Wednesday, February 6, 2008

New era for Australia, shame about the jetlag

New era for Australia, shame about the jetlag.
So it begins. Australia, the 46th member of the Asian Football Confederation, tonight (AEST) commences its maiden World Cup qualifying campaign in the AFC with a match against Qatar in Melbourne.

It is important to point out that this is by no means the first match Australia has played in Asia to get to a World Cup. The first couple of those games came way back in 1965, when Tiko Jelisavcic, a Yugoslav journeyman coach from a Sydney Jewish community club called Hakoah Eastern Suburbs, took a ragbag group of Aussies to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for a two-leg tie against North Korea.

Then, as now, Australia’s knowledge of our Asian opponents was limited.

A quote I used in my book, 15 Days in June: How Australia Became a Football Nation, summed up what passed for footballing due-diligence 40 years ago.

Australian Associated Press stringer Jim Shrimpton, one of the only journalists in Cambodia for the match, wrote of Jelisavcic and his “co-manager” Jim Bayutti, who was head of the-then Australian Soccer Federation, going to the Stade Olympique to check out the North Koreans training.

"[They] went to the stadium to mingle with crowds watching the North Koreans practise. But Cambodian officials guided them to special chairs in the main grandstand, ten yards from the North Korean officials. After the two groups had exchanged side glances for 20 minutes, the Australians introduced themselves. Jelisavcic, after watching the Koreans, said: ‘We shall beat them.’"

Well, not quite.

As history records, the Australians instead got thumped 6-1 in the first game and 3-1 in the second and returned home in some ignominy.

The North Koreans would of course go on to defeat Italy 1-0 in the 1966 World Cup and almost pull off the upset of the century in beating Eusebio’s Portugal.

Then there was the spate of matches played by Australia first under “Uncle” Joe Vlasits in 1969, the charismatic Rale Rasic in 1973, the now-forgotten Jimmy Shoulder in 1977, Les Scheinflug in 1981 and Frank Arok in 1985. Australia also faced Asian WCQ opposition again in 1997 for the infamous meltdown at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, but from then until now Australia has been slogging it out with Oceania and South American teams to make it to the biggest sporting event on earth.

So it is a historic occasion for Australia to now be competing as a fully fledged member of the AFC on the Grand Trunk Road of Asian qualifying. These are not just a handful of matches. If Australia can survive beyond its initial foes of Qatar, China and Iraq, the Socceroos’ campaign could take in as much as 18 matches lasting up to November 2009.

It will augur a whole new view of Asia among Australians and hopefully facilitate the movement of some Asian players to the Australian A-League, where, as it stands, less than half a dozen Asian players earn their keep.

Socceroos coach Pim Verbeek was still playing his cards close to his chest even hours before the kickoff to the Qatar match, naming a provisional 21-man squad that then had to be culled to 18 hours later. Sensationally, Harry Kewell and Nicky Carle weren’t recalled from Europe for the game.

The likely starting lineup is not difficult to glean, with only two players who weren’t at Germany 2006 dead certs for Verbeek’s first XI: Celtic’s in-form Scott McDonald will lead the forward line in the absence of Mark Viduka while David Carney, playing some excellent football for Sheffield United, will slot in as a left wingback. (’s predicted XI: Mark Schwarzer, Lucas Neill, Craig Moore, Brett Emerton, David Carney, Jason Culina, Luke Wilkshire, Mark Bresciano, Tim Cahill, Scott McDonald, Joshua Kennedy.)

The only drawback to this team, however, is Verbeek is putting all his stock in a bunch of blokes (save Craig Moore) who have barely had time to wipe their eyes after getting off the plane (albeit in first class) from Europe.

For all of the Dutchman’s efforts to get up to speed with the Australian game in the two months he’s been in the country, and his commensurate efforts to get Australian football thinking in tune with European, it is jetlag, not Jorge Fossati’s scheming, that could well kybosh his plans for a winning start to Australia’s AFC World Cup qualifying campaign. Schwarzer only arrived in Australia Tuesday morning from London and went straight to training. The Qataris, meanwhile, have been in Melbourne for over a week.

Talk about irony.

As The Age’s sport columnist Richard Hinds wrote on Tuesday, this is one game where “home advantage” doesn't seem to apply.

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