Arnold: Australia will get the job done in Doha

  • Australia take on UAE on Tuesday in a FIFA World Cup qualifying play-off

  • The winners will then lock horns with Peru for a place at Qatar 2022

  • Socceroos coach Graham Arnold speaks to FIFA+ ahead of these Doha showdowns

Graham Arnold knows all about the agony and ecstasy of FIFA World Cup™ play-offs.

As a player, the Australia coach was subjected to three heavy doses of the former. “I had the privilege, if you can call it that, of missing out each time,” he told FIFA+. “Scotland beat us just after I’d come on to the scene in 1985. Then I was in the team when we lost to Maradona’s Argentina in ’93 and again when we lost to Iran four years later. “It was only 1-0 against Argentina, and then we were 2-0 up on Iran going into the last 15 minutes and ended up drawing 2-2 and losing out on away goals. So, yeah, there’s been some pain and hurt. Those memories will always stick with the players who were involved.”

(AUSTRALIA OUT) Graham Arnold during the Australia vs Iran match, World Cup, 29 November 1997. SMH Picture by TIM CLAYTON (Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images/Fairfax Media via Getty Images via Getty Images)

But Arnold, in his own words, has “seen the other side” of what these play-offs can bring. He was there, after all, on 16 November 2005 – in his then role as assistant to Guus Hiddink – when the Socceroos, at the fifth time of asking, prevailed at this critical stage of qualifying. That famous, hoodoo-busting shootout win over Uruguay took Australia to their first World Cup in 32 years, and they haven’t missed one since. The Socceroos’ dreams of a fifth consecutive edition are, however, precariously balanced, and will only be realised with back-to-back play-off wins –against United Arab Emirates on Tuesday and Peru the following Monday. “It’s a chance for our boys to create some very different memories to the ones I had as a player,” Arnold said. “And it’s clear to them what’s at stake. “They now know that it’s not a case of saying, ‘Well, if we fall short in this game we’ve still got a chance if we win the next one.’ We need to win both games – it’s as simple as that. If we don’t, we won’t be at the World Cup. “It’s a different challenge in that respect. Normally in play-offs we’ve been used to playing home and away, whereas now it comes down to one-off games. But the players seem to be in a good, positive mindset and I believe we’ll get the job done.”

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 27: Australia celebrate a goal during the World Cup Qualifier football match between Australia Socceroos and Vietnam on January 27, 2022 at AAMI Park in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Dave Hewison/Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

COVID challenges and play-off rivals

With the stakes sky-high, and the pressure on Arnold and his players equally so, the Australia coach knows he faces a delicate balancing act in striking the right pre-match pitch. “You can definitely add to the pressure on the players [by getting that wrong],” he said, “and expectations are already high. Back home, people expected direct qualification. “But given we haven’t been able many of the qualifying games in Australia – in the end, we played 14 of the 18 away from home – I genuinely believe that still being part of it, in with a chance of qualifying, is an achievement in itself.” While no national team has been unaffected by COVID and the related restrictions, Arnold is justified in highlighting Australia as a special case. Few squads are drawn from as many different corners of the globe – 15 different nations and four continents are represented in the Socceroos’ latest – and few countries employed tighter pandemic border controls. “It’s been very tough,” Arnold admitted. “This is probably the first time since before COVID that I’ve had the best group of players I could select and all of our staff here and available. “It’s also the first time this year that I’ve been able to walk into camp on the first day because, in the two previous camps, I tested positive for COVID and couldn’t join the group until Day 7. “I’m really big on face-to-face meetings with players and staff, so that’s really important to me. Being able to do that again makes me feel a whole lot better about things.”

Many of those meetings will naturally focus on Australia’s play-off opponents, and recent events would suggest that some careful analysis is required. But while UAE come into the AFC play-off with a new coach, having replaced Bert van Marwijk with Rodolfo Arruabarrena in February, Arnold foresees the Argentinian following in his Dutch predecessor’s footsteps. “UAE did really well to qualify in the first place,” he said. “They had to beat South Korea in that last game to make it and they did that under their new coach, so credit to them. “But we’re expecting a fairly typical counter-attacking game from them and think they’ll looking sit back and hit us on the break. We’ll be ready for that and whatever else they throw at us.”

AL AIN, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 21: Graham Arnold, Manager of Australia looks on prior to the AFC Asian Cup round of 16 match between Australia and Uzbekistan at Khalifa Bin Zayed Stadium on January 21, 2019 in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Accentuating the positive

Arnold’s confidence is not rooted in any misapprehension that he possesses a vintage, star-studded Socceroos squad. But while the Cahills and Kewells of past generations might have been replaced by lesser-known successors, their coach’s experience at Tokyo 2020 has left him positive about their potential. “I believe in my players,” he insisted. “I know we don’t have anyone at the moment consistently starring in the world’s biggest leagues, but there’s talent there. “I took the Olympic team for a reason and that was to help develop that talent and bring those players through. It’s been fantastic for me to see ten players from that squad move overseas, and they’re already achieving good things. It bodes well for the future of this team.” That future, it’s clear, is Arnold’s sole focus. Indeed, despite amassing over 50 caps as a player and seeing history made from the dugout at two World Cups, the Socceroos coach has no time for nostalgia. “I’ve been in the game in Australia for 40 years. And trust me, I have so many good memories from that time and from those World Cups. “The best though,” he concluded with a smile, “will be when we qualify for this one.”