After the scandal involving FIFA and the awarding of World Cup hosting rights to Russia and Qatar for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments, there was one nations disappointment that was overlooked, and that nation was Australia. One of the major bidding candidates for the 2022 World Cup finals, it was believed by many that the decision would come down to them and the United States. Of course we know now that Qatar were selected by the FIFA panel, causing mass controversy with accusations of bribery and dishonest selection criteria. Unlike Qatar, Australia put forward a feasible Summer World Cup bid based around a sporting mad nation looking to take football (or soccer) to their hearts, the key areas that a World Cup vote should be centred around. The disappointment in the decision was rightfully huge in Australia, but outside of the Country other matters surrounding the bid had pushed this disappointment firmly into the background.
So why did the Australians feel so aggrieved by the decision, apart from the obvious costs involved by their bid team and the admittance by FIFA that the bidding criteria was based on a mistruth. It is because Aussie Soccer is in desperate need of a boost, the Hyundai A-League is of a poor standard and the teams within the league are struggling to make ends meet financially. Poor attendance figures at league games mean that large stadiums look bare, which doesn’t help sell the project to the general public who may catch games on television. The national football team were looking to rebuild after the passing of their ‘golden generation’ and results were reflecting this. Soccer in Australia needed rejuvenating and a World Cup would have been the perfect boost for the nation. Anyone who has been to Australia or has witnessed a national sporting event on its shores will tell you how much the Aussie public get behind it. The Olympic Games, the Commonwealth Games, Rugby World Cup, all these events were embraced by the populace in Australia, a football (soccer) World Cup would have been exactly the same, if not bigger. I say bigger for a reason, it may come as a surprise to some but based on Independent reports in 2006 and 2013, soccer in Australia was the most played outdoor sport by the public. This is quite remarkable considering the love the Country has for Cricket, Aussie Rules Football and Rugby (league and union). Football in Australia is ready to explode, it just needs something to ignite it and the disappointment was because this opportunity in 2022 was taken away from them.
The love for the national team, the Socceroo’s, has been returning to the public after a few barren years. The golden generation had gone and the transition from their old stars to a new squad had led to poor performances, also the 2010 voting disappointment had disillusioned the fans. This began to change with the appointment of Ange Postecoglou in 2013, the Greek was charged with rejuvenating the national team as they prepared to take part in the 2014 World Cup finals. Despite a slow start and being drawn in the tournaments ‘Group of Death’, Australia impressed many onlookers with their whole hearted displays. They lost all three group games against Chile, Spain and the Netherlands but their performances inspired the Aussie fans and they hoped a new golden generation was about to emerge.
This hope was further enhanced in 2015 as Australia hosted the Asian Cup, and the new look Socceroo’s would go on to lift the trophy by defeating South Korea in the final (after extra time). The golden generation of Kewell, Viduka and Bresciano had indeed gone, but the hope in the sport is returning. The fans just need a star to get behind, a reason to watch, the public are already playing in huge numbers but attendances remain low. The league system is not an attractive proposition for fans or top players, there is no World Cup to get involved in. The nation needs heroes on the pitch to get people talking again, but who might those stars be. Tim Cahill is currently the main man and has been for some years, but he is now 36 and is nearing the end of his career.
Robbie Kruse is a player I first saw while I was in Australia in 2008, he was then playing for Brisbane Roar, and as I was in Brisbane at the time I was fortunate enough to watch him play. Even then as a 19-year-old Kruse was the stand out player on the pitch and I discussed him at length in the bar that night, believing he was destined to be a star in Europe. Kruse now plays in Germanys Bundesliga, owned by Bayer Leverkusen but currently on loan to VfB Stuttgart, however his talent hasn’t been able to be fully utilised due to injuries and a lack of playing time. The tricky winger still represents the Socceroo’s on a regular basis but he perhaps could, and should have been a much bigger star than he currently is. So if neither Kruse nor Cahill are going to be the star of the future for Australia, who are the contenders to fill the role?
Terry Antonis is a high quality box to box midfielder who performed brilliantly for Sydney FC before his move to PAOK Thessaloniki in the summer of 2015. A powerful two footed player with goals in his game, Antonis will be keen to prove his quality in the Greek Super League although he is yet to play a senior league game. Already capped three times by the Socceroo’s, the 22-year-old Antonis will play a big part in the future of the Australian national team, but will need to pick up some more minutes at club level if he is to become the star the Socceroo’s need.
Now Chris Ikonomidis is an interesting player, a young winger with a clinical eye for goal, Ikonomidis has spent his entire career to date in Italy. Starting at Atalanta, he would go on to join Serie A giants Lazio and is currently on loan to Serie B side US Salernitana. However, the interesting thing is, Ikonomidis is yet to play a senior game at club level, but has earnt two caps for Australia despite this. His form in the youth sides in Italy, combined with a formidable goal scoring record at Under 20 level for Australia has propelled him into the senior side. His eye for goal and direct style could see him become a crowd favourite for the Socceroo’s going forward and once he earns some club football experience his general game will grow. Potentially Ikonomidis is a real star for the future.
Daniel De Silva could be the iconic figure Australian football needs, a tricky playmaker that has a quick turn of pace and the ability to dribble with the ball, beating players in front of him. He can also pick a pass in tight situations, creating chances and getting forward when possible to join in attacks. Good performances for Perth Glory as well as impressive displays for the Australian youth national teams would see De Silva agree a move to AS Roma in Italy for a reported $2 million, but the deal was later cancelled by Perth because of a problem over the payment from the Italian giants. Instead in the summer of 2015, De Silva would join Roda JC in the Netherlands on a two-year loan deal with the option to go permanent included. Despite a slow start to his career in the Eredivisie, De Silva will hope to gain more game time over the coming months to make a name for himself in Europe. Currently uncapped by the Socceroo’s, he was included in the squad for the World Cup qualifier against Kyrgyzstan in June 2015 but did not receive his first cap. He is the most naturally gifted young Australian player on the fringes of selection, a lot of hopes will rest on his young shoulders and he won’t want to disappoint.
Another young player to keep an eye on in the coming years is Panos Armenakas, who currently plays for Udinese’s youth team in Italy. Originally a Greek Under 17 International, Armenakas has since gone on to represent Australia at the same level, making a name for himself at the Under 17 World Cup in 2015. A lot of hype has surrounded the winger since he was a schoolboy, with reported interest from a host of European clubs and Aussie fans will be hoping he goes on to live up to those early expectations. Still only 17 years of age though and without any first team experience it’s too early to predict whether or not Armenakas will go on to receive full international recognition.
So the future on the pitch at least for Australia is looking a little brighter, the structure of the A-League could still use a lot of work and effort has to be made to try and increase the average attendances. Whether this involves more marquee signings or just trying to garner some momentum from the improving national team, it’s clear that the Aussie public despite wanting to take part in the sport just aren’t into it too much domestically as of yet. A World Cup would have been perfect, nobody could have argued against it, but this isn’t a perfect World we live in and instead in 2022 we’ll be watching the action in Qatar, in winter, in half full stadia with a bad taste in our mouths.