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The cringe still lives

Plenty of copy has been produced since the Olyroos’ limp exit from the Beijing Olympics, most of the pundits having completely forgotten that merely qualifying for the event was a significant achievement in itself, given the arduous qualifying campaign the Olyroos endured.

Graham Arnold, however, does deserve criticism, and plenty of it. He let Australian football down badly in China. But I feel that many of the opinion pieces produced since the departure have focused, by and large, on the wrong things.

The non-selection of Bruce Djite and Nathan Burns became a veritable obsession for the would-be opinion-makers of Australian football in the lead-up to the games (and, indeed, during the tournament itself). The team may, indeed, have done better with the two ex-Adelaide youngsters in the fold. The basic problem, though, was not selection, but attitude.

Arnold could have made a reasonable case, pre-Olympics, for the omission of the former Adelaide flatmates, even if he instead chose to offer the absurd pretext of “the heat”. Burns’ performances for the Olyroos had never hit any great heights, although he may well have done much better had Arnold been wise enough to use him where he belongs, in the centre, rather than on the wing, where he tends to drift out of the game.

Bruce Djite’s performance against China in June was woeful, and probably tipped Arnold in favour of the lively, if raw, Nikita Rukavytsya. In the event, Djite belied his earlier form with a bright start to his career in Turkey, but Arnold was not to know this.

Of the others, David Williams was perhaps a little unlucky to miss out, but none of the other hopefuls being touted by the usual suspects at SBS and elsewhere had really done enough to merit a spot. The selection of the over-age players was baffling, but perhaps – as has been darkly hinted – a consequence of the top players’ mistrust of Arnold’s acumen.

Nevertheless, the squad was quite an able one. But Arnold’s general deployment of the team gave exactly the opposite impression.

Against Serbia? No real attempt to play the ball through the midfield at all. Instead, a succession of lofted balls in the direction of Archie Thompson and Rukavytsya, two players who are hardly noted for their suitability for a target-man role. The Olyroos had Matthew Spiranovic and the outstanding Adam Federici to thank for avoiding embarrassment in their opener.

Against Argentina? The most limp, craven, defeatist performance I have ever seen from an Australian team. It was extraordinary that so many commentators detailed how much better the Olyroos looked than against Serbia: a few tentative balls into midfield, followed by a nervous backpass, constituted no real improvement on route one, and our so-called “organized defence” would have been breached countless times had Argentina’s stars been on form. One thing is for certain: the many adjectives applied to Australia’s performance by a compliant local media (“gallant”, “brave”, “spirited”, etc.) were thoroughly undeserved.

It was, as Les Murray quite accurately pointed out in his withering SBS column, a return to the days when Australia went into games expecting to lose, in the sure knowledge that the local press would see a narrow loss as a triumph.

These players, as we saw quite clearly against the Ivory Coast, deserved much better. With nothing to lose against the Africans, we finally saw that, surprise surprise, these A-League graduates could actually put together a few decent passing moves, could actually hold their own against a top-class side (which had, incidentally, outplayed Argentina in their opening game…rather putting the lie to the idea that there was a colossal gulf in class between the Argentinians and the others in Group A).

Had Mark Bridge been placed sensibly at the point of the attack rather than lurking needlessly in midfield behind the hapless, out-of-form Rukavytsya, it might even have been a different story against the Ivorians. But the Olyroos lost the plot in the second half, and the late addition of Nikolai Topor-Stanley as an emergency striker (!) was a fair reflection of just how defence-heavy Arnold’s squad was.

The lesson to be drawn from the campaign, and particularly the final game, is surely that an attitude of confessed inferiority – which Arnold undoubtedly instilled in his troops, implicitly if not explicitly – is not only useless, but not worthy of Australian football anymore. These kids had fought their way through two qualifying stages, in a daunting variety of conditions, against opposition they scarcely knew. Why should they have gone into the Olympics with damage limitation as the basic modus operandi?

Two instructive comparisons: Australia’s game against Argentina at the 2004 Olympics, and our encounter with Brazil at Germany 2006. In the former, the opposition and the scoreline were the same as in China, but there the comparison ends. Frank Farina’s Olyroos took the game to the eventual champions, and gave them perhaps their toughest test of the tournament. Arnold’s charges played come-and-get-me.

Guus Hiddink’s Socceroos were not to be overawed by the stellar reputations of their opponents, and approached the game in a thoroughly positive, confident frame of mind. If not for some weak refereeing, Hiddink’s men might have emerged from the AllianzArena with a well-earned result.

Arnold does not have the excuse of poor preparation or unfamiliarity with the conditions, as he did at the Asian Cup. He got his wishes in terms of preparation this time, and the blame for Australia’s insipid efforts lie squarely at his door.

Let us hope that future Olyroo managers, should they reach the tournament, instill a little more self-belief in their squad.

Written by
Real Football

Published on August 20, 2008

See What Others Say
  1. Frank on August 26th, 2008 6:54 PM

    I’ll never forget Guus replacing Poppa with Bresciano at the World Cup against Brasil. It was the kind of sub that made you yell “Fuck yeah, lets go in swinging”. Arnold took us back 20 years in mentality.

  2. Dean on August 26th, 2008 11:03 PM

    I am the first to admit that Arnold’s influence/tactics/selections over the Olyroos was negative big-time but we mustn’t forget his intentions and all the good that he has done as a player for the green and gold.

    Ultimately, he has Australia’s best interest at heart and the FFA is right in backing him as we don’t want to banish people like him from the game in Australia as I think he still has alot to offer even if its not as a coach.

  3. Frank on August 28th, 2008 12:03 AM


    The achivements as a player differ greatly from those as a coach. Nobody will crap on Maradona’s achievements as a player, but he was seriously possibly the worst coach in the world and every team that he coached ended up in the crap.

    Arnold should have done what he said he was going to do in the beginning: go OS and get quality coaching experience at club level, learn and then bring that back home. He got handed the national job on a platter, got stars in his eyes and the results are plain for all to see.

    I assume he intended for Australia to win a medal, but everything he did at the Olympics suggested otherwise. He didn’t show enough ability to even attempt to carry out those intentions. It was horrid stuff to watch.

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