30 June 2008

Olympian Challenge

Assuming Graham Arnold selects the full complement of 3 over-age players in his 18-strong squad for the Olympics, there're only 15 spots up for grabs for the current U-23s.

Speculation over the 3 hasn't exactly been rife, but Kewell, Schwarzer and Holman have been mentioned as likely candidates. Each may be with a new club and hence will have a strong reason not to go. Bresciano, Sterjovski, Culina, North, Joel Griffiths, Vargas, Covic could just as easily be among Arnold's thoughts.

Assuming he takes an over-age goalkeeper, defender and striker, here's the 15 I would select to join them:


Velaphi - backup; only 2 goalies needed in a squad of 18


Topor-Stanley - probably a touch more versatile than McClenahan


N. Burns - has to go, surely
Ward - over Kilkenny and Sarkies
Broxham - one of the few mids who can perform fullback duties in a pinch



23 June 2008

Draw Mechanics

Just glossing over the AFC draw and schedule for Round Four World Cup qualification, it seems Australia will have a fortunate run for the crucial final three matches in June next year, with an easier away game preceding two home games.

Seeded in the first pot (along with South Korea, who consequently we will avoid), Australia's group foes will be determined on 27 June from the following qualifiers:

Pot 2 (one of):
  • Iran
  • Japan (or Saudi Arabia)
Pot 3 (one of):
  • Saudi Arabia (or Japan)
  • Bahrain
Pot 4 (two of):
  • Uzbekistan
  • North Korea
  • UAE
  • Qatar

The schedule for Australia will be:

Match Day 1 - 6 September 2008 - bye
Match Day 2 - 10 September 2008 - away vs first pot 4 team
Match Day 3 - 15 October 2008 - home vs second pot 4 team
Match Day 4 - 19 November 2008 - away vs pot 3 team
Match Day 5 - 11 February 2009 - away vs pot 2 team
Match Day 6 - 28 March 2009 - bye
Match Day 7 - 1 April 2009 - home vs first pot 4 team
Match Day 8 - 6 June 2009 - away vs second pot 4 team
Match Day 9 - 10 June 2009 - home vs pot 3 team
Match Day 10 - 17 June 2009 - home vs pot 2 team

The difficult period with two tough away games on Match Days 4 & 5 at least offers our European stars a lighter travel predicament mid-season. No jetting back to Australia with 36 hours recuperation. The two games are also nicely separated from one another by a period of three months. Even better, our run through June next year minimises travel (the first away match offers the potential of a pre-match camp just a short hop from Europe) and allows home support to become a major influence should the matches still be important for us to win (pretty darn likely).

Such are the virtues of being a top seed, I guess.

Ten Remain

Here are the ten AFC teams advancing to the final round of qualification for the World Cup, with current FIFA and Elo rankings in parentheses:

Australia (35 FIFA; 40 Elo)
Japan (38; 23)
Korea Republic (45; 43)
Iran (48; 29)
Saudi Arabia (54; 44)
Uzbekistan (58; 47)
Bahrain (72; 74)
Qatar (83; 76)
United Arab Emirates (95; 92)
Democratic People's Republic of Korea (118; 69)

From this, the task of qualifying looks simpler for Australia (on paper) if we draw at least two of Bahrain, Qatar, UAE and North Korea in our group of five while avoiding Japan.

During Round Three of qualifying, Bahrain defeated Japan and North Korea did not concede a single goal, so it seems to me that the most fortunate draw we could hope would include Qatar and the UAE in our group. That might mean difficult weather conditions for the away games, but it might be easier to deal with a bit of heat rather than one team that almost qualified for the last World Cup (Bahrain) and another that involves visiting one of the most reclusive nations on the planet (North Korea).

20 June 2008

Nice Surprises

One thing I love about the Verbeek era is the opportunity he has been happy to provide to younger players and established old hands who deserve a chance to bloom late. And we're not just talking about those players whose reputations precede them. While Verbeek seems to have time for the likes of Milligan, Sarkies, Nathan Burns, he's been far more generous with his selections to a range of other players:

  • throwing lifelines to Coyne, Vargas, Petkovic; Jedinak
  • thoroughly establishing 'potential guys' like Holman and Valeri in the squad
  • hauling into the spotlight starlets who not so long ago were quite secondary to the aforementioned group of young guns: Holland, Topor-Stanley, Musialik, Zadkovich, Spiranovic, Djite, and, above all, Troisi.

When you consider that we've still got Patafta, Vidosic, Leijer and other previously heralded guys coming through (and probably now having to make up a bit of ground on the others), the future of the national team seems to be in a fair state at the very least.

The experience being given to both the younger players and the older, wiser lot, suggests pretty careful risk management and multi-level goal-setting on the coaching staff's behalf. Yes, we've got to think about the World Cup qualifiers and the squad for the finals of the tournament if we make it that far, but we've also got to think about the logistics of friendly internationals (with our 'home' locations on either side of the planet), other important tournaments (the Asian Cup, the Olympics, various youth championships) and of course the long-term future.

I still think we're yet to find the next 20-something up-and-comer who waltzes into the squad and changes the composition of the starting team (ala Tim Cahill or Jason Culina in recent years, or even Scott Chipperfield, in a sense). But maybe 'find' is not the right word. We've probably already seen who the next big thing is but they're yet to establish themselves on a regular basis. Maybe it's McDonald. Or David Carney might just keep getting better. I don't know. But the squad seems about ready to accommodate a riser. I'm not sure it'll be an 18-year old. Historically our players don't seem to bloom until they're in their early-20s. Kewell was a massive exception. But who knows? It'd sure be a nice surprise.

13 June 2008

Measuring Success

The Asian Football Confederation's recent assessment of its member associations' professional leagues makes for interesting reading.

Each association has been graded across ten different areas to arrive at a score out of 500.

Unsurprisingly, Japan has the highest scoring association in Asia, with a score of 470.1 and the best score in every category except for the "technical standard" of its football (scoring 82.4 out of 100). Here, the Korea Republic triumphs (scoring 94.8).

Australia fares quite poorly in the assessment, scoring 306.0.

Compared with the top three (Japan, the Korea Republic and China), Australia is left behind in terms of its organisation, technical standard, governance/soundness, business scale and media. Business scale, especially, is a category where Australia loses out quite significantly in comparison to the big three in East Asia. Presumably this has something to do with the smaller size of our national population and the relatively tiny Australian diaspora, factors that restrict the potential amount of earnings from TV rights, sponsorship and merchandise. (On the other hand, match attendance is an assessment category in which Australia scores quite well.)

The low organisation score for Australia is a factor of the A-League's new beginning. With only eight teams in the league and no promotion and relegation structure in place, there is room to improve this score steadily over the coming years.

For Australia to score just 12.5 out of 50 in governance/soundness is rather provocative and suggestive of the level of esteem that our corporate structure is held within the Confederation. Only Singapore scores lower than Australia in this category, while Hong Kong, India, Uzbekistan, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Syria and Jordan all share an identical score.

A supporting document spells out the problem areas for Australia within the governance category. As listed below, most of the criteria are concerned with the absence of clear legal separation between the activities of the country's professional league (i.e. the A-League) and it's governing body (the FFA):

  • The league governing body must be a legal entity owned governed by its football association
  • The league governing body must have a management structure that controls competition, marketing, media and finance
  • The executive committee of the league must contain representatives from (a) the clubs, (b) the football association and (c) league management
  • The league CEO must be engaged full-time
  • The league must have an audited profit & loss statement and balance sheet
  • The league must have an auditor

The signal is quite clear: independence, transparency and accountability are very important to the AFC.

While it's hard to see how we can improve our business scale score, gains in our organisation and governance scores may provide the few extra points we need to obtain an extra team or two in the Asian Champions League and additional leverage in any other sense, presuming the AFC's assessment methodology becomes a standardised instrument for decision making.

But the gains in other categories could be doubled if we can improve the perception of Australian football's technical standard. Scoring just 51.3 out of 100 we are a long way behind our major competitors. To put the score in perspective, here's the hierarchy as it currently stands:

Korea Republic - 94.8
Japan - 82.4
Saudi Arabia - 78.8
Iran - 69.6
China - 61.5
Uzbekistan - 59.5
United Arab Emirates - 53.7
Australia - 51.3
Jordan - 51.2
Syria - 49.1
Qatar - 46.4
Bahrain - 46.4
Oman - 42.1
Singapore - 40.5
Kuwait - 34.6
Thailand - 33.0
Hong Kong - 30.9
Vietnam - 26.9
Indonesia - 24.4
India - 23.1
Malaysia - 19.4

It's both a little bit alarming and kind of hard to argue with. My only gripe: for all the AFC's ambitions to be more transparent, I haven't found any evidence of how these technical standard scores were arrived at. While they might seem 'about right', I have no idea what they're based on and it would be very interesting to be privy to any studies, statistics or whatever else went into their fabrication.

12 June 2008

More Physical, or About the Same?

What characteristic might best differentiate the A-League from other leagues around the world?

For three Queensland Roar trialists, the answer it seems is the league's emphasis on highly "physical" and energetic play.

Sergio van Dijk: "In Holland it's physical, but not as physical as here".

Marcio Carioca: "I've played a lot in the north of Brazil, and it's definitely more physical there than the rest of Brazil" (by way of asserting that he has the strength to cope with Australian defences).

Bruno Mezenga: "This is a very good chance for me to improve my strength by playing a game that's more physical and that has more power and more speed".

Australia just can't seem to escape this stereotype, be it at the local level, during international friendlies (thanks David Mitchell and Kevin Muscat) or at the World Cup.

Of course, the stereotype does contain an element of truth. Australian culture exhibits broad tolerance, even gleefulness, for thuggish behaviour in sports. Somewhat tragically, a bit of inelegant biffo usually goes down as well with audiences as any sublime moment of skill. Yet, there's also a touch of irony here. Historically, "soccer" in this country has been seen as the game for sheilas, wogs and poofters, to quote Johnny Warren. For us to be viewed internationally as a strong, rough and powerful proponent of the round ball game is strongly at odds with many perceptions at home.

As usual, the truth is probably a balance of the two perspectives. I think it's highly controversial to claim that the A-League is any more physically demanding than, say, the English Championship or the Scottish Premier League. But, the Australian manner of going about business in the sporting arena at home is clearly dissimilar to the way a group of multi-nationals will play together at a top club in Europe, where raw brawn is permitted for perhaps only one or two players with the rest of the team expected to demonstrate equivalent competence on the ball. (This is another way of saying that a rich club in Europe can achieve a better balance of equivalent abilities among team members across a season than a relatively poor club in Australia, where a greater range of skill levels might be observed on any one day.) I'm just not sure that cultural differences are the primary reason for different patterns of play globally. Surely latent and developed skill has something to do with it. If we in Australia play at a fast tempo and with quite a lot of rough and tumble, it's probably more a factor of a particular set of abilities (athleticism, strength, bravery) making up for shortfalls in other areas (technical understanding, creative flair, magnetic touch). That comes down to signatures at birth, habits, coaching and training, professional guidance, community acceptance and support for one's chosen endeavour, hard work, and so on.

These differences don't necessarily make individuals any more or less useful as footballers nor leagues any more or less physical than others at similar levels of average skill around the world. You can still have your leg horribly broken at the highest level or escape unscathed from any harm at all after a few decades in a prison league.

I do hope that we also manage to attract footballers from overseas who ignore all the nonsense about the physicality of our league and instead look forward to developing their skills and reputation at an accommodating mid-tier juncture in their careers.

11 June 2008

A Nice Combo

It's necessarily not a tremendously high profile move and if we're to believe reports not monetarily the best available either, but Nathan Burns $500,000+ transfer from Adelaide United to AEK Athens seems a pretty smart transaction all around.

Burns has been itching to get into a decent league in Europe and in the top flight of Greece he has definitely found one. AEK have Rivaldo on the books and will appear in the UEFA Cup next season. He may not start immediately but given time will surely push for first team selection on a regular basis.

Adelaide would have lost Burns for free had they not recently secured him on a new contract but with a get out clause. They may not have received as a transfer fee as great as they apparently did for Bruce Djite (some $850,000+), but together the pair has generated fairly significant income for the club.

AEK meanwhile gain the services of one of Australia's most promising forwards. He's in the modern form so admired by our Dutch national coaches, with excellent athletic attributes, a bit of creative talent, good vision and alertness with soft touch and well-weighted passing ability and he's able to score goals frequently.

If he can learn a thing or two from Rivaldo so much the better.

4 June 2008

New Look

I was getting a bit bored with the old template for the blog and have finally updated to one of the more dynamic templates on offer. Whether or not this encourages me to post more often I'm not yet sure . . . .

1 June 2008

Defensive Frailties

An old problem seems to have re-surfaced, with Australia's back two (and to a lesser extent the shielding men, Grella and Valeri) caught out of position on numerous occasions against Iraq. Beauchamp and North can count themselves fortunate that Australia survived to win the match 1-0, thanks largely to some poor shooting by Iraq and swift shot-stopping from Schwarzer.

If Neill remains unavailable for selection, I wonder what Verbeek will do to tweak things at the back before the away match in Qatar? If the bench is any indication, it seems Coyne and Vargas will have the first opportunity to take the place of one of the current stoppers. Beauchamp is probably the most come under scrutiny, given his lack of pace and North's better performances against China and Ghana.

Spiranovic might also find himself in the frame, given his solid, if unremarkable, appearance against the Black Stars.

Barring either of these options, Verbeek might pursue some intensive video and tactical one-on-ones with the current pair. The Iraqis have clearly worked hard on their combinations, runs from deep and through balls to pull opposition defenders into areas soon to be behind behind the play. Enormous concentration is required to keep tabs on wily drifting forwards while swift runners are cruising across the paddock in unpredictable ways, especially as the legs start to tire in the latter stages, but in peak condition both North and Beauchamp are capable of keeping the mental switches firing. Experience will make them better, and thankfully we've now gained a little breathing space in the group to continue persevering with a duo that hasn't set any hearts racing but which has pointedly kept the sheet clean.

In the longer term, though, the expectation is probably for one or two of the U-23 boys to step up. If they can post solid, dare I say spectacular, performances against Messi, Drogba, Aguero, and so on, Milligan and Leijer might be hard to ignore in the jostle for squad selection in the all-important next stage of World Cup qualification group matches.