Sunday, July 21, 2024

The Australian way to qualify for the World Cup


The last valid matches for the men’s World Cup qualifiers were played in Qatar next winter these days. Wales qualified by defeating Ukraine and completed the drawing European teams. Costa Rica won one of the two intercontinental matches against New Zealand, while Australia won the other against Peru on penalties: so they will play the World Cup for the fifth time in a row, having played only once in the previous 17 editions.

Australia’s road to the Asian Qualifiers was more complex than its predecessors and perhaps also the most complicated given the 32 finalists. Due to stringent restrictions imposed by the Australian government during the pandemic, between 2019 and 2021, the team played 16 of their 20 qualifying matches overseas, and chose two Persian Gulf nations – Kuwait and Qatar – as temporary locations for their matches. For regulatory reasons, being more or less halfway between Oceania and Europe, the two continents from which most of its players come.

Despite being geographically part of Oceania, Australian football is considered part of Asia, having chosen to play in 2006 to compete in a more competitive setting than ocean liners, where the only contender for the match is New Zealand. However, Asia is made up of 49 countries, which makes the World Cup qualifiers long and complicated. The Australian national team is among the most popular, but the performance in around twenty matches must be consistent to reach the top four on this big continent.

It wasn’t the case, and Australia were only the fifth team in the crucial stage of qualifying, trailing by a draw against well-known opponents such as China and Oman. To get to the World Cup, it was then necessary to go through the play-offs: the first match against the United Arab Emirates, which he won for hair A goal in the last minutes, and finally the decisive goal against Peru.

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In the playoff against the South American national team, the starting favourite, Andrew Redmayne, the team’s third goalkeeper, was decisive, and was specially brought in for the penalty shootout in place of defending champion Matthew Ryan. Redmayne, recognizable by his long beard, tried to distract and intimidate his opponents with ridiculous ballet dances that seemed to have little effect until the last penalty kick. However, Redmayne managed to avoid a kick, the last and decisive, from Peruvian striker Alex Valera’s, thus becoming “qualified man” for Australian newspapers.

Redmayne is part of one of the two groups that roughly make up the Australian national team, the team of players born and raised in Australia who play in the national championship. It’s also the minority group, with 35 players being part of the selection, more than half of whom are of foreign origin. Among these, there are at least seventeen different nationalities, including Italians, Maltese, Japanese, South Sudanese, and Greeks. One of them attacks the wing Awer Mabel, a South Sudanese citizen who was born in a refugee camp in Kenya and was welcomed as a refugee in Australia sixteen years ago. After the victory over Peru, in which he scored one of the penalties, he said: “Only in this way can I thank Australia on behalf of my whole family.”

The presence of so many ethnic groups is nothing new, which is normal for a nation that was colonized only by the British in the eighteenth century and since then has been the destination of large immigration flows periodically coming from all over the world, including Europe and Italy. The many ethnic groups that make up the Australian population are well represented in football, more so than in other national sports such as cricket, rugby and Australian football, and many hope that aboriginal Australians, the true aborigines, will soon find more space too.

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In the World Cup squad, led by Graham Arnold, there will be Bruno Fornaroli, Nick D’Agostino and Marco Tellio, who share their Italian ancestry even if the former is an Australian naturalized in Uruguay and the latter is of Maltese descent, as another teammate, Jimmy McClaren, a Scottish from father’s hand. Kenny Dougal, who is of Thai descent, also has Scottish citizenship, while Agden Hostic could have chosen to play for Austria, Bosnia or Romania before deciding on Australia, the country in which he was born. The Balkan group is also numerous, which in addition to Hrustic counts second goalkeeper Dani Vukovic, defenders Milos Degenek, Aziz Behich and Fran Karacic, Brescia full-back of Croatian origin.

Karači, with 29-year-old Martin Boyle, born in Aberdeen, Scotland, had never been to Australia before accepting his first call-up to the national team just a year ago, while he was among several British-born players in the title role. Chosen, Jackson Irvine and Billy Wright left Australia as children to continue their careers in the United Kingdom, where they still play today.

Among those playing in the UK leagues, one of the most famous is Tom Rogic, a Serbian-born attacking midfielder who has played for Celtic Glasgow for the past eight years and is now looking for a new team. Rojic didn’t have a traditional footballing path: he trained at Nike Academy, the youth football academy run by Nike between 2009 and 2017 that gave youngsters without a contract a second chance, aiming to help them with that. Grow and find them a professional team they can play on.

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