The equation for the Socceroos is simple: one game – another win – for a World Cup spot.
For the Australian side, the situation is reasonably familiar. In 2018, the Socceroos – including a host of stars in the current roster – beat Honduras in two games to secure their place in Russia. And there was the legendary Sydney night in 2005 when the Socceroos defeated Uruguay to qualify for a Men’s World Cup for the first time since 1974.
The current Socceroos head coach, Graham Arnold, was Guus Hiddink’s assistant in 2005. In his four decades in Australian football, he considers this game to be the most important he has ever seen. But tomorrow morning’s crucial playoff against Peru is getting closer.
“The biggest game is 2005,” he told AAP. “I pretty much missed that game.”
A former Socceroos teammate of Arnold’s, Robbie Slater, echoed that sentiment. Slater wrote for News Corp that Tuesday morning’s fight was “the most important game in recent Australian football history”.
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A win would mean qualifying for a fifth consecutive World Cup, a streak that began in Sydney in 2005 – on a night when current Socceroos captain Mat Ryan and teammate Jackson Irvine cheered on their heroes from the stands. In 2018, Ryan played and Irvine was in the squad when the Aussies beat Honduras to qualify. And last week, Ryan captained while Irvine scored the opening goal against UAE in the play-off win that earned the Socceroos that date against Peru.
“It seems like forever, but in a different time I got up in the morning to watch games,” Irvine said this weekend. “Hopefully the younger generations will wake up and there will be some future Socceroos who can tell their own story by seeing us in qualifiers and then coming to live it themselves.”
From the individual journeys of Arnold and Irvine to the team as a whole, story seeps through every pore of this game.
The sides have met before: a 2-0 win for Peru in 2018 in the last game of the group stage in Russia. It was a dead rubber back then, as France and Denmark had already secured their spots for the knockout rounds. Tomorrow’s game offers a very different perspective, at least in that regard.
But there are many similarities. The winner qualifies directly for a World Cup group, which in turn includes both France and Denmark! For Peru, 2018 saw a golden generation at the World Cup for the first time since 1986, led by a brilliant coach, Argentina coach Ricardo “The Tiger” Gareca. Gareca is still in charge and this golden generation remains the core of the squad. Seven or even eight players from 2018 could start again against the Socceroos in Doha.
The similarities also run deep with the Socceroos. Graham Arnold was not in charge in 2018, although he watched from the stands knowing he would take charge of the Socceroos once the tournament was over. Players like Ryan, Mat Leckie, Aaron Mooy and Aziz Behich all started in this match and could start again tomorrow. Trent Sainsbury was also a starter in 2018 but the experienced centre-back remains in doubt after missing last week’s win against United Arab Emirates with a knee injury.
Milos Degenek, Jamie Maclaren and Jackson Irvine were also in the 2018 squad and could be included this time – leaving seven players from the team four years ago.
Tim Cahill came off the bench in that game, the last competitive game of his career. As the ambassador for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, he stood in the stands last week and watched the Socceroos shrug off a slow start to storm past UAE in the Asian playoffs.
Cahill met with the team at camp ahead of this game and has done so again as this group of Socceroos prepare for the game against Peru, hoping to write their own chapter in the team’s centenary history.
It’s not just Cahill’s incredible goals tally – his 50 international goals are second only to Matilda’s captain Sam Kerr in the Australian record books – that the Socceroos will draw inspiration from.
It’s the way the Cahill punched above his weight, scaring defenses as much as he scared corner flags when it was time to celebrate. A hardened fighter, the 1.78m attacker had a brave determination and a firm belief that he could make the difference at crucial moments. In short, he embodies what trainer Graham Arnold has dubbed “Aussie DNA”, a phrase he repeated ad nauseam around this camp.
“That’s what I said to the guys… about the Aussie DNA,” Arnold said after the game. “And that means fighting, scratching and doing whatever you have to do to win the game. However we win it, who cares? Just win.”
“Ancient Australian DNA had its back against the wall,” he added. “We liked that a lot! We liked being the underdog… That’s how it used to be in Australia.”
Addressing the same phrase yesterday, Arnold said: “We were able to push that Australian DNA, that a one-off game is a final, a grand final, that there are no second chances and you go out and leave it all on in the park.
“Peru are obviously a good team, but our strength is hard work, but also looking the opponent in the face and not letting them play. Take away their strengths and make sure we play to our strengths.”
The Socceroos are heavy underdogs, ranked 42nd in the world compared to Peru’s 22nd. Peru bounced back from a poor start to their qualifying campaign to finish runners-up at the 2019 Copa America and fourth in last year’s edition of that tournament, before going into the Race for fifth place in CONMEBOL defeated Colombia and Chile.
They may not have Paolo Guerrero available against the Socceroos tomorrow, their all-time top scorer who was included in the scorers’ chart against Australia in 2018. Rank UAE. The team feels comfortable in possession and is extremely well attuned both on and off the ball. The troupe, which has been surprisingly stable for many years, sometimes plays as if they were not only reading from the same script, but speaking with one voice. And the lines ooze excitement and creativity, just as you would expect from a proud footballing nation that claims to have invented the bicycle kick.
The team, who struggled against the likes of Brazil and Argentina in qualifying, are battle-hardened and resilient on defence, led by 90-game legend Pedro Gallese on goals.
The Socceroos, on the other hand, have not beaten a team higher than No. 68 in the world rankings in the four years since they last met the South American side. The team is without Tom Rogic as injuries threaten to rule out a number of other veterans including Trent Sainsbury and Adam Taggart. The team still hasn’t fixed the defining flaw of 2018: their inability to threaten from open play. There are also defensive problems – no goals conceded in four consecutive games show these problems. Australia’s height advantage could prove crucial in set pieces, which are still the most likely route to goal.
But the pages of Socceroos history are filled with tales of courage and pain, of turning the odds, of how we earned our place in football’s global pecking order. It has been like this since June 17, 1922, when the Socceroos first took the field against New Zealand.
Last week against UAE, Arnold’s chest was adorned with a pin bearing that team’s crest. His team fought and fought their way to a 2-1 win, showing 100-year-old ‘Aussie DNA’. Now it’s time for the biggest game in 17 years and time to write a new chapter in the history books.