Was the axing of Socceroos' coach justified?

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Holger Osieck

By P. Francis

Holger OsieckSacking a national team football coach, who has qualified the country for a World Cup, is rarely – if ever – heard of! I dare say Singapore would not have done that, nor Malaysia, Indonesia and even India or China. They would have feted the foreign coach and given him the key to the capital and called him a national treasure – even have his face on a special postage stamp issue!

But the opposite has happened with the Football Federation of Australia (FFA). The Qantas Socceroos coach Holger Osieck, who has qualified the country through the Asian zone for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, was unceremoniously sacked by Chief Executive Officer David Gallop after the team lost to France 6-0 in a friendly in Paris last Saturday. Yes, a month earlier they had lost to Brazil on their Independence Day in front of a home crowd in Brasilia in another friendly.

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Australia will host the 2015 Asian Cup on home soil and Osieck took the Socceroos to the previous final, where they were unfortunate to lose to Japan by 1-0 in extra time.

Make no mistake about it, I have never been a fan of Osieck – but have always been a strong fan of the Socceroos. Nor am I a believer in the horoscope, but somehow – being a Libran – I favour the scales of justice and as a journalist I think the axe may have fallen a little unjustly.

The sacking seems planned as Gallop ‘executed’ Osieck minutes after the final whistle.  Was the coach hard done by the FFA? With a contract in place, the FFA will have to pay out the coach and, perhaps, a sizeable sum for early termination to prevent him possibly suing them for wrongful dismissal. It has been reported that the German will receive a severance pay of more than AUD$1 million.

FFA Chairman Frank Lowy said the long-term interests of Australian football justified the change: “The decision is based on the longer term issues of the rejuvenation of the Socceroos team and the preparations for the World Cup and the Asian Cup. FFA has set a strategic objective of having a highly competitive team in Brazil and then handing over a team capable of winning the Asian Cup on home soil in January 2015. We have come to the conclusion that change is necessary to meet those objectives. I thank Holger for his contribution to Australian football and wish him well in his future endeavours.” Sounds like a familiar ending in a testimonial!

Of course, the FFA wants to safeguard the lucrative image of the Socceroos brand – a winning formula for advertising, sponsorship and TV deals.

Meanwhile, Gallop announced that assistant coach Aurelio Vidmar will be in charge as caretaker Head Coach of the Socceroos. “I have given our new Head of National Performance Luke Casserly and the National Technical Director Han Berger the task of conducting a review of our World Cup planning. The review will include all aspects of the technical and logistical preparations, national teams unit staffing and the appointment of a new Head Coach. The World Cup kicks off in eight months and the Asian Cup is 15 months away. We are determined to make the most of the historical opportunities that these tournaments present to Australian football. FFA will give the highest priority to these projects because the Socceroos are the standard bearers for Australia on the world stage. “

Was the writing on the wall after the loss to Brazil? Maybe, but many fans have been calling for Osieck’s head on the blog at the home of the world game in Australia – Special Broadcasting Corporation’s (SBS) website. The local sports media, especially from SBS and Foxtel have been spearheading a move to unseat Osieck. Among those who played hardball – and maybe played the man, too – with Osieck are Les Murray, known as Mr Football at SBS; former Socceroo Craig Foster, the chief football analyst at SBS (played for Singapore Lions in 1991); and ex-Socceroos Mark Bosnich and Robbie Slater at Foxtel. A common thread running through the three ex-Socceroos is that they never qualified for a WC in their time!

Yes, Osieck has made some poor choices in selection. In my opinion, he may have qualified the team earlier had he used striker Josh Kennedy (dubbed ‘Jesus’ and feared by Japan) in the home and away ties against the Japanese. He did not, despite the dearth of real and consistent strikers in the Aussie squad. Kennedy came on late against Iraq to score the winner with a well-placed header after only five minutes on the pitch! Literally, he saved the bacon for Osieck and Australia.

Gallop’s background is in the National Rugby League (NRL), where they did not have more than 140 countries jostling in pre-World Cup qualifiers to enter the next round before dreaming of a WC berth. His predecessor, Ben Buckley came from AFL (Australian Football League – a domestic footy game where you may hold the ball above ground with your hands and kick it towards rugby-style posts without a goalkeeper). Pehaps the time is ripe for a CEO with a real knowledge of football, even if not an ex-Socceroo, someone with vision, desire and football connections to advance the sport in and outside Australia.

Left in disarray after Saturday’s match, the Socceroos will have to regroup and hold their heads up when they face Canada. Their morale will be affected, but a hattrick of losses would be very hard to swallow.

So why are friendly matches organised with double or more than the normal substitutes allowed? Since when do friendly matches, which are used for experimenting by both sides, decide a coach’s fate? Osieck was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea when on one hand the FFA wanted a good result and on the other the vociferous fans wanted the “youngsters to be blooded against stronger opposition”. Obviously, you cannot have the cake and eat it.

Which fool chose two top football nations – Brazil and France – to test the team against? Will the FFA be bold enough to say who was the smart aleck in their organisation arranging these friendly matches with  the in-form Brazil ranked 8th, a red-hot France (25) yet to qualify and Canada (106) against Australia (53)? Of course, the FIFA world rankings are not perfect, but you do not have to be a mathematician to work out the imbalance between the European teams and Australia. But will any FFA heads roll for the mismatches?

Alternative teams ranked around the Socceroos, which would have been more realistic sparring partners include Turkey (49), Egypt (50), Burkina Faso (51) and Cameroon (61). Or maybe teams a little higher up the ladder, such as Venezuela and Nigeria (36), Paraguay (41) and Austria (47).

The ‘Golden Generation’ Socceroos of 2006 and then 2010 had the advantage of many players at the elite level in the English Premier League (EPL), Dutch Eredivisie and Italian Serie A among others. The 2006 first team were household names and there were at least nine in the EPL: Mark Viduka (Newcastle), Harry Kewell (Liverpool), Lucas Neill (Blackburn), Mark Schwarzer (Middlesbrough), Brett Emerton (Blackburn), Tim Cahill (Everton), Craig Moore (Newcastle), Stan Lazaridis (Birmingham) and Josip Skoko (Wigan). Add to that John Aloisi, Scott Chipperfield, Archie Thompson, Mark Bresciano and Zelko Kalac.

Today, Crystal Palace’s Mile Jedinak, Schwarzer (Chelsea), Chris Herd (Aston Villa), Rhys Williams (Middlesbrough) whose mother is from Mumbai, and Brad Jones (Liverpool) are the only notable Aussies in the EPL with limited game time. The others play in Asia and Australia.

It is very easy for armchair critics to discriminate and say that the senior players are ‘too old’. Goalkeeper Schwarzer is 41, Cahill (33) and captain Neill (35).  However, some knowledgeable fans believe that the wannabe Socceroos have to earn the right to play in the national team and not be gifted a spot. They need to be mature and experienced enough to play the highest level and not be intimidated by the big guns before cementing a spot and replacing the seniors.

Who will take over from Osieck? Among the foreign coaches, the names being tossed around – without consideration of salary and their willingness to live Down Under – are former Socceroos coach Dutch master Guus Hiddinck, who owes it to Cahill’s two goals and a late one from Aloisi in an unforgettable comeback against Japan when trailing 1-0 in Kaiserlautern. Will it be back to the future? Hiddinck has delayed his decision until the end of the month, whether to coach the Socceroos. Would he risk his ‘reputation’ for this squad? I doubt it.

Former Dutch coach Pim Verbeek, who succeeded Hiddinck at the helm of the Socceroos, has been regularly criticised by the media and fans for his defensive tactics. But he was effective and qualified the national team for the 2010 WC within an hour of Japan doing so. Verbeek is coaching the Morocco Under-23s and is unlikely to be considered nor will he apply for the job. Two other names touted by fans are Argentine Marcelo Bielsa and former France and Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier.  FFA’s Gallop has indicated they want a new coach to continue from now through the 2014 WC, to the 2015 Asian Cup and the 2018 WC. Tall order or not, that will take some convincing in the form of a job guarantee even if results are bleak.

Local coaches being nominated by the fans include the HAL’s (Hyundai A League) top coaches Ange Postecoglu of Melbourne Victory; Graham Arnold (Central Coast Mariners), who has been assistant coach at NT level; and Popovich (Western Sydney Wanderers) who excelled in their inaugural year. Former Socceroos coach Frank Farina (Sydney FC) has declared he does not want to be considered – he was replaced by Hiddinck for the 2006 WC.

Although another former Socceroo, Ned Zelic, spoke out openly on SBS after the sacking and asked why Osieck had rated the Middle East leagues poorly, but took no firm action to exclude players plying their trade for lucrative petro dollars, it needs to be looked at in perspective. The difference between coaching a national team and a club team is that you cannot buy or trade star players as is done at club level. You inherit the squad, chop a few and add some promising players into the mix – you have to work within that pool of players, unlike the clubs. Australia, too, has struggled in the WC qualifiers against ‘desert’ teams with the current squad. Arab clubs also have talented foreign players from South America, who – as a bright fan said – had a football waiting for them outside their mother’s womb! So the strength of Arab clubs cannot be sneered at.

The Socceroos face Canada in a friendly match on Tuesday, 15 October under caretaker coach Vidmar – a former Socceroo himself – at Craven Cottage, Fulham in London. Vidmar blossomed as the coach of Adelaide United, especially in their impressive outings in the Asian Champions League. What if the Socceroos turn the tables and score a resounding victory against Canada? Would it be because of Vidmar or any change in the line-up? Even the much lower ranking of the opponents may be queried. Or will it show that, perhaps, the FFA’s action had been offside and a knee-jerk reaction with eight months to go before the glittering WC Finals? Time will tell. I shall not speculate on their losing to Canada!

What is clear is that whether the new coach is a foreigner or not, the team he inherits and chops, blends or mixes, will lack the ingredients and flavour when served up to whet the appetite of the fans, who love to compare today’s squad to the ‘Golden Generation’.

P. Francis is an English tutor in Melbourne, who has more than 20 years’ journalism experience with newspapers, books and magazines in Singapore and Australia.