Thursday, January 01, 2009
After my brief foray into the world of football journalism proper, I'm now in a position to be assailing the ether with my opinions and grumbles once more in 2009. And before anything else, I should say: to Martin, Steve, Mark, Jonah and the rest, all the very best for the future. It was great working with you.
Whatever the general misgivings about the state of the A-League, 2008 was an absolute peach of a year for Australian football in most respects. A superb start to the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, qualification for the Under 20 World Cup in Egypt (a very fine achievement, which didn't really receive the attention it deserved), and, last but not least, Adelaide United's inspired run to the Asian Champions League final.
Set against this was the miserable performance by the Olyroos in China, and the general drop-off in both crowds and interest in the A-League. It's nice to see that the quality is undergoing something of an upturn after a wretched start to the season, but there are clearly plenty of issues to be addressed for the 2009/10 season. Herewith, then, some brief jottings on a few of the talking points in Australian and world football over the last seven months; some of my views, I should add, have already appeared on the Real Football website.
What a pleasure to finally see a genuinely outstanding side win a major international tournament. Italy in 2006 were smooth and cohesive, the Greeks of 2004 grindingly efficient, and Brazil in 2002 simply a moderately good side who were lucky to avoid all their most dangerous opposition. Spain were a really entertaining, fluent unit who showed that progressive, attacking football could still prevail at the top level. Like all sides of recent years, they had their midfield "enforcer" in the excellent Marcos Senna, but his role was more often creative than destructive.
Russia's bright performances against Sweden and Holland, and Turkey's amazing comebacks, were the other undoubted highlights of the event. Germany did well to reach the final, but seemed to lack some of the spark they showed in the 2006 World Cup. Nevertheless, it would take a brave man to write them off as contenders in 2010.
Argentina fully deserved to defend their title, although had Nigeria shown a little more coolness in front of goal in the final, they might have pulled off a notable upset. Australia's performance at the event was simply dismal, and for that Graham Arnold deserves a fair chunk of the blame. He has led a charmed life within the national set-up, and although he was to be commended for getting the team that far, his craven tactics and utter lack of faith in his players made a dreadful impression in China. Nikolai Topor-Stanley as a last-minute emergency striker? How Bruce Djite must have laughed.
In the women's event, it was a pity to see the scintillating Brazilian team pipped at the post for the second major tournament running. But, in fairness, the US's achievement in taking gold without their major star, striker Abby Wambach, was a fine one.
On the road to 2010
Well, we couldn't have asked for a better start to the final stage of 2010 qualifying, and a place in South Africa now appears within touching distance. Yet, despite the fulsome praise he has been attracting, I have some lingering doubts about Pim Verbeek's acumen. He certainly appears to be a capable organizer (the players appear more comfortable with their roles than was the case under Arnold), and he does his homework on the opposition diligently. But there have been some decidedly odd selections at times (notably Jacob Burns), and I'm not sure that he reacts with sufficient urgency to changing game situations.
In Verbeek's defence, however, he has faced plenty of injury problems and often been forced to re-shape his team at short notice, and in that respect he has made a good impression. On the whole, it has been a successful appointment, although the reported salary being collected by Verbeek is a little over the odds, given his relatively limited high-level experience.
Adelaide in Asia
Who would have thought it? A place in the final in only Australian clubs' second year in the competition, and an appearance at the Club World Cup, in which Adelaide acquitted themselves well (with the exception of that blunt performance against Waitakere United).
It was a success built largely on an uncompromising defence, with Sasa Ognenovski very much at the heart of things. Nevertheless, it was good to see other players really grow as the competition wore on, notably Scott Jamieson and (something of a surprise) Fabian Barbiero. Whatever his tactical eccentricities, and he has a few, Aurelio Vidmar deserves to be congratulated for re-modelling the team so quickly and effectively following the off-season loss of Bruce Djite and Nathan Burns...who, sadly, seems to have disappeared without trace at AEK Athens.
The absence of some key components of the defensive unit affected Adelaide badly in the final (especially at home), and in all honesty, they were completely outclassed. Sadly, some of the News Ltd. football refusers took this as their cue for another puerile spray at the A-League; football fans are still rising to this sort of bait too easily, but as the Murdoch attacks become increasingly desperate, perhaps there won't be a need for so much splenetic frothing in reply. Look at the scoreboard...
A-League, Version 4
It started inauspiciously, with a number of turgid, over-physical games, a continued reliance on the long ball by several teams, and not a crowd-pleasing new player in sight. The crowds stayed away in droves, and luckily most teams have heeded the warning signs and opened up their play a little. It's still anyone's premiership at this time, with Adelaide looking in the box seat but facing a gruelling run to the finish in the heat of January.
The youth and women's leagues appear to be running smoothly, for which the FFA deserves credit. Attendances are pitiful, of course, but for the ABC to be screening a full match (plus highlights) from the women's competition in their Saturday afternoon slot bodes well for the progress of women's football here.
The system of dipping into the youth team for replacements so far hasn't really produced any unexpected stars. Brendan Gan has made an impression with Sydney FC, but although he has shown flashes of real quality, he still looks decidedly raw, especially in his decision-making. In any case, many who witnessed Gan's performances with Sutherland in 2008 were surprised that he was signed to a youth team, rather than a senior, contract.
On the subject of Sydney FC (one of my favourite topics, of course), it's hard to say excatly where things have gone wrong. Injuries to Terry McFlynn, Adam Casey, Brendon Santalab and in particular Simon Colosimo have hurt, not to mention the awful form of John Aloisi, but the whole side looks listless and unsure of itself at the moment. It's difficult to pinpoint any specific tactical errors made by John Kosmina, apart from his inadvisable use of Shannon Cole at fullback (which, you could say, was forced upon him by circumstances). But one does wonder whether he has been able to inspire the team sufficiently. It's hard to have too much sympathy for him, either, given his continued arrogance.
Although the youth league hasn't yet provided a thrilling new presence for the senior competition, it's good to see that a fair few players have successfully made the step up from the state leagues. Pedj Bojic has been excellent for the Mariners, Adriano Pellegrino has been a revelation over in the west, and even Robbie Younis, who seemed out of his depth initially, has begun to look at home in Adelaide colours. I intend to do plenty of blogging on the NSWPL in the year ahead, and doubtless a few of the relevant names will figure in the 2009/10 A-League season. If the coaches recruit sensibly from the various state leagues, we might just find that this "dilution of the talent pool" argument against expansion is nonsense.
And expansion can't come soon enough. One of the main reasons for the drop-off in crowds in 2008/09 has surely been the staleness of the competition, with the same eight teams vying for the four-team finals series, without the worry of relegation. The A-League needs a shot in the arm, and although I'm not sure that two new sides in Queensland is the perfect way to go, it's a lot better than nothing.
The 2018 World Cup bid
Is it realistic? Maybe. With the decision on the 2018 and 2022 World Cups taking place at the same time, at least there won't be the problem of a revamped bid in the case of failure, with all the concomitant extra spending. And one thing is an absolute dead certainty: Frank Lowy is utterly determined to bring the World Cup to Australia. And what Frank Lowy wants, historically he tends to get...
Is it a wise use of taxpayers' money? I'm not losing much sleep over that one. Ben Buckley et al. have prudently declined to do what they must surely have been tempted to, following the vitriol that accompanied the promise of funds towards the bid by the Rudd government: expose some of the ludicrous uses to which Australian taxpayers' money is being put already. Such is the price of living in a modern pluralist democracy.
Yet two wrongs don't make a right, of course, so is it worth it? I think so. Even if the bid flops, the knowledge and contacts gained would be invaluable for a renewed bid in the near future. To the rugby and AFL scribes who have cried poor and indignant, the response should surely be: what goes around, comes around.
We are behind the eight-ball in many respects, not least in terms of stadia, but the infrastructure is there and the Australian big-event fever would surely take over from the scepticism should the bid look like succeeding. But it's a very, very long way off yet.
As for the latter, I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you. ;-)