Arnold emerges from the shadows
His name might not trip off the tongue like that of his predecessor, but Australia coach Graham Arnold has been at the heart of the Socceroos set-up for the best part of 22 years.
Though well aware that neither the 56 caps he earned as a player nor the experience he acquired as No2 to Frank Farina and Guus Hiddink was ever likely to gain him instant acceptance, Arnold has sufficient faith in his own ability to believe that the FFA opted for exactly the right man to succeed the Dutchman and lead Australia into an exciting new era. After all, with their heroics of Germany 2006 now consigned to memory, the Socceroos have a first-ever AFC Asian Cup to look forward to, and it is a competition that they have high hopes of winning after booking their place ahead of any of their more well-established rivals.
Handed the job of guiding Australia to gold, Arnold is also in the process of carefully rebuilding an aging side while all the time contending with rumours about the identity of his likely successor , with Jurgen Klinsmann the latest big name coach reportedly lined up to take over after the Asian Cup finals. Nevertheless, while the FFA have made no secret of their desire to recruit a coach of Hiddink's ilk and profile to take the Socceroos through to South Africa 2010 , Arnold assured FIFA.com that he intends fighting to hold on to his job, pledging: "I can be the man to take Australia to another level."
FIFA.com: Having settled into the job now, how are you
Graham Arnold: I'm loving it. Obviously it's a challenge, and that was always going to be the case when for whoever came in to replace Guus Hiddink. Regardless of Guus's achievements, there's no doubt that Australian football is now going through a transitional period , albeit a very exciting one. But there was never any question of me not wanting the job, or not enjoying it now that I'm in it. And I'm pleased with the way things have gone so far. It's all new for us in Asia, so it's an adventure and occasionally there will be bumps along the road. But I'm in no doubt whatsoever that we are going in the right direction.
You've obviously had to bring in a lot of youngsters
after a clutch of senior players retired following Germany 2006.
But how important was it for you to convince the likes of Mark
Viduka and John Aloisi to carry on?
That was massive. We had five players who retired after the World Cup and I'd say there were another five or six, including Mark and John, who were considering joining them. And in normal circumstances I'm sure they would. But what's changed for Australia is that the World Cup is no longer the be all and end for us because there are other events on our international calendar now that we've moved to the AFC.
The Asian Cup is a huge target for us all given the calibre of teams we'll be up against and, as a group, we definitely believe that we're capable of winning it. That was a big incentive for the likes of Mark and John to carry on and, at 31, both of them still have a lot of games - and goals, hopefully - left in them at international level. It actually wasn't that difficult to convince them to carry on, but they've made it clear that that will be it for them after the Asian Cup and we need to start looking for replacements now. That's why we're blooding a lot of young players into the side at the moment.
How have you and the players found the transition to
playing in Asia?
In terms of the quality of football, there's no doubt that it's a vast improvement. But some things have been a real shock to the system, I must admit. To come back from Germany and go to Bahrain to play on a bumpy pitch with virtually no fans was a real eye-opener, and then in Kuwait we had players losing seven kilos during the game because of the temperatures the game was played in. I also think that some people underestimated the logistical implications of the switch because we're having to take two and sometimes three flights to get to and from the countries we're playing in. The fact that all our top players are based in Europe only complicates things further, but we've got on with it and I think we've adjusted relatively well.
The fact that the A-League is developing so spectacularly
must be a massive boost to you.
The A-League's fantastic. When you have 52,000 fans turning up to watch the grand final, you can see just how things have developed both on the pitch and on the commercial side. That's what having a professional top flight does, but although it's definitely helping us narrow the gap with the European leagues, the fact that there's still no youth league is far from ideal. We need to be developing more players because the salary cap means that clubs only have a 20-man playing roster, and that ensures that only the real crème de la crème are getting the chance to break through. The youth side of things is something I see as very important because if you look at the age profile of our squad at the World Cup, below the likes of Brett Emerton (who is 28), there was a massive gap to our only 21-year-old, Mike Milligan. The current generation of Australian footballers isn't strong enough.
You were the first team to qualify for the Asian Cup . Do
you feel you can win it?
We want to win it, that's certainly my goal. I'm a very positive person and I'd like to think that if I get some time with the team to prepare properly that we'll do well. Chances are we'll go into the competition as Asia's top-ranked team, so everyone will be out to beat us. But being among the favourites for such a prestigious competition is a great challenge for Australia and I'm really looking forward to it.
And are you confident that we'll see Australia back at
the FIFA World Cup™ in 2010?
That's the biggest goal for everyone. What happened in Germany whetted everyone's appetite and it was incredible to see the kind of scenes that the team's success generated back home. The whole country went mad and whereas before the Socceroos were not supported by the whole country, now I think we have become the national team - and that's for fans of all sports. I remember playing against Paraguay in 2001 in front of 1800 people, and when we had Paraguay back for a friendly last year, 48,000 fans came out. That tells you how quickly things have developed, and having been part of the set-up as a player since 1985 and then as assistant-manager, I've seen all the bad times, so it's all the more satisfying now.
You were an assistant-manager for a long time. How easy
have you found the transition to being a manager in your own
It's been very natural. It was a fantastic experience to learn from working with Hiddink and Frank Farina, but I've the personality to be a No1 and the mongrel in me meant I always fancied making the step-up.
It's no secret, though, that the FFA have been linked
with a lot of high-profile managers like Jurgen Klinsmann and
Gerard Houllier. Given that, do you still hope to hang on to the
job beyond the Asian Cup?
Frank Lowy (FFA Chairman) has been honest with me from day one, so I'm well aware that they're keen to have an experienced coach in to guide the team through the World Cup qualifiers. The plan right now is to have me help out whoever that may be and I still consider myself a young coach, so I don't have a problem with that. But I'm also an ambitious person and, if I can help the team win the Asian Cup, I hope that will give the FFA something to think about. The World Cup was absolutely wonderful, but the harsh truth is that it's history now. Australia has to move on and I'm confident that I can be the man to take us to another level.