‘It’s for the nation’: Australia’s Graham Arnold faces latest do-or-die test

<span>Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA</span>
Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA

Graham Arnold claims he does not read the media. It is his response, every time, to every query regarding external praise, criticism or otherwise. But if, hypothetically, he did take a peek from time to time, he might be getting used to hearing he is about to coach the defining match of his career.

That match apparently first happened back in March, when the 2-0 loss to Japan consigned the Socceroos to two sudden-death qualifying playoffs and the pressure was so intense Football Australia had to release a statement clarifying his job was not in jeopardy.

It came again in June, before he defied expectations and won a playoff against the United Arab Emirates, and then again before Australia beat Peru on a penalty shootout to qualify – finally – for Qatar 2022.

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It should come as no surprise, then, that Wednesday’s tournament-opening loss to France was also the game. And that the game is also this Saturday, when the team face Tunisia to save their campaign.

Managers can live and die on single results. Sacked in a heartbeat or etched into stone as a living legend.

Peru was a case in point. That spectacular goalkeeper substitution stunt, had it not come off, might have rendered him persona non grata. The coach who failed to qualify for a fifth consecutive World Cup via a witless tempting of fate.

An upset win over France, conversely, would have been one of Australian football’s eminent achievements. That it did not occur has, predictably, triggered the usual conniptions about Arnold’s tactical failures. For his inability to engineer a more aggressive approach.

The problem with measuring aggression in this scenario is that they were facing France. As in France, the defending champions. As in the cream of AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, Atlético Madrid and Barcelona racing towards an Australian backline who play for Hearts, Dundee United and Stoke. One can attempt to be aggressive and still be pinned back, slit open, executed by a team which is simply better at football.

“That was the intention against France, [to be] much higher up the field like we started,” Arnold says. “The first 30 minutes, we’ve got to do that for 90. But when you turn over possession so cheaply you get pushed back. That’s a technical side we need to work on. We don’t have time to work on that, but that’s what their ability is.”

That Australia opened the scoring against a side of this calibre, with a goal so technically and aesthetically pleasing, is not insignificant in itself.

Saudi Arabia declared a public holiday when they beat Argentina on Tuesday. It was one of the biggest World Cup upsets in living memory. They had 30% possession. Hervé Renard was hailed as a genius. The Saudis have invested billions in football.

It is put to Arnold that perhaps Australia should have kept at France like Japan did at Germany – the tournament’s other major upset thus far. “Japan had 26% possession and they sat deep the whole time,” he responds. That statistic is correct. Japan has invested hundreds of millions in football.

The Socceroos finished behind both Saudi Arabia and Japan in their qualifying group. They have not received a cent from Sport Australia this year.

Is there anything more to say? Perhaps something about defending set pieces, maybe something else about the timing and identities of some of the substitutes. There might be more if the opposition were not France.

Which brings us to the career-defining match. Tunisia are ranked eight places higher than Australia. They also proved against Denmark they are not that easy to beat. To do so would add an outstanding accomplishment to Arnold’s other accomplishments. To fail would not be a verdict on the entirety of his life’s work.

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The 59-year-old has played for clubs in Belgium, the Netherlands and Japan and scored 19 international goals across 56 caps. As a manager he has won domestic club trophies and is recognised as one of Australia’s best to date.

But there is something about the national team that resonates more with the public consciousness and weighs heavier on the shoulders of its overseer. His first stint in charge, after serving as assistant to Guus Hiddink at the 2006 World Cup, was not a happy one.

His second coming has also been difficult, marred by Covid-19 and steering a young, inexperienced squad through an arduous 20-game journey to qualification. But he has also taken charge of the under-23s to help the inevitable transition and got them to a first Olympics in 12 years.

Now he has a chance to lead the senior contingent to a first win at a World Cup since 2010. “It’s not for me, it’s for the nation. You know, two wins in 17 games [at World Cup finals]. There’s nothing more that I want than to put a smile on all Australian faces. It’s not about me at all. If it was about me, I probably would’ve left ages ago. It’s about helping the kids.”

Arnold is asked about the criticism from back home over the past few days. “I don’t know what they’re saying,” he says. After all, he doesn’t read a thing.