A Cahill, a casual, and a crystal ball

As I scribble these thoughts onto paper, the Chelsea team is making its way onto the pitch at Optus stadium. Another ceremonial fixture where some of the world’s finest football exponents can relax by the ocean and canter around the paddock against an A-League side that will almost certainly not be up to the challenge. It’s become a regular fixture on the footballing calendar.

Watching it has prompted me to trawl through the microfiche of my footballing brain in search of highlight, and unfortunately the reserves are running low. The landscape of football in this nation has become rather baron, with the lush and salubrious pastures of 2006 a distant memory. Is that too cynical or uninformed to think?

Now straight off the top, I must outline my status and credence amongst the football community, and truthfully, I have little to none. A total casual, a fair-weather sailor, a bandwagon specialist. Whilst I truly enjoy the beautiful game, it comprises of only a fraction of my sporting spectator diet. Indulging in an entire World Cup spread is always high on the list of sporting priorities and consuming a Premier League match of the day along with a kebab after a night on the diesel is a delectable treat.

When talk turns to tactics and trades, I’m as lost as a millennial arts student trying to replace the wiper fluid on their parents VW Golf that they inherited for nothing. Now someone with such paper-thin authority may be rendered unqualified to speak on football issues by the purist, however I believe the zeitgeist of the sport filters through to fans at all ends of the spectrum.

Recently, Australia’s most decorated Socceroo called it a day. Tim Cahill was a genius and a giant on the field, and a gentleman off it. One of the finest to represent his country in any sporting discipline in modern memory. Cahill scored a swagger of World Cup goals and dragged us through Russian qualifying with his geriatric body. He provided football in this country with some of its most indelible images of jubilation and triumph. His certified reputation as an insatiable competitor and devastating aerial weapon was recognised across the European continent in his prime. He has been the face of Australian football for some time and was the final disciple of the holy team of 2006 to fall.

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That remarkable side forged a new path for sports in Australia. A nation accustomed to sporting success were finally competing, and winning, in the world game. I remember it well, waking up early to watch our first game against Japan in Kaiserslautern. What a moment. Tim Cahill clawing back the deficit, then extending it to a lead in the space of a few minutes was the stuff of sporting mythology. Around that time, the rejuvenated and rebranded A-league had stormed into the market and was the hottest ticket in town. All the cogs were turning at pace and with beautiful symmetry. A good national side, a healthy domestic competition, and an easier road to the World Cup through Asia that all but guaranteed qualification.

However, the retirement of Cahill has been poignant as he departs with the final golden memory of yesteryear. Where did all that momentum go?

The sophomore version of the Socceroos suffered a deflating performance in 2010, and in the 2014 & 18 editions our expectation had completely dissipated into a nervous prayer of not being humiliated. An identity crisis ensued, with the national side fluctuating between different styles and formations and generally struggling to implement one that matched our technical ability. We evidently won some plaudits, but as Bert Van Marwyk quite accurately said, “Compliments don’t win you football matches”. There was also an exciting Asian Cup win in between, but the yardstick for Socceroos reputation starts and finishes with the World Cup.

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These days, the magic of simply having a presence on the big stage has worn thin. The public expect results. There doesn’t seem to be a wealth of youngsters primed to occupy places in the world’s big clubs. Daniel Arzani carries those hopes almost solitarily. Australian players featured regularly in the top leagues across Europe in the past, and now they are sparse and only present in the less glamourous outfits. Of course, it would be foolish to expect a golden generation to exist in perpetuum, but those young players that sat up watching Australia come within inches of conquering Italy are becoming hard to find.

The A-League wanes and wobbles in popularity, with the significant games still relevant whilst the rest remain unnoticed. The news of Usain Bolt potentially signing with the Central Coast Mariners reinforces that the league is struggling for depth of quality. Snagging a 31-year-old socialite, Optus peddler, and part time DJ to start ahead of some local talent is surely a gimmick for attention. Not to detract from his outstanding sporting resume, but he’s a sprinter. One may as well try sign Anthony Mundine while we’re at it. I’d love to see another young Daniel Arzani or Tim Cahill occupying that spot and giving the public some authentic excitement.

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I’ve been told by more reputable and engaged football fans that there are very serious structural problems in Football Australia, a matter well above my station of comprehension. Truth be told, for this casual fan, I would love to see us steady the ship and make some inroads to the final sporting frontier. It’s a tough market, as football must compete against other sports domestically. But the bridge is not too far. The answers are invariably complex and should be left for pundits savvier than I. A Craig Foster sermon always seems to ignite the most vivid discussion.

So as Cahill bids us his final farewell we are left to ask, where to now? The young players coming through are charged with the task of restoring some faith and hope in Australian football. Faith and hope was what that golden era fought so gallantly to build. By the time the Qatar 2022 World Cup rolls around let’s hope that Australia has not regressed. It’s not absurd to think that if things are done right, we can go from plucky underdog to threatening force once more.

Bill smith