After an undefeated start on the road to Qatar for the Australia men's national team, the Socceroos will return to 2022 World Cup qualification next month for games against China and Vietnam with significant challenges -- both on and off the field -- to overcome.
Drawn alongside China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Japan for the next phase of Asian qualification, the Socceroos will need to finish in the top two of the group to secure automatic qualification for the finals. A third-place finish would force them into a playoff against the third-placed team from the AFC's Group A and then a subsequent intercontinental playoff.
After previously experiencing a 32-year absence from world soccer's biggest tournament, an appearance at what would be a fifth straight World Cup in Qatar would represent a remarkable achievement for Australia -- a longer consecutive run on the world's biggest stage than nations such as Uruguay, Belgium, Croatia and Iran.
Extending that streak would demonstrate the significant growth that has occurred in the sport, but it would also provide a significant and much-needed boost for a code that has struggled to attract sustained attention from the Australian mainstream in recent years, as well as one still looking to rebound from the effects of the COVID-19.
The 2023 Women's World Cup being held across Australia and New Zealand is a real boost to the Australia women's team. The Matildas remain one of the most beloved sporting sides in the nation, consistently generating goodwill in the community and in recent years they have served as the main driver of sponsorship for Football Australia - as shown by recent deals with Priceline, the Commonwealth Bank and Cadbury.
The Socceroos, by contrast, have been without a naming-rights sponsor since the end of 2019, when the team's long relationship with Caltex ended and Qantas reduced their support to an "in-kind" variety in September 2020 in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. "We have the Socceroos naming rights which, leading into [World Cup qualifying], we're hoping we can sell again," Football Australia CEO James Johnson said this week. However, the Socceroos quest to both make history and boost their fortunes via World Cup qualification has hit significant barriers even before they run out to face China on Sept. 3.
Unlike much of the rest of the world, Australia's slow vaccination rollout and stringent border controls demand 14 days of hotel quarantine for every new arrival in the country regardless of vaccination status. This means that, at present, Football Australia faces an insurmountable task in getting its overseas-based players, and their opponents, in and out of the country within the FIFA international window assigned to the qualifiers. The federation had hoped to negotiate with the Federal and New South Wales Government (NSW being the state most receptive to the proposal) to organise a "bubble" for both teams that would have allowed the fixture to take place in Sydney without the need for the 14-day quarantine. However, Sydney's ongoing lockdown in the face of an outbreak of the Delta variant of COVID-19 forced NSW -- unable to spare the necessary police and security -- to abandon those plans.
But with the Socceroos' home record significantly better than on the road, Johnson has not given up hope of coming qualifiers against Oman and Saudi Arabia being staged in Australia; the CEO throwing down a clear challenge to governments during a Zoom conference with journalists.
"We want to do everything we can to make this happen," he said. "We want the government at both federal and state levels to really act on facts and figures and logic.
"What we don't want is governments to act on optics, because we have evidence -- we have medical evidence -- that says the risk of us playing at home is zero to almost none. There's almost no community risk in transmission. There are optics around athletes getting exceptions but this is something that's very specific to Australia."
But that's a matter for the months ahead, with the current state of play meaning that the Socceroos preparations for the China fixture will have to take place outside the country -- likely in a Middle Eastern nation roughly equidistant from Australia and Europe -- and any A-League-based players selected face a two-week quarantine period upon their return home.
These requirements will force Socceroos coach Graham Arnold into a juggling act with his domestic-based players -- who would be forced into quarantine regardless if games were held overseas or in an Australian bubble -- ahead of not just the China and Vietnam games, but also the October and November windows with the A-League season nominally set to commence on Oct. 30.
"The days of just picking a player and making a statement and saying that he's in the squad and if he doesn't turn up he's suspended [are over]," Arnold said. "[Johnson] and Football Australia are talking to the clubs about the September and October windows because we need help, we need our best players.
"Obviously, we're communicating with the players, we're communicating with the clubs and the A-League clubs, September and October they may have FFA Cup games but I need our best players."
Johnson added: "We are speaking with clubs about when we can use the players. It's not practical for the players to go abroad and come back after nine days and sit 14 days in a hotel three months in a row.
"It's not good for players, the club or the national team because players won't be fit. We're trying to find pragmatic solutions with the clubs around trying to use the players for hopefully two out of three windows and what I can say is those conversations are going in the right direction. We've got some really sensible people in clubland and we'll find an agreement that works for us and A-League clubs."
It's a challenging set of circumstances, one that will require significant forward planning and could, possibly, open the door for surprise call-ups for players whose circumstances match the unique needs of their national team.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the depth the Socceroos currently hold in each position.
Socceroos depth chart ahead of 2022 World Cup qualification
Mitch Langerak's retirement from international football leaves Ryan -- assuming he's fit after injuring his knee in training with new club Real Sociedad -- as the undisputed No. 1 ahead of the China game. Vukovic, now at NEC Nijmegen, serves as the No. 2 while Thomas' continuing minutes overseas with SonderjyskE allow him to round out the roster.
Behich continues to serve as one of the most reliable names on the Socceroos' squad list, although he looks set to be challenged by Seattle Sounders' Smith and Hull City's Elder. Sydney FC prodigy Joel King lies waiting in the wings to pounce on any failings.
Degenek, Souttar, and Sainsbury are three of the easiest selections in this depth chart, with Deng's strong play at centre-back during the Olympics also earning him a place. Good brings left-footed touch, athleticism and consistency while McGowan, whose recent move to Kuwait SC means that getting to any Middle Eastern camps won't be a problem, earned significant praise from Arnold during the last phase of qualification.
Thanks to his strong play in the last phase of World Cup qualification and given that he is just beginning to enter his prime years, 25-year-old Karacic sneaks into No. 1 on the depth chart over incumbent Grant. If Atkinson keeps improving the way he has been, though, he could soon supplant both.
Despite missing the last round of qualification games due to personal reasons, Mooy remains one of the first names on Arnold's teamsheet when available, as does new St. Pauli signing Irvine. Recently moving to Toulouse in France, Genreau looms as a potential midfield general for the national side for the next decade while McGree and Metcalfe -- the latter understood to have some interest from, at least, Spain -- also look set for long stints in green-and-gold. James Holland, Kenny Dougall, Massimo Luongo and -- if he can bring his play back up to the end of 2019-20 A-League season levels -- Steven Ugarkovic are all options.
Like Mooy, Rogic's name is one that looms as a likely inclusion in every Socceroos squad he's available for -- although the strong play of Eintracht Frankfurt's Ajdin Hrustic is set to challenge his role as the side's starting playmaker. Arzani's play at the Olympics -- where Arnold said he found nine Socceroo contributors -- reminded the country of his potential and rare attributes for an Australian footballer. His ability to build fitness and run out 90 minutes at a new club Lommel is huge for his future prospects.
In his prime at 26 years old and even further removed from his ACL injury, expect Ikonomidis to be one of the stars of the A-League this season. Continuing to regularly play for FC Midtjylland and Hibernian respectively, Mabil and Boyle look set to be regulars through the Qatar 2022 cycle and beyond, while Borello and Goodwin will push for selection. Reno Piscopo, Jacob Italiano, and, given his heroics for Arnold in Tokyo, Lachlan Wales loom as heirs apparent -- although the latter may be better suited as a No. 9.
Melbourne City's new attacking duo look set to lead the way for the Socceroos incoming World Cup qualifiers, with Taggart's lack of game time at J1 League side Cerezo Osaka -- visa issues and injuries a significant hamper -- seeing him sit behind them. An overage player for Arnold at Tokyo 2020, Duke has recently signed with J2 League side Fagiano Okayama, while Juric -- the younger brother of Macarthur FC striker Tomi -- has recently arrived at Croatian powers and Champions League participants Dinamo Zagreb. Nikita Rukavytsya scored for fun in Israel but is currently a free agent.