Australia Camp Focus – Socceroos save the best for last against Serbia

As Brett Holman’s long-range effort beat Vladimir Stojkovic in the Serbia goal, Australia fans could have been forgiven for looking at the clock, and, even with 73 minutes gone, thinking second place was there for the taking. Tim Cahill had already put Australia ahead, and two further goals would have put the Socceroos into the last qualification place at the expense of Ghana. With a tie against the United States to follow, anything might have been possible. It was not to be however, and instead all that is left for Australia to do is ruminate of what went wrong at this World Cup and prepare for the future, whatever – and whoever – that might hold.

Analysing the deficiencies in Australia’s 2010 campaign has to start in once place, the Coach, Pim Verbeek. The Dutchman’s negative selection for the first game of the tournament, against Germany, welcomed the kind of incessant pressure that so often leads to drubbings and, given that the Socceroos were only denied a place in the next round on goal difference, that 4-0 defeat has been doubly damaging. Verbeek cannot carry the can totally, however, as the performance of his players, particularly the defence during the Germany debacle, was so inept no Coach would be able to cope. Verbeek’s tactical plan did create the circumstances for the Australia back-line to implode, and indeed it did always look a recipe for disaster, but few would have predicted the severity of the destruction that unfolded. Verbeek also deserves credit for guiding Australia back from that embarrassment and towards a more dignified end to the tournament, with a credible 1-1 draw with Ghana despite having Harry Kewell sent off, and a final victory over a much-fancied Serbia team last night. With Verbeek leaving Australia at the end of the World Cup, at least the 54-year-old has gone out on something of a high note – it is just a shame it took him until the dying embers of Australia’s World Cup to let his players off the leash.

The manner in which Australia crashed out of the tournament was far more palatable than how the competition started. One Australian columnist, Michael Cockerill in the Sydney Morning Herald said they went out “the Australian way…they went down fighting.” Verbeek never seemed to grasp that aspect of Aussie sporting life – here, it is not always enough to win at all costs, as his pragmatic style encourages. A glorious defeat, where every player has given their all and nothing has been left in the changing room, is as respectable, perhaps, in an odd, very Australian way, even more so than victory itself. Guus Hiddink’s Australia understood that and never cowed to more glamorous opposition in the way Verbeek did to Germany. Replacing Verbeek adequately is the task now for the Football Federation of Australia (FFA) and some would say they actually need to replace Hiddink, a master tactician capable of inspiring lesser-skilled players too, as well as the Cahills and Kewells who can compete talent for talent with the majority of opposing players. With an encouraging crop of youngsters making their way in the football world both at home and abroad, a Coach with the expertise to guide their progression on the international stage is required too, but that combination of qualities is wanted by every side, club or country, currently out to fill a vacancy.

Australia may have had their redemption for this tournament last night, with victory over Serbia reminding the world that the Socceroos are a legitimate threat to any side, but the stain of failure to get out of the group will have to wait four years until it can be cleansed. Always amongst the favourites to reach the World Cup, even now as part of the Asian confederation, there is no reason that should change as one generation of Socceroos gives way to the next. With nine of the 23-man squad over 30, and more hitting that mark later this year, there will have to be some new faces introduced over the coming months. Craig Moore and Scott Chipperfield, both 35 in December, played their last World Cup game last night, and, having been stalwarts of the national side, will not be easy to replace, but at least replacing them will be more straightforward than replacing the Coach, which has to be the first priority.

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