What are we to make of the Asian Cup and Australia’s performance in its first foray into the competition? The tournament was a mixture of the wonderful and the woeful, with Iraq’s triumph over the odds and domestic mayhem the highlight. Though much has already been made of the victory ‘uniting the nation’ it is very unlikely that the civil war in that poor country will be brought to an end by a football triumph, however sweet it was. All the players have to play outside their home country just to survive. The training and warm-up matches which took place in Iraq had to be moved to the Kurdish area in the north to avoid the carnage in the south. So romanticising the victory as a pivotal point in the history of the nation is just wishful thinking.
The Iraqi victory was no fluke. It went through the tournament without losing a game. Back in Iraq the celebrations after the teams series of victories against the odds were bloody affairs. Car bombs killed 50 revellers in two separate incidents in Baghdad following the semi-final win over Korea. Four more died from celebratory gunfire after the final defeat of neighbour Saudi Arabia.
Almost equally romantic was the notion that Australia would carry its world cup euphoria into Asia and come home with the trophy. We joined the Asian Confederation to get tougher competition and so it proved. Iraq, not Australia, was the seeded team in its qualifying group and Iraq deservedly came out on top. In truth there was very little between the top eight teams in the competition. Half of the knock-out matches in the Asian Cup were decided on penalties. Australia, Korea and Japan all were losers on penalties at some stage.
Korea did not score in normal time in the knock-out matches, and it did not concede a goal. It won two penalty shoot-outs and lost one. In all, Korea played six matches and scored three goals and lost three goals. This was with a team lacking most of its European stars. The same was true of Japan.
Perhaps one of the lessons for Australia is to be found at home in future. If Mark Milligan and David Carney of Sydney FC can play at this level, why not an A-League based team for the next Asian challenge? Whatever happens Australia has to raise its level of skill and composure on the ball if it is to succeed in Asian conditions. Far too much can be made of heat and humidity. Knowing that you face such conditions means that players have to be comfortable on the ball and able to use it to control the pace, tempo and structure of the game. Too often in this competition the Socceroos handed the ball over to their opponents and then had to expend huge amounts of energy in winning it back. Australia looked most dangerous when it went forward, but in most games it seemed to spend much of the time, pinned back on the edge of its own penalty area.
Then there is the coaching issue. Graham Arnold is a fine man and a dedicated Australian with a strong playing career behind him and the respect of the players. Whether he was hard enough or distanced enough from his charges to exert the kind of control of a Guus Hiddink or had the experience to cope with some wily antagonists remain question marks against him. It was always expected that he would be in harness until a new, experienced overseas coach was appointed in the lead up to the next World Cup. The Football Federation Australia needs to hold its nerve and keep Arnold in the system through another campaign, by which time he should have the experience to take and keep the top job.