World Cup 2010 profile – Australia – Socceroos light in attack

Officially the Commonwealth of Australia and home to just over 21m people, much of the island’s population is centred on the big cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide, with the capital city being Canberra. FIFA’s Big Count of 2006 – the survey the governing body undertakes every six years – put the number of participants of the beautiful game at 970 728, including 200 professionals and nearly 300 000 youth (Under-18) players, with just under 5% of the population playing football. For the period 2004/05, (the last year figures are available) government funding for sport in Australia was £968m. That includes £97m for sports centres and £15m for clubs, teams and individual professionals.

The county’s top-flight league is the A-League, founded in 2004. Attendances peak with Melbourne Victory attracting an average of 21 105 and drop to Gold Coast United’s 5 392, giving an average attendance of 9 796 for 2009/10. While there are some recognisable names in the division, including former PSV Eindhoven midfielder Jason Culina, the A-League is home to 249 registered players – 181 of who are Australian, a massive 72%. Top Aussie stars play in various leagues across Europe, with Tim Cahill and Mark Schwarzer gracing the Premier League, Mark Bresciano at Palermo in Italy and Lucas Neill and Harry Kewell with Turkish giants Galatasary. Those players visit stadiums such as the 95 000 capacity Melbourne Cricket Ground, which has sold out for national team games, and the 52 500 seat Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane.

Australia had a relatively comfortable qualification process, finishing top in both group stages, including a 2-1 victory over runners-up Japan. In their 14 group games, Pim Verbeek’s Socceroos lost just twice, at home to China in the final game of the first stage and away to Asian champions Iraq. Verbeek has been under-fire since replacing Guus Hiddink in December 2007, with critics pointing to an alleged defensive mentality holding the team back. The defeat to Iraq and a poor performance in victory over Bahrain did nothing to help his cause, despite opening the campaign with a 3-0 win over Qatar. Verbeek, however, was formerly Hiddink’s assistant and a key component of the Australia set-up that reached the second round in 2006, built on the back of a solid defence and intelligent attack, only losing to eventual winners Italy after a debatable stoppage time penalty.

Currently 20th in the FIFA World Rankings, Australia usually employ a 4-2-3-1 formation, although since Mark Viduka’s failure to make himself available for Verbeek, finding a suitable lone striker has proved difficult with Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell being tried in that position. Viduka has not officially retired from international football but it was July 2007, an Asian Cup quarter-final defeat by Japan, when he last pulled on the green and gold. Without a club, Viduka missed the whole of Australia’s qualifying campaign, leaving it unlikely he will be added to the World Cup party. Viduka’s absence has heaped even more pressure on to the shoulders of Cahill, who was joint top scorer in qualifying with Blackburn Rovers’ Brett Emerton, and is arguably the Socceroos’ key player. Usually lining up behind the striker, Cahill’s knack at ghosting into the penalty area unmarked has been a valuable asset for club and country for years. Unfortunately for Australia, the Cahill/Kewell generation is possibly facing its final World Cup, as that group of players enter their early 30s.

Under Hiddink, Australia were a tactically flexible outfit but Verbeek lacks the former Russia Coach’s know-how, having only led South Korea and a brief spell with minnows Netherlands Antilles in the international arena prior to replacing Hiddink. His lack of experience only further the questions over his ability to alter the team’s style if things are not going according to plan. Verbeek has also taken charge of numerous Dutch clubs, including Feyenoord, while also assisting Dick Advocaat at Borussia Monchengladbach and twice coaching in Japan – a mediocre CV when compared to his predecessor. Verbeek has also been scathing in his criticisms of Australia’s A-League, claiming vast improvements are needed to the domestic competition if it is to help the Socceroos progress on the international stage and described two A-League strikers called into the national team, Danny Allsopp and Archie Thompson as “hopeless” after a scoreless draw with Indonesia. Whether Verbeek is still in charge after the World Cup remains to be seen after he was non-committal on the issue when pressed in March. For Australia, bettering their second round exit of 2006 would be seen as a decent return in South Africa, especially after their nightmare draw for the group stage and with their golden generation still capable of performing at the top level, the Socceroos’ fans are hopeful of at least getting out of the first round.

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