A football mirage

THERE are times when mismatched teams go up against each other in sporting contests and the team expected to get massacred gets the expected whacking, but only after putting up a fighting performance. But if the lower-ranked team capitulates without a fight, then there is reason for despair, reason to panic, reason to think that the defeat will affect more than just that game.

Australia is bleeding this morning after its national football team, the Socceroos, gave as abysmal a display as possible in their opening World Cup fixture, getting a 4-0 hammering from world football powerhouse Germany. There have been bigger defeats in the World Cup, there have been more mismatched contests. Yet this defeat is going to ensure that Australia finishes bottom of the group as it would have lowered the team’s morale to zero.

Some factors which have never been highlighted have masked the definciencies in the Australian team. In 2006, after 32 years, Australia finally managed to qualify for the finals. The coach, the canny and experienced Guus Hiddink, had a clever mix of defence and attack and knew the limitations of the team. Hiddink came to Australia after having guided South Korea to the semi-finals in the 2002 tournament and earned that country’s praise in buckets.

For the 2006 tournament, Australia was in the Asia-Oceania group for qualifying, a much tougher set of opponents than the current set in its Asia group. Politicking enabled Australia to compete in a less difficult group for the 2010 qualifying process but that has also resulted in masking several weaknesses in the team and allowed the new coach, the ultra-cautious Pim Verbeek, to retain older players instead of focusing on the essential process of team renewal.

Verbeek has still retained the team’s dependence on players who are at, or near, the ends of their careers; he has also infused the team with a cautious style of play, that has not done it good at all. And he hasn’t made any effort to bring in new blood, probably since he knows he cannot be deemed a failure if the team qualified for the Cup.

Going up against a German team that was without its captain, the mercurial Michael Ballack, things were not made easier for Australia by Verbeek’s decision to experiment by leaving out any genuine striker for the toughest match that Australia will have in the group. Most national teams play a lone striker these days. It looked as though Australia had come to play for a draw. Expecting a roving midfielder like Tim Cahill to play striker was a silly decision.

Germany’s pattern of play surprised everyone. Deutschland has a reputation for dour, solid performances; the young team played with a freedom that one would expect from a south American team. They were given ample space to play in by the Australians whose sole tactic seemed to be one from the dark ages, that of catching their opponents in the offside trap. Professional players of the calibre of Mesut Oezil and Lucas Podolski spend hours and hours practising the right moment to break for an overhead pass and hence this tactic was clearly a waste of time.

The Germans were dynamic in their approach, constantly forming and re-forming pretty patterns as they roamed upfield in a quest for goals,. They could have scored a dozen if Miloslav Klose had been on target half the time and the gifted Oezil had done likewise. They exposed the gaping gaps in Australia’s defence and the foolishness of the use of the offside tactic. And they kept physical play down to a minimum.

The Australian goalkeeper, Mark Schwarzer, put up a poor show as well but then that was not much different from the rest of the team. Disappointingly, the Australians resorted to far too much physical play, their frustrations increasing as the Germans made them look like amateurs time and time again.

The red card for Cahill was probably a bit harsh given that he had touched the ball less than half-a-dozen times before that. But referees have been asked to clamp down on contact, especially when it involves key players, and there is no-one more central to the German team than Bastian Schweinstager. Cahill has probably played his last World Cup match; the FIFA panel that sits down to decide on his punishment will probably out him for the remaining two group games.

But the scoreline apart, one doubts if any Australian would have been disappointed had the team turned up to play, fought and lost. That was not the case. They had clearly come looking for a draw and any team that does that in the World Cup deserves to lose and lose badly.

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