So Australia are out of the World Cup but who really cares?

Alex Broun 29/06/2018
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Australia battled past Syria to reach the World Cup but would it have been better if they lost?

Whereas Germany will be returning to a country in national mourning after their shock early exit from the World Cup at the hands of South Korea, the Socceroos will be headed home to a very (in) different response.

In the end Australia’s journey to Russia was hardly worth the trip.

The Socceroos went through a marathon world record 22 games in qualification, eventually earning their place in World Cup 2018 after two rounds of Asian qualifying groups and then play-offs against Syria and Honduras.

Looking back it would probably have been better if Australia had bowed out before those qualifiers and let Honduras or even Syria – take their place in the World Cup.

To football mad Honduras it would have been a national celebration – their third World Cup in succession, fourth overall – while Syria’s participation would have been a global sensation.

A tale of sporting hope in the midst of so much tragedy.

But it wasn’t to be and in the end Tim Cahill’s 50th goal for Australia, scored in extra-time in a controversial second leg in Sydney, saw the Socceroos past the plucky Syrians.

The Central Americans were not as troublesome – after a scoreless first leg in Honduras they were beaten in the second leg by an unlikely Mile Jedinak hat-trick, which included two penalties.

Surely that was the cue for mass hysteria – 22 games and finally the World Cup had been reached – the Socceroos fourth in succession.

There certainly was some jubilation among the Socceroo faithful at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney on that night in November last year.

But it soon turned to confused expressions and shaking heads as the man who guided them through that torturous qualification campaign, Ange Postecoglou, promptly resigned.

He never really gave his reasons, vague quotes about the time being right, but it is strongly rumoured he was unhappy with the way he had been treated by the Football Federation Australia (FFA).

Since Australia’s exit from the World Cup he has clarified those reasons in a personal column saying it was the FFA’s lack of faith in his attack-at-all costs style.

Or maybe he just looked at his limited squad and forward to what was coming at the World Cup and decided to quit while he was ahead.

Enter a safe pair of hands, appointed by the FFA, former Dutch national coach Bert van Marwijk, to take the Socceroos to the World Cup – and not beyond.

Graham Arnold, a former Socceroo and two time A-League winning coach with first the Central Coast Mariners and then Sydney FC, was already appointed in March to take Australia to (hopefully) the next World Cup in 2022.

Van Marwijk was just passing through and to tell the truth his short reign hardly made a blip.

Although in terms of participation Football is Australia’s most popular sport, it ranks well behind other sports like Australian Rules, cricket and rugby league in TV ratings, media coverage and sponsorship.

This World Cup was also hampered by problems with rights holder Optus’ streaming service which had perennial issues leading to hundreds of complaints.

So although the rest of the world is well and truly focused on events in Russia, many Australians hardly noticed it was going on as they flicked between Richmond and the Swans or the Broncos taking on the Sharks.

Australians love a winner and any sport where Australia doesn’t dominate globally hardly rates a mention – thus swimming, Rugby League, Rugby Sevens and cricket are high up on the popularity stakes, as well as Aussie Rules which (as the name suggests) is a one nation sport.

So Australia’s 2018 World Cup campaign has come and gone – and although some pundits and former players may have expressed their disappointment and exasperation at the Socceroos tame exit – most of the nation barely paused.

The Socceroos next assignment will be the AFC Asian Cup here in the UAE next January where Australia will be among the favourites with Japan, Germany giant-killers South Korea and Iran.

But unless the Socceroos can win the final in Abu Dhabi on February 1 – again it will hardly rate a blip – and this is the real issue for Football Australia.

There simply isn’t room in an already over-saturated sporting market place for football to grow unless it can begin to grab back sponsors and broadcast dollars from other more established sports – it’s a similar issue Football has in the USA up against NFL, NBA and MLB.

The big seller for Football would be the big clubs and big games from the Premier League and La Liga  – like everywhere else in the world – but both these leagues are only available either on pay TV or are shown very late at night, so they are never going to be hugely popular.

The only other way for Australia is to win the World Cup – or at least get close – and that seems a very remote possibility. The furthest Australia have got in five attempts is the Round of 16 in 2006.  Until then the Socceroos will remain very much a sideshow.

What the Socceroos really need is a Lance Franklin or Dustin Martin up front to get them some goals? But the chances of then swapping Aussie Rules for Football – about as remote as Australia winning the World Cup.

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Barcelona boys deliver again for Brazil and other talking points from Serbia win at World Cup

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Pre-tournament favourites Brazil eased into World Cup 2018’s round of 16 as goals in each half from Paulinho and Thiago Silva confirmed Serbia’s elimination with a 2-0 defeat.

Tite’s men had underwhelmed in the opening Group E-draw with Switzerland and late victory against Costa Rica, meaning they needed to avoid defeat to guarantee progression. These worries dissipated in the 36th minute when Paulinho latched onto fellow Barcelona midfielder Philippe Coutinho’s deft pass and lobbed over advancing Serbia goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic.

Serbia threatened near the hour mark, but their quest was definitively ended when centre-back Silva powerfully headed in the improved Neymar’s corner.

The record-five-time winners topped their section and will now meet Group F-runners-up Mexico at Samara Arena on Monday.

BRAZIL’S BARCA CONNECTION

What is good for Barca, is good for Brazil.

On a day when Germany – who inflicted 2014’s ruinous 7-1 semi-final humiliation (‘Mineirazo’) – were dumped out, this connection appears alive and well in Russia for the globe’s most-decorated nation.

Coutinho got the ball rolling versus Serbia as he insouciantly found space in the midfield and clipped an incisive pass forward into space the onrushing Paulinho had eyes on. The Selecao’s marathon man – Wednesday’s match at Spartak Stadium was his 94th in the last 490 days – charged forward and did the rest.

Brazil had lift off and security – they’ve won 10 of the 11 matches in which the 29-year-old has netted.

Similarly, in Coutinho they have a magician competing to be the tournament’s best player. He’s been directly involved in three of Brazil’s four goals in the 2018 edition (two goals and one assist).

During 1994 and 2002’s previous successes, Romarinho and then Rivaldo performed defining roles – both were then Barca employees.

Never mind the endeavors in other tournaments of either future or past Camp Nou superstars, such as Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Dani Alves and – after last summer’s divorce – Neymar.

The latter mentioned continues to work off the rust accumulated during three months on the sidelines with a broken metatarsal.

His set-up for Silva means he’s been involved in 19 goals during his last 18 caps (10 goals, nine assists).

Even though he could not repeat his goal from the agonising Costa Rica win, a contribution versus Serbia of seven shots, four key passes and nine dribbles showed a significant uptick.

This is a trend that must continue if a sixth World Cup is to be landed on July 15.

First place has handed Brazil the booby prize of being on the exacting left-hand side of the draw, where a current tally of 10 previous wins contrasts to right’s one.

The Canarinho must take flight from this point.

SERBIA FLATTER TO DECEIVE

After eight years away, Serbia’s World Cup adventure has ended all too soon – and with a palpable sense of regret.

The White Eagles appeared poised to join Balkan neighbours Croatia in the ‘dark-horse category’ after they comfortably put away Costa Rica in their opener – with coveted Lazio centre midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic particularly impressive – and then took a fifth-minute lead against Switzerland. Then, it all unravelled at alarming pace.

Their second-half surrender to the Swiss was worrying and costly. They were better against Brazil, rebounding from the concession of Paulinho’s chip to come close three times past the hour mark.

Then Silva punished their profligacy and delivered a fatal second. All hope evaporated into the Moscow night.

Their constituent parts now separate, leaving a number of issues to solve.

A reality check was given to Milinkovic-Savic after the initial excitement. At the other end of the age spectrum, the Switzerland debacle should be the last Serbia sees of aged Zenit St Petersburg defender Branislav Ivanovic.

Lingering worries about goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic came to the fore, head coach Mladen Krstajic’s inexperience showed against the Swiss and the absence through injury of Schalke centre-back Matija Nastasic became glaring.

WILL MARCELO BE MISSED?

It’s a dangerous time to be a Brazil full-back.

Real Madrid’s Marcelo became the latest casualty in this problem position when substituted off in the 10th minute. The agony etched on his usually ebullient face seemed to speak of a debilitating problem, only for the Confederacao Brasileira de Futebol (CBF) to downplay a “spasm in the spine”.

This followed veteran right-back Dani Alves’s pre-tournament crocking by a knee injury and replacement Danilo’s lingering thigh complaint that caused him to miss the last two Group E-matches.

Yet Brazil have fielded their first-choice left-back, Marcelo, on surprisingly few occasions in recent years.

He scored once, set-up two goals and contributed to five clean sheets during seven qualifiers. This is less than half of the 18 fixtures demanded by the CONMEBOL process.

Atletico Madrid’s Filipe Luis lacks artistry and imagination. His tally of two La Liga assists last term represents exactly half Marcelo’s.

But there is plenty of magic to be found elsewhere in this Brazil team. They’ve shown an ability before to move on, without Marcelo if needs be.

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Mexico narrowly survive direct assault by Sweden and other World Cup talking points

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Rank outsiders Sweden stormed into the World Cup’s round of 16 thanks to a 3-0 win against Mexico, from which El Tri just scraped through.

The Scandinavians’ 95th-minute loss to Germany on Saturday made them unlikely qualifiers at Ekaterinburg Arena. Especially as Mexico had won both their previous Group F fixtures – and in some style.

But after a goalless first half, Janne Andersson’s men burst into life. Full-back Ludwig Augustinsson lashed in on 50 minutes, skipper Andreas Granqvist converted his second penalty of the tournament and defender Edson Alvarez produced a clumsy own goal.

This result sent Sweden into ecstasy as table-toppers and left Mexico requiring an upset from South Korea against the holders, which the Taeguk Warriors duly ensured with an incredible late triumph in Kazan.

MEXICO WILT UNDER SWEDEN PRESSURE

The bombardment of Ekaterinburg will be a day that lives in infamy for Mexico.

There was no element of surprise. This is how Andersson’s Sweden play.

They are compact in defence and then get the ball forward with haste, either in the air or on the ground. Direct and straight to the point in a bludgeoning 4-4-2 formation.

It forces errors like the miskick that led to Augustinsson breaking his international duck, defender Hector Moreno’s wild slide on Marcus Berg for the penalty and Alvarez’s stumble for his own goal.

Sweden only needed 33 per cent of possession to wreak havoc. Goalkeeper Robin Olsen, alone, pumped 29 long balls up the park.

It is a style that famously did for grandees Italy in the play-offs and pushed Germany to the brink at the weekend.

It will also unsettle whomever awaits in the knockouts.

KNOCKED OFF THE TOP OF THE TRI

Mexico came into this match in first place and with dreams of making national history by advancing with three group-stage wins.

They left Ekaterinburg battered and chastened – but still, somehow, in the competition.

Head coach Juan Carlos Osorio sprung a huge surprise and at the 51st time of asking when in charge, named an unchanged side.

But this break from the norm can’t account for Wednesday’s chasing.

The towering Swedes exposed pre-tournament injuries to prominent centre-backs Diego Reyes and Nestor Araujo.

Profligate Raul Jimenez could not be trusted up top, meaning a jaded Javier Hernandez – whom sweated nervously about a first-half handball in his own penalty box – wasn’t rested. When winger Hirving Lozano fired blanks, no-one else was able to fill the void.

The only helping hand came from the Koreans. A seventh entry into the World Cup’s knockouts for Mexico now looks far less magnificent.

BERG MELTS, BUT WHO NEEDS ZLATAN?

Russia’s varied television studios and corporate gigs are the only fields being stalked at present by Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Veiled by characteristic bombast and typical self-aggrandisement, an unique form of encouragement was provided pre-match for the former team-mates of Sweden’s absent record top-scorer.

“In the beginning, the first games was different because I felt I can do it much better than them, obviously,” he told ESPN. “And still I feel that.”

These words from the international retiree ring hollow when applied to the existing collective.

Sweden found a way past South Korea, showed encouraging spirit in the late, harrowing defeat to Germany and blew Mexico – this World Cup’s feel-good story – away.

But the great man’s aura hung over successor Berg during each one of his 10 scoreless attempts on goal in Group F.

Prolific in qualifying with eight strikes and at Al Ain where he notched 34 times in 31 run-outs, his usual touch must be rediscovered if childhood dreams are to be realised of matching the 1994’s generations charge to the semi-finals.

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