Farina's Forum

Welcome to what is going to be a very important year in Australian football history. I will take this opportunity to wish everyone a very safe and enjoyable 2005, as the Socceroos embark on the final journey to qualify for the 2006 World Cup.

Welcome to what is going to be a very important year in Australian football history. I will take this opportunity to wish everyone a very safe and enjoyable 2005, as the Socceroos embark on the final journey to qualify for the 2006 World Cup.

In this Forum, I will take a look back at the year of 2004 for both the Socceroos and Qantas Under 23-s and preview what lies ahead in 2005.   2004 was a very busy year for not only myself and the national and Olympic teams, but for most of our national teams. Overall I would have to say it was a relatively successful year and from a personal point of view a fairly satisfying one.

Looking at the calendar, we had something like 12 games for the Socceroos and a similar number for the Qantas Under 23 team that participated at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. That has meant a lot of traveling and juggling on not just my behalf, but from my national team staff and the players. Their commitment to the cause was first rate and I honestly couldn-t ask for a better group of people to work with.

The year started with the OFC Under 23 qualifiers in January, which were negotiated successfully, and finished with the Socceroos 2-2 draw against Norway.

The national team programme kicked off with a trip to Venezuela, which unfortunately copped a fair amount of bad publicity for a game that I considered vitally important for our preparation towards the World Cup in 2006. What-s more disappointing is that it probably overshadowed what was an excellent performance by the team. Despite the withdrawal of at least six to seven first team regulars, we almost came away with a deserved win, Venezuela equalising deep into injury time. We dominated the match, but probably the most pleasing aspect to come out of the game for me, was it showed that the depth of the squad is becoming stronger and stronger. Simon Colosimo came back into the fold as a central midfielder and was probably our best player, while Ahmad Elrich came on for his international debut after just 15 minutes and showed a lot of composure and hasn-t looked since. Nick Carle also made his Qantas Socceroo debut late in the match.

When I entered the job some five years ago, improving the depth of the national team was one of the key areas I wanted to improve on. It-s funny, you get criticised for not always picking particular players, but at the same time criticized for not bringing in youth and giving them international experience. In some cases, the blooding of players has been forced on us, but as I have always said I want to work with a squad of about 25-30 players and that will sometimes mean players will not be picked for certain games for differing reasons. The Solomons play-off was a classic example, where I had three players (Elrich, Colosimo and Ante Milicic) playing in Korea and Malaysia, where they play in the hot conditions and would be accustomed to the conditions we were likely to face in Honiara. All three played leading roles in the two games against the Solomons, but two missed out on the Norway squad, purely and simply because of squad rotation.

That-s been a pleasing thing in general, but especially that Venezuela game, as it showed we can pull players in at the last minute and they will perform.

South Africa was our next match, a home game in London at Loftus Road. It wasn-t a particularly resounding victory, if you like, but it was a win none-the-less and it was highlighted by Marco scoring a great goal, Tim Cahill making his debut and Max Vieri, brother of Italian superstar Christian, coming into the squad for the first time. In Tim-s case, he hasn-t looked back. We had a big crowd on hand, it was great to get the win and we added improvement to the squad, so it was a very valuable match for us to have.

May saw Turkey come to Australia, the strongest opponent to hit our shores since the World Cup qualifier in 2001. It was tough for the players, as most arrived in camp just before the first game and we did have a depleted squad, and I think it showed in that first half, although I don-t want to use it as an excuse for that performance in the first half. The first half we were terrible, deservedly we were 1-0 down, albeit, Mark Schwarzer probably made the worst mistake he-s made in a long, long time for the goal.

In the second half we came out and adjusted well as you would expect, grabbed an equaliser from Bresciano-s penalty, but then we conceded a soft goal after a defensive mix-up. Another mistake led to their third goal, but we had our chances in the second half and played much better than the first half.

The second game against Turkey, I thought we played quite well and probably deserved better than the 1-0 loss. It was a great strike from a free kick and there is not lot you can do about that, unless you don-t give the free kick away. The performance was very good and you want to see that where you are playing the same team twice, you don-t expect the second game to be worse than the first. You always hope the improvement is there and it was there, but unfortunately we lost. The important thing with those two games was the preparation for the Oceania Nations Cup and it set us up well for that tournament.

A week later we had the first match of the Oceania Nations Cup, a must win game against New Zealand. While we only won 1-0, I thought we always looked the most likely team to win the game. The expectations are there now that we should always beat the likes of NZ by more than one goal, but NZ has always shown that when they play Australia they lift and they certainly did that night. Some will say we made a mistake to play them first up, I thought it was a good idea and it worked in the end, obviously because we beat them. I think the intensity tended to drop as the games went on and that was shown in the last game.

It was good tournament for us, apart the last game against the Solomon Islands, which finished 2-2, but overall I was pretty happy with it all. Tim Cahill excelled and showed just why he was the target of a number of Premier League clubs, where he eventually settled on Everton, just prior to the Olympics. Having finished unbeaten, we were more than a little surprised that our opponent in the play-off would be the Solomons.

The play-off with the Solomons was quite an experience, not only for the team and myself, but the administration as well, from a logistics point of view. Virtually a whole new strategy was needed, with our biggest worry being the expected hot conditions we were likely to face in Honiara in the first game.

That did prove a major obstacle for us, luckily the players responded to the challenge and the first half of that game effectively killed the tie. In the second half the heat played its part, as we knew it was going to do, we just didn-t know how long we last through what were very oppressive conditions. Certainly in the second half we dropped off intensity, which is understandable in those conditions, as none of the players would have played in those conditions for many years. So to get the four goals in the first 20-25 minutes was very pleasing.

The second game in Sydney underlined the gulf in difference between the two sides, as the players responded with a good performance in front of good crowd in Sydney.

The most important thing however from our perspective, is that we learnt a lot from it and it has changed the way we want to do things a little. I was of the opinion that for the OFC World Cup qualifying play-off next September that we would play at home first, but after this experience, we will endeavour to keep it the same way, going there first and coming back to Australia for the second game. It was good in terms of a lot of things, not only learning about the conditions over there, but the team in how they performed, I thought was very professional.

Finally we had the Norway match and it was another match that we didn-t get the result we deserved. This match gave us a better indication of where we are at the moment and on the whole, we can be quite positive. I thought we had the better of the game throughout and when you consider this was the first time a few of the players had played in the system we are adopting at present, it was a good performance against a quality opponent. Norway are never an easy team to beat, but we gifted them both goals, or at least one of them, while I thought our goals were very well taken by Tim and Josip Skoko.

The Olympic Games campaign kicked off in January with the OFC qualifiers in Sydney. Despite some negative publicity from a few journalists about the quality within the team, the lads responded with some good displays in the group games. The play-off with New Zealand was a much tougher affair, although I thought the teams performance in the first leg was a good display. The final score probably didn-t do us justice and the second leg, saw New Zealand give us a bit of scare, before we managed to grab the vital goal we needed in the second half to get us through to the Olympics.

The preparation we got in the lead up to Athens was excellent, with matches against Japan and Korea, in similar conditions we would experience in Greece and then a final match against Costa Rica in Athens. I think there was a bit of a concern from many quarters leading up to the Olympics with the lack of preparation or lack of games. I think our staff and in particular our strength and conditioning trainer Anthony Crea put a fantastic programme together for us in terms of fitness for the players and the monitoring of it. I think it showed as we were in top shape physically when we went there and also by the lack of injuries. I don-t think we had one injury throughout the games and I think that was indicative of the programme we put in place.

We were arguably in the toughest group at the Olympics with matches against Tunisia, Serbia & Montenegro and tournament favourites and eventual winners Argentina.

We started with a fairly nervous 1-1 with Tunisia, in what was probably the worst performance of the four games we played. However the draw meant we could approach the next games with optimism.

The inclusion of Craig Moore, Tim Cahill and John Aloisi, as the three allotted over-age players, added significant experience to the squad and they came to the fore in the second game against Serbia. The players did superbly to win 5-1 and it was this result that sealed our passage through to the quarter finals.

The Argentina game, despite the 1-0 loss, was probably the best performance over the tournament, as we more than matched them and I feel we fully deserved to get something from the game. The Argentina side was virtually their full national side and their coach said that of the teams they played we were their toughest match, which is a huge rap for the players. The only downside from that game was the suspensions to Craig, Tim and Ahmad, which certainly took a lot away from the team for the quarter final against Iraq.

Football can be cruel sometimes and against Iraq was one of those games. Because of what they have been through with the war, they had everybody supporting them and willing them to win and I suppose their prayers were answered. We did everything to win the game, I thought we dominated most of the match, should have scored, did score but had it disallowed and they get a goal from nowhere with what was a spectacular finish. Football, like very few other sports, is like that sometimes where you can dominate possession and still lose the game.

Having said that, the Olympics were a fantastic experience for all of us there and overall I was pretty happy with how we performed. Overall it was good for the development of the players and exposure to international football.

One of the best aspects to come from the Olympics was the way the players adopted to the new system of play the coaching staff has implemented for both teams. We started it with the Olympic team and then progressed to the national team and basically it has added another string to our bow as they say. It-s a very attacking option and the players have responded very well.

Defensively we haven-t changed much at all, if anything. Basically when we go into attack we have three out and out strikers and when not in possession we have a very compact midfield area, which will enable us to win a lot of ball. The players reacted to it very well and all feel very comfortable with that formation. However how we play will sometimes be determined by who we play and the players must feel comfortable when we are playing a certain way, and if we need to change, which is likely, they are also comfortable with that.

Now, invariably I get asked about the best games and players throughout the year, so if I was to choose any standout games, the Argentina match, although it was a loss, was a highlight. We played exceptionally well and had enough chances to at least get a draw. The 5-1 win over Serbia & Montenegro was a highlight for the players and some of the quality goals that we scored and way we played would have silenced a few critics. From the Socceroos perspective, I thought the Venezuela game was very, very good, as we were dead unlucky not to win that one. Obviously the two wins against the Solomons to get through to the Confederations Cup were notable and good from a sporting perspective and also a PR perspective. The Norway performance I thought we played well enough to win and I can-t complain with the way we played.

Without a doubt names such as Cahill and Elrich are two that spring to mind quickly. Tim has come along in leaps and bounds since his debut against South Africa, while Ahmad had a terrific Olympic Games tournament and he has gone from strength to strength since breaking into the national team. Marco Bresciano has also continued to improve at the international level since coming onto the scene in 2003 and has had a great year. Young Luke Wilkshire has a pretty good year, in terms of breaking through to that next level, and Vinnie Grella has really come on and has filled the role Paul Okon had admirably and they are pretty big shoes to fill. Lucas Neill I think has been in consistent form since breaking into the team for the England game at the start of 2003.

However that not to say that any of the more seasoned internationals haven-t performed, with the likes of Brett Emerton coming back into good form, while Josip Skoko is another that is always a consistently high performer when he dons the green and gold for Australia.

The only real negative has been those people that continually question the backline and its average age, as we get closer to next years crucial World Cup qualifiers. As long as they perform at a consistently high level, I don-t see any problem with picking them for the national team. If I believe a player won-t be available for the 2006 World Cup then I won-t waste my time or his time playing in matches now. Tony Vidmar, Stan Lazaridis, Tony Popovic, Danny Tiatto and Kevin Muscat are possibly on the wrong side of 30, but they are all available for 2006 and whilst they are playing well, age doesn-t come into it. Tony Vidmar will be the oldest of the backline, but if you look at his season, he has been an ever-present for Cardiff and the national team and has performed very well. I can-t remember a game where he has performed poorly.

Craig Moore is still only 28 or 29 and I believe he still has another World Cup in him after this one and the same goes for Lucas Neill. You look at the likes of Ljubo Milicevic, who I think will come in once he has recovered from injury, while the likes of Patrick Kisnorbo, Johnny McKain and Adrian Madaschi will start to come through. You-ve also got the likes of Hayden Foxe, but he has been injured for a while now and that-s disappointing, because he was one of the next generation.

The introduction of Ron Smith halfway through 2004 has been very beneficial for us and given us an extra dimension. When you talk about the introduction of players like Tim breaking through which has added something to the team, well the introduction of Ron from a coaching front and analysis side of things has been invaluable for us. So all the little blocks, if you like, are starting to fall into place.

Looking ahead to 2005, it-s set to be twice as big as 2004. We are coming into the back end of a four-year campaign, off a good 2004 and we learned a lot of lessons from that year. Previewing 2005, we have the Confederations Cup, the national team programme is in place match wise, qualifiers are set down, so everything is moving along fairly well.

Next year will also see me spend more time in Europe and will be extremely beneficial for all concerned. If nothing else, I get to see a lot of football games, which is always good. It will hard on the family, but we have discussed it and to be successful with anything in life you have to make sacrifices sometimes and it-s one of those situations where we all want something, which is qualification for the World Cup and you don-t get given anything to you easily, so this just has to be done. I don-t necessarily see this as a sacrifice, but part of the job, as I-ll be seeing a lot of football. It would be silly going for the whole 12 months, but I will be going in large chunks where we are going to see the players, see the clubs and meet with managers if you like, which will be invaluable. It will be a lot of traveling, but it is a necessary part of the job.

Finally, I would like to say a big thank you to all the soccer fans out there for your support of the various national teams over the year and keep that support going in 2005. It-s set to be a big year, especially with the new Hyundai A-league to kick-off and most importantly, as we strive to make the 2006 World Cup Finals or ‘crack the nut- as my assistant Graham Arnold would say.    Cheers

Frank Farina.