Socceroos must experiment with belief rather than rely on hope
The players need to show the swagger that comes with belief when they take the field against Peru25 June 2018 | Stuart Thomas
If there is one word more inextricably linked to being a Socceroo supporter than hope, I’m not sure what it is.
Whilst grappling for growth and broader respect in the domestic game, the migrant pioneers of Australian football hoped for a World Cup finals appearance; a dream that eventually came to life in 1974.
The hope for continuity, however, was still years away.
Decades in the wilderness followed, as campaign after campaign stumbled and derailed. We failed against Kuwait, New Zealand and Israel, hoped against Scotland, Argentina, Iran and Uruguay and finally, after much angst, four consecutive appearances in the finals has seen the Socceroos become a regular participant.
Now a new hope exists.
Advancing from the group stage has been beyond our grasp since 2006. With a win against Peru, and if the result goes the right way in the other game between France and Denmark, it could happen. However, hope will not be enough.
Socceroo fans hope for a lot yet sadly believe in very little. There is a vast chasm between the two mindsets.
Studying sports psychology years back, my eyes were opened as to the gulf between them and how each plays out in the reality of performance.
Historically, the Socceroo mindset is bred of toughness, effort and spirit yet it is also tinged with a lingering doubt over our place among traditional footballing powers.
As fans, Australians tend to take a fingers crossed approach to major competitions; hoping a few things go our way in order to succeed.
Rarely has the team dared to do more than hope.
Recently, as I watched a replay of Australia’s clash with Croatia during 2006 World Cup, it struck me that it was one of those rare occasions where a Socceroo team appeared to believe in itself unreservedly.
Even after falling behind - something we do so well - the resolve was firm.
In fact, that entire campaign featured a Socceroo squad emboldened with unwavering faith in its ability to compete with, and match, just about any opposition.
Since then, it has not been the case.
The psyche of the Socceroos and the resultant body language they exude, changes dramatically depending on the context within which they play.
Early stages of Asian qualification see the national team play with confidence, knowing full well that their skills are generally superior to the majority of their opponents.
Then, as the cut throat nature of the final group stage begins and two magical golden tickets loom as ample incentive, the Socceroos become hesitant, doubtful and beatable.
The effort is always there - of that we can be sure. However, the tentative nature of performances such as those against Iraq, Thailand and Syria in 2017 are symptomatic of the condition.
After the rigours of qualification, attention then shifts to the World Cup Finals draw. Australia hopes and prays for a fortunate result, obsessing over groups, pots and rankings, desperately seeking an avenue for progression.
A preparation where opponents remain unknown might suit us more. The Socceroos could simply turn up at the World Cup, well-prepared and ask, ‘Who are we playing?’
Considering our psychological fragility over the years, it would be far better than sitting around hypothesising about France, Denmark and Peru for months on end.
Other World Cup nations get in our head. All World Cup nations get in our head. We walk onto the pitch with hopeful dreams of success yet lack the confident swagger of our opponents who actually believe they have our measure.
Therein lies the challenge for the Socceroos. Belief.
We see glimpses of it, more often than ever and the second-half against Denmark was an example of a Socceroos team in full flight. Unfortunately, it came on the back of another nervous start where the team searched for purpose and direction early in the match.
They appeared impressed by Christian Eriksen, happy to admire him from a distance, and that space and a frightfully clever pass afforded him the opportunity for the opening goal.
As if annoyed, a state of mind that produces our best football, the team then showed its teeth for a full hour and Eriksen strangely vanished.
It was also there in the first half against France; not as convincing, mind you, yet for a few moments the frustrated French were forced to combat a Socceroo team experimenting with belief.
Love him or loathe him, it was Ange Postecoglou who set about instilling this belief. At times genius came to mind, in other moments the wafer thin defense reflected frailty rather than fortitude.
Bert van Marwijk is well versed in fortitude and has already applied his inherent conservatism into the squad with a somewhat positive result.
In terms of Peru the Socceroos have the opportunity to swan onto the Fisht Stadium with that rarely seen swagger. If they can, they might just sneak a spot in the final 16.
It would be another step forward for a football nation still striving to believe rather than hope.
Editor's note: It's worth having a read of the Football Media Watch section of 25 June also where Aziz Behich has talked about Bert van Marwijk's instructions not to show emotion and focus on what's next, as it is relevant to the theme of Stuart's article.
socceroos, 2018 world cup, #russia2018