – a surprisingly lively and threatening start to the second half of extra-time was one exception – the Peruvians were dour, sluggish and soporifically cautious.
For Australia, Aaron Mooy played his role as anchor in midfield very well, holding the ball up, pirouetting around tackles, distributing into space. Mooy’s intelligence and composure are a joy to watch, even if his balls lacked penetration. The greater threat, in the first half at least, came from Martin Boyle, who made energetic runs into the box. Left-back Aziz Behich, who has not scored for the Socceroos in a decade, shimmied gloriously past two defenders, before delicately bending his shot around the keeper at the far post – missing narrowly.
Almost all of the chances in regular time were made by Australia – and the team didn’t play with the witless aggression Arnold seemed to pre-empt this week – but there was a characteristic lack of precision. Most chances were off target, and had the Socceroos been more clinical before goal, a 2-0 scoreline would not have been outrageous.
It was 0-0 after 90 minutes, so there followed a period of extra time defined by cramping legs and a cracking Peruvian header that beat goalkeeper Matt Ryan but not the post.
In a game without goals, what happened next is probably what will most be remembered – and celebrated. With just a few minutes left before the penalty shootout, Arnold substituted captain Matt Ryan for reserve goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne, a man renowned for his energetically distracting dancing, waving and spaghetti arms on the goal line before a penalty kick, and presumably thought superior to Ryan against penalties.
I’m not sure if I’ve seen a penalty shootout so conspicuously marked by mischief and mind games. Even the coin toss to decide who kicked first was subject to lengthy Peruvian disputation. The shootout itself was agonisingly long, as each keeper affected intense interest in their water bottles, painfully delaying the kick.
After five kicks each, both teams had scored four. It was sudden death. Socceroo Awer Mabil, who spent his first 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp, successfully placed his kick to the keeper’s left, meaning Peruvian Alex Valera had to score to keep his country in it. He didn’t. Redmayne picked it, dived to his right and kept the ball out. Australia were heading to their fifth consecutive World Cup.
As with political campaigns, success has a way of confirming the wisdom of every element of the attempt. The question of whether the same success could have been achieved differently or better is rarely asked. And so, Graham Arnold’s bold decision to replace his goalkeeper before the shootout was treated not merely as vindication but also a form of tactical sorcery that will soon snowball into folklore.
Hey, whatever. By the skin of their teeth, the Socceroos are off to the greatest show on earth.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2022 as "Cup, up and away".
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