While most nations were busy booking hotel complexes in Doha and entering existential national debates on final squad selection, Australia were still treading the path to qualification. To say that road, which stretched thousands of kilometres across Asia, was a long one would be an understatement – Graham Arnold’s side played a mammoth 20 qualifiers over 1,008 days before finally sealing their place in Qatar via an intercontinental playoff against Peru in June this year – after extra-time and penalties, of course, just to prolong the journey that bit longer.
A fifth consecutive appearance at a World Cup ranks as a major feat for a nation where football remains a fringe sport in a competitive domestic market. So too for this squad of players, whose limitations are at times all too evident, despite setting a world record for the most consecutive wins in a single qualification campaign at one point last year. That streak quickly gave way to a run of poor form – including defeats to Saudi Arabia and Japan (twice), and dropped points against the Saudis, China and Oman – that resulted in the Socceroos ceding what seemed to be a nailed-on automatic qualification spot, and forced them down the playoff route.
However, they arrive in Qatar with the euphoria of that shootout win over Peru still fresh in minds and off the back of wins over New Zealand in their only two outings since. Arnold cut a buoyant figure after the second of those warm-up wins, joking that he planned to “reach out to Panadol for a sponsorship”, such were the selection headaches his players were giving him. That has since been somewhat tempered by injury clouds hanging over several players, including attacking midfielder Ajdin Hrustić, who may not play again before the opener against France. Arnold must also figure out how best to use Tom Rogic, who pulled out of the playoffs without citing a reason and is yet to feature regularly for his new club West Brom.
Coach: Graham Arnold has ridden extreme high and lows – mostly lows – since taking over after the 2018 World Cup. In March, the 59-year-old was seemingly facing the sack for overseeing an imploding qualifying campaign. By June, once Australia had won two unwinnable play-offs, he was being hailed a tactical genius. Arnold’s philosophy has divided opinion for a solid decade of mostly 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.
Star: This Australian vintage may lack a standout star of the calibre of Tim Cahill, Mark Viduka or Harry Kewell but, when on song, Ajdin Hrustic can lay claim to being the Socceroos’ top dog in 2022. The creative midfielder, who poses a goal threat from open play as well as set pieces, was an integral part of the qualification campaign and how he responds to an ankle ligament injury sustained while playing for his club Verona will be key to any hopes in Qatar.
Unsung Hero: Martin Boyle is the kind of player full-backs must hate to face. The Scotland-born Hibernian winger burst onto the Australian scene – courtesy of his father, who was born in Sydney – with two goals and an assist on his Socceroos debut in 2018. Since then his pace, persistence and skill has caused many a headache for opposition defenders, and his tireless running – on and off the ball – is a quality that perhaps does not always get the credit it should.
Probable line-up: 4-2-3-1 – Ryan – Behich, Souttar, Sainsbury, Atkinson – Mooy, Irvine – Boyle, Hrustić, Leckie – Maclaren
By Mike Hytner and Emma Kemp of Guardian Australia via Get Football’s partnership with the Guardian