Can Graham Arnold’s Socceroos create the legacy he craves in do-or-die Denmark game?
In Graham Arnold marched, through the side door and up on to the landing, sat down in front of the sponsorship board and cleared his throat into the microphone. “One day more.” No, he did not really say that – that would have required some French 19th-century rebel garb that frankly isn’t available in Qatar.
And even then it would have somehow felt too unvarnished for a Graham Arnold press conference. A Graham Arnold press conference, in its purest form, features a catchphrase or analogy, or maybe even a flagrant repurposing of Les Misérables lyrics-turned internet meme to the point of inglorious cliché – anything to distract from on-field issues or push the desired message of the day.
Tuesday’s was similar in some ways but it also had a slightly different feel. This one, his 36th – and potentially final – pre-match press conference as Australia’s national team coach, felt more like an arrival. This was his moment. The end of the struggle.
Whether Arnold stays for another match, longer or goes – that much is not clear, though he has stressed the need for an extended break – he has done more than what he came to do. He has built a young squad from nothing and won his country a first World Cup game in 12 years, at a World Cup for which his team very nearly did not qualify. It was an almost-miss for which he was almost sacked by Football Australia, during a pandemic.
The Socceroos could yet advance to the round of 16 in the early hours of Thursday morning, adding another historic achievement to his swelling portfolio. Regardless of the result against Denmark, Arnold said he feels “really relaxed and ready”. He looked like he meant it.
The 59-year-old has been in football as either a player or a coach for 37 years. With experience comes wisdom, which is sometimes converted into success. And with success comes more jobs and ever-increasing pressure. The mind must twist in funny ways under the weight of public opinion – and public opinion has not always been kind to Arnold.
Let’s stick to the media relations realm. Some of his press conferences of the past, honestly, sound like bullshit. Blessedly, the “expect to win” slogan was deserted somewhere back in the first phase of qualifying when it started to clash with results. The “subconscious mind” talk is also long gone. To the outside world, at least, he is more relatable when he is unfiltered.
Now that the pieces of the puzzle are finally arranging themselves into their proper places, it felt on Tuesday as if he gave himself permission to add at least some of his real voice to the public record.
He said his players possess “quality”, rather than just “boxing kangaroos” full of “self-belief”. There was none of the pre-Tunisia talk of technical weaknesses and valuable lessons for inexperienced players to prepare the nation for failure. He also spoke freely about the quality of Denmark, who “have been a top team in Europe for a long, long time”.
The “we only focus on ourselves” motto did eventually get air time, but the words were not quite as polished, less practised. There was even a half-baked cake analogy.
“The Socceroos are just the icing on the cake,” Arnold said. “And whatever that icing – whether it tastes good or bad – the most important thing is the ingredients. The ingredients are junior development and junior national teams, and if that’s not right the icing will not taste very good.”
We got the message, especially given it directly followed a pointed appraisal of Australia’s youth development infrastructure, during which he called on Football Australia to conduct a thorough review of its set-up. He joked that if he had the power to change the status quo he would “hire about 150 people”.
They were the words of somebody who very much has his future in his own hands. “Over the four and a half years we’ve gone through some difficult periods,” he said. If a new contract at the conclusion of the tournament in Qatar is not forthcoming, overseas clubs will likely come calling.
But he and his staff and players will always have this moment. “If there’s probably something that’s been proven right it’s that there’s one sporting team that unites a nation, and it’s the Socceroos,” Arnold said.
“The celebrations at Federation Square down in Melbourne just shows you football is alive and well in Australia, and putting smiles on Australian faces once is not enough – let’s do it some more times.”
He also sat next to Mat Leckie, the second-most experienced squad member behind only Mat Ryan, and explained to foreign press where football sits in the pecking order in Australia. “It is probably the fourth or fifth main sport after AFL, rugby league, rugby union and cricket,” he said. “And they call it soccer. So to leave a legacy is huge.”
Despite everything, there is a legacy. And for 32 minutes inside Doha’s main media centre, Arnold could speak about a match that is, at the same time, the biggest of his career and the one without the pressure of the others. One more dawn. One more day. One day more.