How Australia Succeeded in ‘Soccer’ | AFC Asian Cup Match Preview | Australia vs India |

A common complaint from the Indian football administrators and fans over the years has been the presence of Cricket overshadowing the growth of football. Another country where football is not the first, but rather the fourth most popular sport, ended their 2022 World Cup Campaign at the Round of 16 stage after putting up a commendable fight against the eventual Champions Argentina.

A quick look at numbers reveal that Cricket brings more than 8 times the revenue compared to football in India, meanwhile the top 3 most popular sports down under, namely Australian rules football, Rugby and Cricket combined bring more than seven, four and three times the revenue compared to ‘soccer’ respectively. The success of the Socceroos in producing talents worthy of higher European Leagues and managing to qualify for the World Cup six times, first in 1974, is an interesting case study for countries like India where football is not the most popular sport.

Just like any football loving country, the story starts with British colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th century. The precursors to the modern football were played as early as 1845, but as more British arrived in the 1880s onwards, the game increased its popularity. The local clubs ‘catered for newly-arrived migrants and often helped them come to terms with Australian society and its evolving culture.

Once again this was something which became very important in the second half of the twentieth century. The downside was that the game was later seen as a migrant game, rather than an Australian one,’ writes Roy Hay for Football Australia. The Men’s National Team played its first three matches at New Zealand against the Kiwis, where they drew once and lost twice. Due to the perception of football being an immigrant’s sport, rise of popularity of Rugby, Cricket and Australian rules football, ‘soccer’ took a backseat and progress stagnated until the mid 1950s.

A goalmouth melee as India defend against Australia during their quarter-final match played at the 1956 Olympics at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground. (Courtesy: Gautam Roy)

As hosts of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, they knocked out Japan 2-0 in their first match and then faced a rising India in the quarters, where the Samar Banerjee led Blue Tigers overcame two equalisers from Australia (1-1 then 2-2) to win the match 4-2 courtesy to a Nevill d’Souza hattrick. India went on to lose 4-1 in the Semi finals to Yugoslavia and 3-0 to Bulgaria in the Bronze medal match, under the mentorship of the legendary Syed Abdul Rahim. After an embarrassing exit from the 1966 World Cup qualifiers exit to Cambodia with a 9-2 aggregate against them, they narrowly missed out the ’70 edition where Israel only won 2-1 in aggregate over two legs.

But then the first qualification came in 1974 quite poetically by winning over Israel. They were placed into the group which included Chile, East Germany and West Germany, and with losses to both Germanys, they impressed everyone by holding Chile to a 0-0 draw. The surge in performances coincided with the first generation of good players, such as Johnny Warren, Ray Richards, Peter Wilson, Adrian Alston, and Atti Abonyi, along with the appointment of a strict disciplinarian coach Rale Rasic who introduced an attacking creative philosophy of football.

Then came another huge patch of poor performances and near misses for a period of three decades (1974-2002), where they didn’t qualify for any World Cup. 1997 became a traumatic experience for the Aussies when after a pitch invader delayed the game for 10 minutes by tearing a net, at a time Australia were leading 2-0 against Iran and were set to qualify, but Iran shockingly scored two in the final minutes after the game reduces and won through the away goal advantage. In the ’94 qualifiers, they had to face Argentina in the final playoffs where they sensationally drew 1-1 in the first leg and lost only 1-0 in the second, after which Maradona famously said to then captain Paul Wade "Your tears of pain, will one day be tears of joy".

And joy wasn’t faraway, as they created one of the greatest qualification stories for the 2006 edition. The Socceroos had developed a rivalry against Uruguay by then after being sent out of the final qualifying match of the 2002 edition to Los Charruas even after winning the first leg. In Uruguay, they were met with intense hostility and some players were even spat at when coming out of the airport. Four years later they faced Uruguay yet again in the final qualification for the 2006 edition. 

Action in the second leg in the 2006 World Cup qualifying playoff between Australia and Uruguay (Courtesy: FFA – Carlos Furtado)

Due to security concerns, Australia practiced in Argentina and said they would arrive to Uruguay on matchday, which didn’t sit well with their opponents. They pushed back the kick off time by 5 hours suddenly, which would mean the Aussies would miss their flight back, while Uruguay themselves would get a chartered flight and get an extra day to prepare in Australia. However due to logistical reasons, Uruguay couldn’t get their plane, while Qantas Airlines helped out the Aussies by providing a private business class flight, and then Aussies themselves preponed the second leg, which meant Uruguay wouldn’t even reach on time. However, FIFA didn’t let that happen, but still Australia won 1-0 in the second leg, thus levelling the aggregate after losing the first leg, and overcame Uruguay through penalties. The early 21st century brought out the ‘Golden Generation’ of Australia which comprised of Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Mark Schwarzer, Mile Jedinak, and Aaron Mooy.

And this ‘Golden Generation’ wasn’t produced by luck or wizardry. A lot of aspects contributed to the culmination of talents which led to the 2006 qualification, primarily being investment in youth development. The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) was established in 1981 as a national centre of excellence for sports training and development. The AIS soccer program, which started in 1987, was instrumental in producing some of the best players of the golden generation, such as Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Lucas Neill, and Brett Emerton. The program offered scholarships to talented young players, who received high-quality coaching, education, and facilities. The program also provided a pathway for players to progress to the national team and overseas clubs. In the 2010 World Cup, as many as 13 players had been a part of Australia’s Center of Excellence. 

FFA Centre of Excellence goalkeeper Duro Dragicevic makes a save against Gungahlin United. (Courtesy: Rohan Thomson)

The A League was established in 2004 by rechristening the National Soccer League which was riddled by corruption, ethnic gatekeeping and not being aligned with the international calendar. Clubs till then had strong ethnic ties as they aimed to represent the immigrant communities. That, however led to football being rejected by the ‘White’ Australians (as if they are not immigrants themselves) and considered a foreign sport.

The World Cup qualifications in 2006 onwards although did bring back interest. Rising popularity through the World Cup qualification brought more private investment. All A League clubs established their own academies and The National Youth League (NYL) was launched in 2008 as a feeder competition for the A-League, aiming to provide more opportunities and exposure for young players.

With greater importance now being given to Continental tournaments and matches against similar and higher ranked opponents and Australia not getting any competition in the Oceania Federation and the difficult World Cup qualification process through Oceania, Australia after multiple failed attempts finally convinced FIFA to let them enter the Asian Football Confederation in 2006.

That year, in the world cup, they came back from a goal down against Japan to win the game 3-1, then lost to Brazil 2-0, and made a late equaliser through Harry Kewell against Croatia, thus sending the Aussies to their first ever Round of 16 where the faced the mighty Italy. With a marvellous performance throughout the 90 minutes, Italy won the game through a controversial penalty in injury time. It was an agonising end to the underdog story which the Socceroos had wrote from the qualification matches. 

The Australian team in the 2010 World Cup (Collected from

Australia bowed down to the Japanese in the Quarters of their first ever Asian Cup Campaign through penalties. The qualification process through Asia proved no easier as they had to win over the likes of Qatar, Iraq, China, Japan, Bahrain and Uzbekistan to land in the 2010 South Africa World Cup group with Germany, Ghana and Serbia, where they lost 4-0, drew 1-1 and won 2-1 respectively, but sadly couldn’t progress further due to Ghana’s superior goal difference.

An extra time goal in the final from the Samurais again ended Australia’s Asian Cup dreams in 2011, and eventhough they somehow managed to scrape into the 2014 World Cup, some cracks had started to develop. The team was still reliant on their 2006 Generation Players who by then had took a major hit to their performances, and with two 6-0 losses to Brazil and France in friendlies before the Cup, head coach Holger Osieck was sacked and in place cam current Spurs manager Ange Postecoglu who was charged with developing a new generation of quality Australian players. 

They didn’t have much hopes from the 2014 World Cup, and rather expectedly they lost all their Group stage matches. After more losses and draws after the World Cup, Australia slipped down in world rankings to 102 (current position of India), their all time low. Just when it seemed Australia was tumbling towards another bout of poor performances, Ange Postecoglu worked his magic with his innovative tactics, bringing forward and trusting youngsters and they miraculously won the Asian Cup in 2015 through a James Triosi extra time winner against South Korea.

A notable aspect throughout the period of poor performances and the rebuild was that the players and coach never complained, settled for and accepted mediocre results, heavily shuffled and tweaked their playing style and squad with a huge focus on the youth. They could easily have given countless excuses on how they are in the ‘rebuild’ or simply not good enough but mentality to not give up even in an all time low is what separated them from the rest as they recovered their rankings to 57, 47 and 38 by the end of 2015, ’16 and ’17 respectively. 

Ange Postecoglu as Australia head coach (Courtesy: Subway Socceroos Media)

After ensuring their qualification to the Russia World Cup, Ange left for Yokohama, a Japanese club, after establishing his legacy by supporting and restoring the respect of Australia in the World Football Scene. However, Peru and France were still too good to overcome, and thus with 2 losses and a draw to Denmark, they got sent out from the Group Stage. Before the 2019 Asian Cup, Graham Arnold returned as head coach for his second stint. They failed to impress as they struggled against Jordan, Palestine and Syria to narrowly escape out of the group, and after a penalty win in the quarters against the Uzbeks, they had an embarrassing exit in the semis at the hand of United Arab Emirates.

After overcoming UAE in the Asian playoff, they had to defeat Peru in the inter-Federation playoff to secure their spot in the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Even after dominating the match, Australia couldn’t score, nor could Peru as the game headed to penalties. That’s when the famous clip of subbed in GK Andrew Redmayne’s antiques to distract the opponent during the pens became viral on social media, as Australia ensured yet another World Cup slot, with the streak from 2006 still continuing.

After winning over Tunisia and Denmark and losing out to France, thus earning their second ever Round of 16 spot, Aussies faced the mighty challenge of the Argentinians, where their brilliant performance to nearly come back from a 2-0 deficit. They ended up losing 2-1 but they won the hearts of the viewers and surely caused some blood pressure fluctuations in the passionate Argentines. After a morale boost following their commendable world cup performances, the focus shifts to the next World Cup qualifiers and the AFC Asian Cup, where they share the group with India, Uzbekistan and Syria.

In the qualifiers, the Aussies scraped past Palestine by only a solitary goal, that too a header from a corner. Palestine are currently ranked 99, three places above India. This obviously doesn’t necessarily mean India are at the same level as Palestine, there are other historic and contemporary factors which are hindering Palestine from achieving its true potential, but that being said what Palestine did that match is something the Indians do have the quality to replicate.

Australia move on to R1 after beating Tunisia in 2022 FIFA World Cup (Courtesy: Reuters)

The biggest gift Australians have got, is their physicality, with which it is rather easy for them to win duels, headers and second balls, and also recover any fumbling by sheer strength. The physique also includes decent stamina, pace and acceleration, and proper youth development has also led to the players being confident on the ball with sharp turns, efficient body weight distribution, and general agility.

Add to that the positional acumen overseen by coach Graham Arnold in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and this makes a lethal team who defend in numbers and then start blistering counters through cheeky precise passes. The CB of Rowles and Souttar is supported by LB Behich and a RB which is shuffled between Strain, Miller among others. The (not-so-strict) double pivot of Irvine and Baccus or O’Niell is led by attacking mid Metcalfe or Silvera, wingers Goodwin and Boyle and CF Duke or Tulio. All these players currently feature in the Scottish or Japenese or lower English and German leaguesthe or the local A League.

Australians defend compactly with little space between the lines in their not so strict 4-4-2 defensive shape (Courtesy: Football Australia YT)

In build up, Goalkeeper cum Captain Matthew Ryan is an expert calm distributor of the ball and can accurately find the free man through a lobbed pass even when two or three players are pressing against the defenders. The full backs go up cautiously but are more involved in sending throughs towards the wingers. Australia generally prefer to go wide and attack fast through the wings due to their pace, physicality, ankle breaking cut ins and arial dominance. The DM is not necessarily a forward passer but can take the ball away from overcrowded area. The CMs prefer to find the half space to find the winger. They are also certain positional interchanges between the LCM and LW or RCM and RW which can confuse the opponents.

Australians switch flanks swiftly from overloaded areas and use the pace of wingers to launch effective counters (Courtesy: Football Australia YT)

Defending against the Aussies won’t be an easy job for Stimac and Co. Realistically it is a match when the team needs to find a mode to lose by the least possible margin. Due to their ability to keep the ball, Indians will be pushed against the wall throughout the 90, and it will be wiser to keep the most physically and defensively adept players with somewhat decent confidence on the ball along with some blistering forwards to atleast impress with a few counter attack attempts, if not a goal.

Thus it will be smart for Stimac to deviate from his philosophy to a 3-4-1-2 formation with Subhashish Jhingan Kotal at defense, Mishra and Poojary at wing backs (to not only support defense but also use their pace in counters), Apuia and Thapa as the double pivot (who not only can deter central progression but also can distribute efficiently), Brandon at AM with Naorem Mahesh and Manvir Singh as the double striking partnership.

The full backs come in support occasionally to string the final cut in, also the CMs either run in late or occupy the half spaces (Courtesy: Football Australia YT)

That of course is highly unlikely, rather impossible, due to the unnegotiable faith of Stimac to go back to an archaic textbook 4-2-3-1 which is likely to feature Subhashish, Bheke/Mehtab, Jhingan, Kotal, Suresh, Thapa/Apuia, Mahesh, Chhangte/Manvir and Sunil Chettri. This 4-2 defense would probably only support Australia’s liking of attacking through the wings if the Indian wingers fail to track back. It is expected that one of the pivots attack the ball progressor, while the other pivot will catch the late runner, with out winger, full back and pivot causing an overload against the touchline. However, Australia, as seen in the Palestine game, too loves to overcrowd already crowded area in hopes of using their physique to win back possession. Aussies press quite intensely and arrive within 1 to 2 seconds after the defenders get possession to not give them any time to think.

Predicted Lineups (India vs Australia)

Probable XI - India

Probable XI - Australia

The Socceroos after a sub standard 2019 Asian Cup performance, will look forward to challenge for the title and win it again like they did in 2015. However they will face the challenge of arguably the best ever Japanese team and South Korea, and their occasional complacency and fumbling will be exploited by the even higher pressing and defensively adept East Asian teams. They are expected to clear through the group with ease, although Uzbeks might just spoil their perfect record their a bit due to their own resurgence, a story which will be covered soon on MBFT.

Even with the presence of rugby, aussie rules football and cricket, ‘Soccer’ has continued to prosper due to the culminating developments in youth training from the 80's, the honest intent of certain individuals in the Confederation like the legendary Johnny Warren and the coaching team which helped the youngsters flourish, continued immigrant influx due to Australia being a developed country hence a land of opportunity for many, and most importantly the sheer never-give-up mentality inculcated the Australian DNA.

That being said, Australia still does have some significant issues hindering football’s growth. In 2017, the Center of Excellence was closed down after failure to produce talents due to players choosing club academies over a Centralised Location. The FFA promised a huge overhaul, but that hasn’t been the case as of yet with the youth lacking gametime and the U20s not qualifying for the U20 FIFA World Cup. The Premier League representation has reduced from 13 in 2006 to 0 today. Youth participation between the ages 6-13 has been on the decline too.

With the world cup expanding to 48 teams, Australia’s chances to qualify have became easier, but it can also mask the underlying cracks which are starting to form. However, Australia has its history of turning around from periods of crisis. Eventually these cracks might even cause another year of failing to qualify the World Cup, but that, or even setbacks of lesser magnitude, again would serve as a wake up call and a better structure and systems will be brought on to take Australia to the next level, beyond the Group stage and Round of 16s and to the best in Asia and among the top 10 in the World.

Previous Encounters between India & Australia:

03 Sept 1938 - Friendly - Australia 5 - 3 India

10 Sept 1938 - Friendly - Australia 4 - 4 India

17 Sept 1938 - Friendly - Australia 1 - 4 India

24 Sept 1938 - Friendly - Australia 5 - 4 India

01 Oct 1938 - Friendly - Australia 3 - 1 India

09 Dec 1956 - Friendly - Australia 1 - 7 India

14 Nov 1981 - King's Cup - India 0 - 1 Australia

10 Jan 2011 - AFC Asian Cup - India 0 - 4 Australia

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