In Asia, Australia's star-studded squad is considered second to none, with its ranks swelled by a Europe-based contingent that oozes quality from the rearguard to the frontline. However, the Socceroos' dependence on these big-name stars will come under the microscope on 6 February when Pim Verbeek's side kick off their 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaign against Qatar on 6 February with team a dominated by representatives domestic A-league.
The timing of the match, and the distances involved, were always likely to make it difficult for Verbeek to call up his European contingent and, in any case, recent history shows, the presence of Australia's foreign-based players can sometimes be a double-edge sword if they arrive ill-prepared for the rigours of the Asian game. That was certainly something that was borne out at last year's AFC Asian Cup, when the Aussies, with their stars worn out after their domestic seasons, were stunned 3-1 by Iraq before exiting at the quarter-final stage to Japan.
Nevertheless, Verbeek's difficulties in selecting a squad this time around have not been not helped by the team's relatively late preparation, with the Dutchman only able to organize a two-day training camp - his first since taking charge - from 7 to 8 January, just over three weeks' away from the Qatar encounter. In stark contrast, Qatar started their own preparation work on 8 January and will remain together until February 6, a fact which has left Verbeek more than a little concerned. "Camp is never long enough; for a coach its never long enough," said the former Korea Republic boss, who only took over the Socceroos in December. "I am very grateful to the clubs that they give the players, but as a coach you want to have players for as long as possible."
While the camp provided Verbeek with the first chance to get an up-close view of the A-League players he had selected, the former Korea Republic coach seemed not to have decided who will represent Australia in their FIFA World Cup qualifying opener. "I saw 32 players up close both on and off pitch and they have left a much better impression on me," he said. "But I just want to keep all options open and will make up my mind in the next coming weeks and months."
Talay steps up
While Verbeek opted to stress the qualities of his home-based players, he will be under no illusions that it is to Europe that he will need to look for some much-needed firepower and big-match experiences. Once again, this was amply demonstrated during their Asian Cup debut, when all seven of Australia's goals came from by foreign-based players, with Newcastle United striker Mark Viduka coming out top with three.
Furthermore, doubts have been cast on the international credentials of the domestic players after Australia's A-League clubs made a disappointing impression on their first AFC Champions League last year, with both Adelaide United and Sydney FC failing to progress beyond the group stage. Former Australia captain Craig Moore, who himself plays in the A-League these days, admitted that there are justifiable doubts. "I don't know what his (Verbeek's) thoughts are on the national team," said the Queensland Roar defender, who scored a memorable goal for Australia in their 2-2 draw against Croatia at Germany 2006. "But I don't think personally it's the strongest squad I've ever seen."
Despite his comments, Moore didn't hide his own willingness to resume national service. "I spoke with Pim to say that I'd be available if I was needed but it's not really a question for myself, it's one for Pim," said the 38-times-capped 32-year-old. Verbeek's recent call-ups included Sydney FC midfielder Ufuk Talay, who was recently dubbed "the best player never to have played for Australia" by his club coach John Kosmina and retired Socceroo Josip Skoko. "He is a great talent who hasn't received the recognition he deserves," said Kosima.
Having assisted Guss Hiddink in leading Korea Republic to the last four in Korea/Japan 2002, Pim Verbeek is relishing the chance to emulate his fellow countryman's feat by steering Australia to their second consecutive FIFA World Cup finals. However, only a win against Qatar in the opening match will be considered good enough to win him the favour of the Aussie football public and strengthen Australia's chances of qualifying from what is expected to be the hardest group of all five in Asia.
Australia's Group A qualifying fixtures:
6 February: Australia-Qatar
26 March: China-Australia
2 June: Australia-Iraq
7 June: Iraq-Australia
14 June: Qatar-Australia
22 June: Australia-China