SOcceroos coach Graham Arnold is not on social media. It is something he is quite proud of, saying back in January: “I don’t even know how to turn it on”. But if the 58-year-old was on Facebook, it is fair to say his relationship with Football Australia would be set to “it’s complicated”.
Last Thursday the federation sought to wrest back control of a rapidly spiralling narrative surrounding its coach’s future when it confirmed, despite speculation to the contrary, that Arnold would see out his contract to the end of the 2022 World Cup cycle. The next – and potentially final – step of that cycle will come in June when Australia’s men face the United Arab Emirates in a do-or-die one-off playoff in Qatar. The winner of that game will then play South American nation Peru for the right to join France, Tunisia and Denmark in Group D in the finals.
FA’s release, however, was peculiar. Because while it spoke of the importance of providing Arnold and his staff with a “stable environment” and a level of “certainty” in the lead in the next fixtures, the preceding week of speculation had been disruptive in the extreme and, seemingly, also born from inside its own walls.
Hours after the Socceroos sank to a meek 2-0 loss to Japan that extinguished hopes of automatic qualification, The Age and Sydney Morning Herald reported insiders were telling them that Arnold appeared set for the axis following the Saudi Arabia game, citing deteriorating results and a breach of Covid isolation rules when he went for a beach walk as the final straw. This report, in turn, provided cover for a sea of voices to begin open pontifications surrounding a replacement. Arnold’s closest allies were open in their belief his tenure may end.
Even if the federation was still assessing its options following the Japan fixture – as it absolutely should have been doing given it had just missed out on automatic qualification – the information vacuum was quickly filled by conspiracy, innuendo and anointed successors. Nothing had changed between the initial reports and the stay of execution. If anything, circumstances worsened as the Socceroos sank to another defeat against Saudi Arabia to make it just one win from their last seven qualifiers.
Thus, the timing could be interpreted as suggesting the federation was simply unable to find an alternative to Arnold in time for the hard deadline imposed on it by the World Cup draw and resigned itself to merely keeping him on rather than enthusiastically backing him.
FA declined to comment when asked when the decision to retain Arnold was ultimately made, referring back to its Thursday media release.
The saga following the initial report that Arnold was facing the axis has been a distraction entering critical playoffs and at a time during which Australian football, regardless of results, should be having important conversations surrounding the future of its national teams. Instead, with conjecture about Arnold’s fate dramatically played out in public, the stage has been set for the months ahead to be dominated not by an examination of how this moment came to pass and what lessons can be learned, but of Arnold as a polarising individual and a governing body’s decision to leave him at the helm. Australian football should be embracing the difficult introspection it needs to have right now, not distracting itself with the legacy of a single coach.
In a best-case scenario, Arnold and his side are able to shut out the noise, shut up the naysayers and defy the odds by downing the UAE and Peru and advancing to the World Cup. Forget any talk about missing out on the men’s World Cup being a necessary wake-up call for Australian football. All should be rooting for the Socceroos to qualify. The boost that a place on sport’s biggest stage provides in enthusiasm, awareness and treasure is too large to sacrifice.
Yet given the same foibles which proved so costly for Australia’s men in the games that actually mattered were all present in the record-setting 11-game winning streak, hopes of a rabbit being pulled out of a hat appear low. For all the talk of a lack of cattle, this group of Socceroos had the talent to beat the likes of China, Oman, and Saudi Arabia at home but did not – as the coach, that is on Arnold.
And despite its reported reservations, FA will now have to dance with the one it invited; the figure whose interpretation and approach came to dominate domestic football and, as a result, is now cemented in the national team. If it doesn’t like it, perhaps it should be contemplating why it asked him in the first place.