Paul Marcuccitti

Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.

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Sweet home Oceania

    It's very easy, when one is an outsider, to assume that people in positions of power or influence know better. You might not like certain football writers, or administrators, or politicians, or businesspeople. You might consider many to be of ill repute. But there's a strong chance you think that they're doing what they're doing because they're better at it.

    Well, in case you suffered from that delusion, it's time you were enlightened because, in many cases, nothing could be further from the truth. I may be a football writer (albeit an amateur one) but I don't necessarily know more about the game than you do. The only difference between you and me is that I've decided to share my thoughts by having them published here on Planet World Cup.

    My full-time job is working for a politician and I've worked in politics for nearly five years. When I was a na´ve kid who (I can't believe I'm about to say this) looked up to politicians, I thought that they must possess some abilities and knowledge that I would be lucky ever to have. I now, personally, know dozens of politicians in different political parties. Some are government ministers. And, over the years, I've reached the painful realisation that most of them are utterly useless - not worth the leather seats they sit on. Some are lazy; some are disorganised; some are highly unintelligent; some are poor decision makers; and some are an unfortunate combination of most or all of those epithets. I still think it's a worthwhile profession but I have far more realistic (some would say cynical) views of it and the people involved in it.

    And seeing as I'm in criticising mode, why spare those in business (in Australia)? I don't have any life experience in business (well, not at a decision making level) but the recent World Cup finals have proven something I've believed for years - football, or soccer as it's best known down under, has tremendous support in this country.

    Corporate Australia simply hasn't had the foresight to pump its dollars into our sport. If soccer didn't have a following here, I would understand it. I don't expect companies to throw good money after a dud product - the world just doesn't work that way.

    I accept that Australian Rules football and the two rugby codes are popular - hey, I follow all of the above too. Next year the Rugby (Union) World Cup is coming to Australia. I'm organising my tickets already!

    But we've just seen that soccer (forgive me for using that name in this article) also has hundreds of thousands, no, millions of Australian fans. And potential sponsors, who could enter into a mutually beneficial relationship with the sport, are too stupid to realise. Don't even start me on Soccer Australia, this country's inept organising body for the sport - they're equally culpable for not being able to attract sponsorship.

    Now I apologise to the 96.6% of you that visit this website from other countries but this column, the first of a short series, is going to be about Australia and that sad football confederation we are a member of - Oceania.

    Still, barring the occasional mention, I haven't written about Australia since the Socceroos' qualifiers against Uruguay so I suppose it's time I talked, at length, about my homeland down under.

    I'm not exaggerating about the state of the sport in Australia when I say that it's on life support right now. The recent World Cup finals have cruelly exposed the gulf between where Australian soccer is and where it could be. Over 3.5 million people watched the World Cup Final. Yes, 3.5 million! In a country of about 20 million people where (according to the average, inward-looking sports journo) soccer has no future, that figure is nothing short of remarkable.

    Of course, there were some special circumstances. For once, the World Cup was live in prime time. (Usually Aussie soccer diehards are watching the Final at around 4 am.) Brazil-Germany not long after dinner was a luxury I'm not going to have again for a while. It made a change from the all night vigils that I held with some mates in 1994 and 1998.

    More Australians than ever were watching the World Cup yet, consequently, the absence of the Socceroos was a greater tragedy than it normally is. Perhaps the prospect of Australia versus France at 9.30 pm was too good to be true.

    So we saw how popular the game is but our national team - the vehicle that can best help the sport fulfil its potential in this country - was absent.

    In my very first WCA column I noted that, "Nothing ... could give the sport the exposure it needs like a 'Socceroo' appearance at the World Cup finals. Put bluntly, every failure to qualify sets Australian soccer back another four years."

    You see, I don't just want Australia at the World Cup finals for patriotic reasons, cheering on my country and all that. I want the inevitable by-product that our participation would bring - the focus of Australian sporting eyes on football of the round ball variety.

    The average Aussie, and I don't say that in a derogatory sense, knows a little bit about soccer but considers it an inferior sport to his/her beloved Australian Rules football or rugby. It (soccer) is a sport played and supported by "wogs" - people with funny surnames (like mine). Go through the names of some of the players from those fateful Uruguay games: Schwarzer, Muscat, Vidmar, Okon, Skoko, Lazaridis, Viduka, Agostino, Aloisi. Not quite Hill and Smith are they? And when we see players called Moore, Emerton, Kewell and Murphy, we assume that British and/or Irish heritage isn't more than a generation away.

    Readers in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and the few other countries where soccer is a minor sport might recognise this story. It certainly gave me great joy to see the US make the quarter-finals in Korea/Japan. I can't say I'm a student of the development of the game in the US. But I know this much - the old North American Soccer League collapsed in the 80s; there was no proper national league when the Americans qualified for the 1990 World Cup finals (after a 40 year absence); and the team they sent to that tournament was poor. Now, I see a country with, what appears to be, a successful domestic league and a national team which, in its fourth consecutive appearance at the finals, fully deserved its place in the World Cup's last eight.

    It's a turnaround that gives me hope. And in Australia, we need hope right now. Because Australian soccer recently reached its nadir.

    I'm not even talking about Uruguay - that was bad enough. But virtually unnoticed outside of my sweet home in Oceania was a tournament that Australia really needed to win - the Oceania Nations Cup.

    You might not even know that the Oceania Nations Cup exists. If you didn't I wouldn't blame you. And if you do know it exists, you might be wondering why it's so important for Australia to win. Is it because it's the only international soccer tournament we're capable of winning?

    A cynic (hmmm, I'm probably one) might suggest that it is indeed the only soccer trophy we can win. Maybe. But winning it would have given us two things: a place in the Confederations Cup ... and money.

    It's hard to know which of the two would be more useful right now. The five matches Australia played in the mighty Oceanic contest were the first "full internationals" played by the Socceroos since the loss in Montevideo. (Think about it, how many footballing nations go over half a year without playing an international?) As for the money, well, even though one million US dollars wouldn't have been enough to put Soccer Australia in the black, it sure wouldn't hurt!

    In case you hadn't already guessed, we lost. New Zealand defeated Australia 1-0 in the Final and we nearly didn't even make it that far. Australia was also 1-0 down in a semi-final against Tahiti. Yes, Tahiti! Only a very late goal by stalwart defender, Mehmet Durakovic, and a golden goal in extra time saved us from the kind of embarrassment that would make Faroe Islands 1 Austria 0 look run of the mill.

    [Canadian football fans might remember Durakovic. He's the chap who scored in the second half of the Australia-Canada World Cup qualifier in Sydney in 1993 to level the tie on aggregate. Extra time and a penalty shoot-out followed and Australia eventually advanced (to a meeting with Argentina and Maradona!) thanks to some goalkeeping heroics from a young Mark Schwarzer.]

    While I'm on the subject of Mehmet Durakovic ... what the hell is he doing still playing for the Socceroos? He's 36 years old and he plays in Australia's pathetic National Soccer League. Did he make Frank Farina's squad for the Uruguay games? Of course not.

    Durakovic was playing because none of Australia's 100+ European-based players, who are making a living out of the game, were asked to fly to New Zealand for this tournament. The problem? Allegedly, Soccer Australia's debts meant that we couldn't afford to have them.

    What fools. Now everyone's crying because of the money we're going to miss out on.

    I started this article by talking about how people in positions of power or influence don't necessarily know better. Consider these facts and see for yourself: In last year's World Cup qualifiers, Australia, with close to its best team, defeated New Zealand 6-1 over two legs; winning the Oceania Nations Cup would, as I've already mentioned, have been worth one million US dollars; and even if flying out and paying our best players - the chaps who played against New Zealand and Uruguay last year - cost something like, say, $10,000 US per head, that would still have only been a total outlay of around $200,000 US. What would you have done?

    Just over two weeks before the Oceanic tournament started, Soccer Australia hadn't even decided whether we'd be playing at all! Finally national coach, Frank Farina, was asked to assemble a team of players from the National Soccer League (a league where "stars" come from England's Conference League and Italy's Serie C2). And these blokes were not to be paid (except some travelling allowance). They were, essentially, asked to play for the love of the green and gold shirt. Presumably, after they won the tournament and earned the precious cash for Soccer Australia, they would have been sent back to NSL oblivion and Australia's "pros" would have come back into the team for the Confederations Cup.

    Except it didn't work out that way. We were lucky even to make the Final. Australia and New Zealand share a healthy sporting rivalry but I don't begrudge the Kiwis' victory. They took the tournament seriously and prepared well. I might be considered a heretic for saying it but when the New Zealanders take their place at the Confederations Cup, this Aussie, at least, will be cheering for them. They'll be flying the flag for poor old Oceania so good luck to them.

    [Incidentally, I certainly don't mean to pour scorn on Mehmet Durakovic and the other Aussie players who represented their country in New Zealand. Good on them for trying to win the tournament after being assembled at short notice during the NSL's off-season.]

    Meanwhile, in Australia, we're back into a familiar downward spiral. The national coach blames Soccer Australia for the Oceanic debacle and Soccer Australia blames the national coach. The entire Soccer Australia board has been told that it should resign for the good of the sport. The perception that soccer has been poorly run in Australia has been around for years but it's never reached anything like its current (high) level. The national team has no life - I can't tell you when the Socceroos are playing their next match. The sporting media, enraptured during the World Cup finals, are back to highlighting the many negatives surrounding the sport in this country. Nearly all of the 13 clubs in the NSL are in financial strife. Potential sponsors are in hiding. And most of the (few) politicians who know that soccer exists are bickering about the state of the sport.

These people know better? Somehow I doubt it.

    So could things possibly get any worse? Probably not. But maybe, just maybe, there is some hope on the horizon. Stay tuned.



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