Australia Camp Focus – Jones departs World Cup squad with bigger battle on the agenda

The importance of the World Cup paled into insignificance over the weekend when Australia goalkeeper Brad Jones learnt his son, four-year-old Luca, was suffering from cancer. Jones has left the squad to be with Luca and the Socceroos have asked for special dispensation from FIFA to call up a fourth goalkeeper should Jones not return to South Africa.

This FIFA laws state a replacement can only be named in the case of injury, but the game’s governing body may take into account the exceptional circumstances that have seen the 28-year-old leave his teammates. Jones was fighting with Adam Federici to provide cover for first-choice Mark Schwarzer, and would likely have gotten the nod over his Reading counterpart, but as he tends to more pressing matters, Federici will be the undoubted No 2. Eugene Galekovic, the young goalkeeper cut from the preliminary squad, is a likely candidate to replace the Middlesbrough stopper. Galekovic is already in South Africa as one of the group of young players kept with the squad to gain experience but the Adelaide United goalkeeper could be involved sooner than planned, particularly if Schwarzer’s thumb injury flares up again. While Head Coach Pim Verbeek was quick to offer sympathy with Jones’ situation, he also stressed the team had to focus on the task at hand. He said: “It’s a very serious matter and we wish him strength and luck and everything that’s necessary, but we have to go on and play this World Cup game.”

As Verbeek said, the rest of the Socceroos’ squad need to focus on proceedings on the field, although given Australia’s defeat at the hands of the United States, there is little solace to be found in their football. In their final friendly before taking on Germany next week, Verbeek’s men were beaten 3-1, thanks to an Edson Buddle brace and a late Herculez Gomez third. Tim Cahill netted for the green and gold but was withdrawn at half-time with a neck injury that, thankfully for Verbeek, proved minor. Fears had been expressed about a lack of firepower in Verbeek’s squad and Cahill’s second-half absence seemed to re-enforce those doubts, as without the Everton midfielder, Australia were rendered toothless. Harry Kewell missed the game to avoid aggravating his fragile groin, meaning the Galatasaray man could line up against Germany with only five minutes of football since January under his belt. Brett Emerton, another of the Socceroos’ first-choice forward line, is also struggling with injury, and Australia’s prospects without the trio of Cahill, Kewell and Emerton are bleak. It will take a great deal more than a minor neck strain to keep Cahill out, however, and with the tenacious No. 4 driving the team forward, Australia cannot be ruled out.

Morale-sapping the defeat to the USA may have been, but friendlies are always an odd conundrum on the eve of a tournament. The victorious manager heralds his team and claims they are in excellent form while the defeated Coach dismisses the result and emphasises the strides made in player fitness and looks for positives despite the scoreline. The truth lies somewhere in between – barring a catastrophe, the result has no real bearing on the team’s prospects and the most any manager should hope for is that the players come out of the game unscathed, and, in that respect, Verbeek has fared better than many of his counterparts over the last few days. Losing to the USA is a disappointment, but far from a disaster, particularly with Cahill only playing 45 minutes and Kewell not playing at all, and with no serious injuries picked up, Australia can quickly move on from reflecting on their last game to preparing for their next one. With Germany in mind, Verbeek will feel his preparations are running smoother than those of Joachim Low, with the Germany Coach having to contend with the loss of numerous key players including his own version of Cahill, captain Michael Ballack.

With around a week until the World Cup kicks off for the Socceroos, the final touches to Verbeek’s plans for success have to be made. It is imperative Australia avoid defeat against Germany, for morale’s sake as much as anything else. The enthusiasm of four years ago is gone and glorious failure should no longer be acceptable. Winning the trophy is out of the Socceroos’ reach but a strong showing, perhaps to the quarter-finals is not, but whatever the result of Australia’s opening World Cup game – win, lose or draw – the thoughts of the players, fans and staff will still be with Brad Jones.

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