Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Australia Learns From Asian Success


June 2005 was the month the FFA regime under Frank Lowy and John O’Neill confirmed Australian football’s immediate future lay overseas.

Within a hectic 24 hours for the communications department, first Frank Farina faced a press conference to announce he would be leaving the post of national team coach; then Australia’s trumpeted defection from Oceania to the Asian Football Confederation was ratified by FIFA.

It was the timing of Announcement One rather than its message that shocked the football community. Farina and the FFA were to part company with immediate effect; the dispiriting display against Tunisia in the closing match of the Confederations Cup proving the final nail in Farina’s coffin.

With little more than six weeks before the double-header with the Solomon Islands – for the right to play-off against the fifth-placed South American side – Farina’s continued uncertainty about his preferred system and best XI worried the heads at the FFA. His decision to try something different in that last game rather than give his strongest line-up much needed game-time together was the last straw.

The question as to why now remains unanswered. Farina had given his employers plenty of ammunition in a turbulent six-year spell in charge not least the inability to beat Uruguay over two legs in 2001. History proves that World Cup qualification failure almost never results in a new contract for the Australian national team coach.

Off the field too Farina’s decision-making had been publicly called to account. An incident involving SBS television journalist Andrew Orsatti led to a study by the FFA after which they released this statement: “The investigation concluded that the conduct of Farina during the incident in question was substantially less than what the FFA is entitled to expect from a person holding the position of the Australian national team coach.

“As a result the FFA has provided Mr Farina with a formal warning and required him to undergo counselling to prevent similar occurrences in future.”

The insensitive wording of the statement alone meant the writing was on the wall.

Reports that Farina will be replaced with Dutchman Guus Hiddink will be confirmed over the next seven days. Hiddink is a smart choice by the smart cookies at the helm of Australian football. The man who guided the unfancied South Koreans to the semi-finals in 2002 is likely to agree a short-term, part-time contract to oversee the Socceroos’ final push for World Cup participation for the first time since Nixon was in the White House.

As Hiddink will combine this role with his day job as manager of Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven, the long-term replacement for Farina is as yet undetermined. Hiddink, though, is unlikely to turn down the chance to have a third crack at a World Cup Finals should Australia qualify under his leadership.

The cancellation of next month’s friendly meeting with Columbia gives the new coach precisely no matches in which to tinker and test. He has only a London-based training camp before September’s must-win play-off with the Solomons.

The FFA then seem certain to add a second friendly international to October’s date with Jamaica before November’s deciding battle with a CONMEBOL rival. Hiddink will have less than five months to rebuild the confidence dented by three straight losses in the Confederations Cup in June.

One glance at his schedule makes you wonder if he’s already looking forward to Christmas. Matches with the Socceroos might be thin on the ground but assessing the strength of a squad whose players are spread across seven European leagues in addition to Australia is some commitment even for a full-time coach.

Hiddink will be making at least one trip down under for the Solomon Islands fixture in Sydney; plus a possible second depending on October’s plans. In the meantime, the Dutch-based coach will lean heavily on Farina’s former management team of assistant coach Graham Arnold and technical director Ron Smith.

Throw in Hiddink’s rebuilding at PSV following the summer departures of Park, van Bommel and Vogel, a domestic league title to defend and first round European Champions League commitments and you’re left with enough Frequent Flyer points to treat the whole family.

Whether or not Hiddink can work a miracle in November, at least Australia is leaving the lottery of knockout football as its only passage to the World Cup for good. The carrot of a guaranteed route to the 2010 Finals is now dangling following Announcement Two just a day after Farina had been axed. FIFA confirmed Australia’s membership of Oceania will end on December 31 and the federation will join the AFC as its 46th member straight away.

The announcement means the end of having to topple a South American qualifier to reach football’s ultimate competition. AFC qualifying guarantees a minimum of four nations will appear at the World Cup with a fifth side pitched against a North American runner-up in the CONCACAF section. Not necessarily an easier route but at least a certain one.

Furthermore, the impact of the move will be felt domestically if, as expected, the top A-League teams are allowed to compete annually in the lucrative Asian Champions League. For the first time, Australia’s national league clubs will compete with Asia’s finest in front of sell-out 60,000 audiences plus millions more TV viewers. As a revenue generator, the implications are huge.

The long-term future of the game here is now secured. The next five months though will be enough to test any fan’s staying power.


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