This article is part of the Guardian’s World Cup 2022 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organizations from the 32 countries that qualified. theguardian.com is running daily previews from the two countries in the run-up to the tournament, which begins on November 20.
Describe the plan
While most nations were busy booking hotel complexes in Doha and entering national existential debates on final squad selection, Australia was still treading the path to qualification. Graham Arnold’s side played a mammoth 20 qualifiers across 1,008 days to finally seal their place in Qatar by playing an intercontinental playoff against Peru in June this year.
It was a long road, spanning thousands of kilometers across Asia – albeit with extra time and penalties to make it a little longer.
While football remains a marginal sport in a competitive domestic market, a fifth consecutive appearance at a World Cup is a primary achievement for a country. Despite setting the world record for most consecutive wins in an individual qualifying campaign last year, even for this squad of players, the limitation is often accessible. The streak quickly gave way to a run of poor form, including defeats to Saudi Arabia and Japan (twice) and dropping points against Saudi Arabia, China, and Oman – which gave the Socceroos what appeared to be automatic qualification spots and forced them down the playoff route.
Anyway, their minds are still fresh and off the back of their only two-outing win against New Zealand, and they arrive in Qatar on the back of a shootout win over Peru. As his players agonized over picking him, Arnold cut an upbeat figure after the second of those warmup games, joking that he planned to “reach out to Panadol for sponsorship.”
As a result of injury worries surrounding several players, including attacking midfielder Ajdin Hrustic, key defender Harry Souttar, and winger Martin Boyle, that optimism has been somewhat tempered. When Arnold announced his final 26-man squad, he appeared optimistic that all three would be able to prove themselves fit in time for France’s opening match.
Describe the coach
Graham Arnold has ridden extreme highs and lows – primarily lows – since taking over after the 2018 World Cup and faced sacking in March, at 59, after a seemingly meritorious campaign. By June, he hailed a tactical genius once Australia had won two unlikely playoffs. Arnold’s philosophy has divided opinion for a decade of essentially domestic club management, particularly around his reliance on dead balls and transitional play. But his realism is a strength, and he understands the virtues of deploying players in roles similar to the ones they fill with their respective clubs.
This Australian vintage may lack a standout star of the caliber of Tim Cahill, Mark Viduka, or Harry Kewell, but when on the song, Ajdin Hrustic can lay claim to being the Socceroos’ top dog in 2022. A creative midfielder with goal threat from open play and set pieces, he played an integral role in qualification. Key to his country’s hopes in Qatar will depend on how he responds to an ankle ligament injury sustained while playing for his club Verona.
Defensive midfielders rarely do, but he should remember the growing importance to the Socceroos, and Jackson Irvine rarely makes the headlines. The Melbourne-born player greases the wheels of Arnold’s machine from a deep-lying central position while providing a goal threat from set pieces and late runs into the box. The 29-year-old is emerging as a leader for Australia on and off the field. After being established as vice-captain of Germany’s St Pauli this season, he played a vital role in the qualification campaign.
Qatar expressed concern over the human rights issue that 16 Australian players released in a video at the end of October. The build-up to the tournament saw the team, which included captain Matt Ryan, become the first collective voice of the team’s players. Professional Footballers Australia released statements condemning the plight of migrant workers and LGBTQ+ people and calling for reforms in the country, with the players’ union and Football Australia, which until then had been relatively silent on the issue. Arnold has since indicated he expects his players to be focused on being on the pitch in Qatar, saying, “once they arrive, it’s all about football. The statement has been made; the players now need to focus on the game, focus on the football and come here and enjoy this World Cup.”
A national survey first replaced God Save the Queen as the national anthem in 1974, ahead of Waltzing Matilda and Australia’s song Advance and Australia Fair, published in 1878 by Scottish-born composer Peter Dodds McCormick. The controversial lyrics are divisive still and were finally changed in 2021 to recognize the legacy of Indigenous Australians. “We are one and free” now reads the second line instead of “youth and free.”
All-time cult hero
John Aloisi’s name has been indelibly etched in Australian sporting folklore since November 16, 2005. “Here’s Aloisi for a place in the World Cup … he’s scored! Australia has done it!” The commentary sent the Socceroos to the World Cup for the first time in 32 years, and the big striker’s winning penalty sparked chaos in the playoff shootout against Uruguay in Sydney. As Aloisi wrote 17 years later, shortly after another dramatic penalty shootout secured the nation’s latest World Cup qualification and produced a natural successor in jelly-armed goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne, he still gets asked to run around with his top off.