Offside, 13 February
Message for the Aussies: friendly football internationals mean nothing to us.
In case any gloating Aussies might be reading this, let’s get one thing straight: friendly football internationals mean nothing to us.
England’s psyche is scarred by the memory of defeats at the hands of Argentina and Germany. But we won’t lose any sleep over the result of an inconsequential practice match. We won’t be boycotting your wine or your soap operas, or transporting Germaine Greer and Rolf Harris back to Oz, because we simply do not care.
It is an incontrovertible fact, as Ed Barrett has demonstrated conclusively on spiked, that the Aussies only rule the world at sports that nobody else plays (cricket and rugby) or understands (Aussie rules football) (1). The only sport that really matters is football – or soccer, as our upside-down friends call it.
But when it comes to the kicking game the Aussies are ranked a lowly fiftieth in the world, below such football superpowers as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel (though invariably higher than Scotland). Most Australians don’t really give a XXXX about the beautiful game, the offside rule, half-time oranges and all that. Soccer is popular among southern European immigrants, but Crocodile Dundee and his mates prefer to pick up and run with an oval-shaped ball.
However, as England discovered at Upton Park this week, Australia are no longer pushovers at football. The ‘Socceroos’ are a competent international team despite their comedy name. Their star players – Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Brett Emerton, and Craig Moore – play for leading European teams (okay, debt-ridden crisis clubs in the case of Leeds, but you see my point).
Australia were unfortunate to miss out on qualification for the past three World Cup Finals, losing each time in play-offs. But while the Socceroos have earned the right to be taken seriously, they don’t deserve the virtual bye to the World Cup Finals that FIFA has now gifted them by awarding Oceania an automatic place in the 2006 Finals.
Let’s be honest, the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) is a Mickey Mouse outfit whose automatic berth in the finals is effectively a play-off between New Zealand and Australia, ranked forty-ninth and fiftieth respectively. The rest of the confederation consists of small Pacific islands whose football teams are frankly a laughing stock. Tahiti is Oceania’s third highest-ranking team in one-hundred-and-sixteenth position, while American Samoa, who are ranked two-hundred-and-third, are officially the fourth worst team in the world.
Remember American Samoa? This is a team so woeful that Australia trounced them 31-0 – a world-record score-line – in April 2001 during the World Cup qualifying rounds. The hapless American Samoan team, whose youngest player was 15, were not even used to wearing football boots. They only purchased boots the day before their first qualification game against Fiji, which they lost 13-0.
Tonga also fielded players who had never worn football boots before, and Australia duly mullered them 22-0. Australia netted a grand total of 66 goals in their World Cup qualifying group – but, given the jumpers-for-goalposts amateurism of the opposition, were these goals worth anything? Ultimately not, as Australia lost their play-off with Uruguay and were forced to watch the 2002 World Cup on TV.
If, like me, you foolishly believed that the World Cup Finals should be a showcase for the best football teams in the world, you were wrong. ‘It’s not about the best 32 teams, it’s about having everybody represented’, insists OFC president Basil Scarsella. FIFA president Sepp Blatter is a shrewd operator who, like his predecessor Joao Havelange, has cultivated a base of support outside the powerful European and South American federations.
Blatter was elected on a ticket of bringing the World Cup Finals to Africa and has championed the cause of taking football to developing nations. As a consequence, the weaker football federations have seen their representation in the World Cup Finals increased. This has led to the ludicrous situation at the 2002 Finals where China and Saudi Arabia qualified but found themselves completely out of their depth, while far stronger teams, such as Holland and the Czech Republic, were squeezed out.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for raising the standard of football in other countries, but this cannot and should not be done by bureaucratic fixes. How exactly does a series of farcical mismatches serve to boost the credibility of football in the Oceania region? It’s hard to see how the Socceroos themselves stand to benefit from a World Cup preparation devoid of any meaningful competition.
The answer is to merge Oceania with the Asian federation. This would provide Australia with the opportunity to test themselves in competitive qualifying groups. Only then will we really see if the Aussies can handle a real sporting contest, or if they are just a nation of flat-track bullies who excel only against feeble or, in the case of England this week, uninterested opposition.
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