Australia hire an Australian football coach.
On face value there’s nothing remarkable about this statement.
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But this week’s appointment of Ange Postecoglou is an important step for a country still finding itself as a football nation.
It’s been eight years since an Australian was last in charge of the team, affectionately known as the Socceroos. Frank Farina was sacked in 2005 when it appeared that World Cup qualification was an unlikely prospect.
In the past when Frank Farina got the job we were like oh, hang on a minute, do we really know enough about coaching at the highest level?... But since we’ve moved into Asia our domestic coaches are getting that experience internationally
In rode Guus Hiddink on his white horse. The famed Dutch manager was in charge as a 32-year World Cup drought was broken when John Aloisi slotted a now famous spot-kick against Uruguay at Sydney’s Olympic stadium.
Seven months later, Australia scored their first World Cup goal, first victory, and defied expectations to reach the round of 16 in Germany. While late penalty heartbreak followed against Italy, the nation was sold. Foreign was the way to go.
With the Dutch style in-vogue, Pim Verbeek was given the reigns for a three year stint that ended with a dismal showing at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. German Holger Osieck followed. And while he qualified the side for next year’s World Cup in Brazil, successive 6 nil losses to Brazil and France spelled the end of his tenure.
For years, Australian football has been racked with self-doubt; a perception that Australian coaches just weren’t good or experienced enough.
But now with an aged (not just aging) team lacking form, structure and confidence, they’ve put all their faith in a local.
The view is that reviving passion and Australian spirit within the side is the best shot at avoiding World Cup embarrassment. Postecoglou is arguably the most successful domestic coach of all-time in Australia. He won two National Soccer League titles with South Melbourne, and back-to-back A-League championships with the Brisbane Roar.
“I could not be happier to see Ange get this job,” former Australia captain Paul Wade told Al Jazeera.
“In the past when Frank Farina got the job we were like oh, hang on a minute, do we really know enough about coaching at the highest level? Particularly internationally. I was nervous. But since we’ve moved into Asia our domestic coaches are getting that experience internationally.”
Decade of development
That switch from the Oceania football confederation to Asia has been one of the most significant changes to football in Australia in the past decade.
Domestic coaches can be tested in the Asian Champions League, and the national teams, of all ages, are exposed to the reater rigours of qualifying and competing in major tournaments.
The other vital aspect has been the A-League. The 10-team competition has grown in leaps and bounds since it was introduced in 2005, replacing the National Soccer League that struggled to attract crowds and media attention. It also battled a perception that clubs and supporters were divided along ‘ethnic’ lines.
The new season kicked off a fortnight ago, producing it’s highest ever TV viewing figures. This was helped by the fact that, for the very first time, the competition is being aired live on free-to-air television on Friday nights, making it available to millions more.
Helped by high profile players like Sydney FC’s Alessandro Del Piero, the sport has become mainstream in one of the most competitive sporting markets in the world. Football has to vie with rugby league, rugby union and Aussie Rules for media coverage, along with cricket.
“The A-League is so good at the moment,” says Wade.
“We had over a hundred thousand people for the Round 1 games, and there’s only five of those. It’s the first time that’s ever happened. That’s a lot of people for a football match in this country. And it’s not just because of Del Piero, it’s because the product’s good.”
The trend from foreign to local isn’t just limited to football in Australia.
Ewen McKenzie was recently appointed to coach the national rugby team, replacing Kiwi Robbie Deans who had little success with the Wallabies. South African Mickey Arthur was also dumped on the eve cricket’s Ashes Series in England, replaced by former Australian batsmen Darren Lehmann.
With Australia battling an across-the-board sporting decline, they’re turning to their own.
Postecoglou’s task will not be an easy one. Australia are the lowest ranked team of those qualified, so far, for Brazil. And expectations are low.
“If we get out of our group, it will be like winning the World Cup,” says Wade.
He’s been given a five year deal, the longest in Australian football history.
With the nation to host the 2015 Asian Cup, and a new generation emerging, there may be no better chance for an Australian to finally get it right.