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Australia fires head coach, but problems likely to persist

Oct 12, 2013, 8:53 PM EDT

Australia's coach Osieck reacts during a friendly soccer match against France in Paris Reuters

Let’s consider the implications of this tweet from Tim Cahill:

That was the Australian international reacting to news his national team had fired their head coach, Holger Osieck. The German boss had steered the Socceroos through Asian World Cup Qualifying but had also been at the helm to two straight 6-0 defeats (to Brazil and France). After Friday’s thrashing, the former Fenerbahçe, Urawa Red Diamonds, and Canadian national team boss was dismissed ahead of a Tuesday friendly against the Canucks.

The decision wasn’t much of a surprise. Holger was asked about the possibility in Paris after the latest loss, ultimately admitting the lopsided results provided “food for discussion.” On Australian television, former Australian international Mark Bosnich said “Holger would do the right thing” and “walk away,” while Robbie Slater, another former Socceroo said “[the Football Federation Australia] need to sack him.”

But back to Cahill’s tweet – a piece of loyal if contrarian sentiment. One implication would be anything that happens on the field after Australia qualifies for a World Cup should be overlooked, a slightly paradoxical sentiment considering the team was disappointed not to have made it out of their group in South Africa. Aspiring to contend for a final 16 spot in Brazil, Australia’s form over the next eight months is fair game. That they’ve been demolished by two likely World Cup teams (France has yet to qualify) hints the team’s not ready to match their federation’s ambition.

Which, as it turns out, is exactly why the FFA let him go:

The FFA Chairman Frank Lowy AC said the long-term interests of Australian football were paramount in making the change.

“The decision is based on the longer term issues of the rejuvenation of the Socceroos team and the preparations for the World Cup and the Asian Cup,” said Lowy.

“FFA has set a strategic objective of having a highly competitive team in Brazil and then handing over a team capable of winning the Asian Cup on home soil in January 2015.

“We have come to the conclusion that change is necessary to meet those objectives.

It’s difficult to argue Australia was on a path to be “highly competitive” in Brazil. Thus, Osieck was let go, though by that standard, it’s unclear why he lasted this long.

In the 2010 cycle, Australia — debuting in Asian qualifying — surprised many by breezing through qualifying. Under Guus Hiddink disciple Pim Verbeek, the Socceroos won six and drew two in eight final round qualifiers, finishing five points ahead of Japan in Asia’s group A. For a team that was taking a huge step up in competition, moving to the confederation from Oceania, it was an unexpectedly dominant performance. In those final eight games, they only conceded once.

There was something strange about their run, though – something that needed to be corrected before this cycle. In moving to Asia, Australia brought a new, physical, direct style to the region characterized by that’s come to be dominated by Japan and South Korea’s combination of acumen, technique, fitness, and speed. Perhaps underestimating what Australia brought, Asia failed to adjust, a naivete that was unlikely to last beyond a single cycle.

This time around, Australia won only three of their eight final round qualifiers, finishing four points behind Japan. Thanks to four draws (and only one loss), they beat Jordan to Group B’s second automatic qualifying spot, but having allowed seven goals in eight games, their dominance was clearly over. Teams had adjusted.

source: Getty Images

Guus Hiddink, seem here as coach of Russian Premier League club Anzhi Makhachkala, led Australia to the Round of 16 at Germany 2006. The Dutchman is favored to return to Australia in the wake of Holger Osieck’s dismissal. (Photo: Getty Images.)

But if that was the only problem for Osieck, the 65-year-old, Australia could have adjusted. The confounding problem: Australia just doesn’t have the horses. They’re still relying on Lucas Neill (35 years old). Mark Bresciano, Brett Holman, Matt McKay, Luke Wilshire, and Mile Jedinak — all 29 or older — are mainstays, while Tim Cahill (33) remains a focal point.  Though some of these players have regressed from club roles in Europe, they remain key players for Australia.

And as their already limited squad has aged, few new talents have picked up the torch. Players like Robbie Kruse, James Holland, Nikita Rukavytsya, and Rhys Williams have their virtues, but none of them are going to push the team to the next level. Even with somebody like Tommy Oar (21) getting more time, Australia still lacks the individual talents to meet their federation’s ambition. once you factor in the age of the team’s core, the Socceroos look weaker than they did for 2010.

Perhaps that’s the argument to retain Osieck — that Australia just isn’t that good — but the FFA obviously disagrees, creating a no-win scenario for their coach. And in the FFA’s defense, back-to-back 6-0 losses are unacceptable. Even this limited squad should be playing much better.

But if Australia is hoping Guus Hiddink, the man immediately linked with a return to the job, can change their direction, they’re likely mistaken. Not only did the former Socceroos boss ultimately disappoint with Russia and Turkey, but he won’t have a chance to restock Australia’s shelves ahead of Brazil 2014.

Maybe the Dutchman can conjure some South Korea in 2002, Australia in 2006 magic. More likely: He’ll finally give the FFA reason to realize Australia’s limitations.

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