He was ridiculed and written off, slammed for his tactics and selections, and nearly sacked three months ago.
Now Socceroos coach Graham Arnold is laughing last, having led his Australian side through do-or-die playoffs to stun hot favourites Peru and secure a place in a fifth-straight World Cup.
“The doubters don‘t bother me,” he declared after the win. “I only care about the players”.
The victory sealed by the defining moment of the coach’s career so far – a bombshell decision to substitute captain and keeper Mat Ryan in the final minute of extra time, bringing on Andrew Redmayne for the penalty shootout.
It was as risky as it was courageous; the kind of call that would infamously live on in Australian football folklore had it backfired – and almost certainly it would have been his final act as Socceroos coach.
Instead, veteran 33-year-old Sydney gloveman Redmayne, a controversial selection for this Socceroos camp, saved one penalty and saw another stopped by the post in a heroic cameo.
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When he took the top job in 2018, Arnold declared: “In my mindset, I believe that at the end of this we’ll be the greatest Socceroos team ever.”
That statement followed a disappointing World Cup performance in Russia, where Arnold watched from the stands as the Socceroos were outclassed 2-0 by Peru in their final group game.
Four years on – 1,008 days and 20 qualifying games after the journey to Qatar began – Arnold’s side has delivered the finest performance of his tenure to reach the big dance in Doha later this year.
Whether they are the greatest Socceroos team in history will rest on their efforts in November-December, with a brutal group featuring France, Tunisia and Denmark posing a massive challenge.
But qualifying is itself a remarkable achievement, particularly given the challenges of recent years.
“I believe this is one of the greatest achievements ever,” Arnold declared after the game, calling on Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to declare a national holiday.
Victory caps a stunning turnaround for the team, but even more so for the man in charge.
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Arnold’s announcement as Socceroos head coach in 2018 was met with plenty of scepticism from the Australian football community.
His record as caretaker boss of the side in 2006-07 (6 wins in 15 games) left plenty to be desired, while his impressive coaching record in the A-League was given little weight.
The criticism quickly grew more vocal. As defending champions and the second highest-ranked team entering the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, the Socceroos crashed out to the UAE in the quarterfinals, a dismally disappointing outcome.
There was a clear disjunct between his words and the results on the pitch. After just four games in charge he told Fox Sports: “I’ve been studying Liverpool a lot. That’s the system and the style we want to play.”
Liverpool’s dazzling attacking brilliance, lightning-quick passing moves and clinical finishing was a far cry from the Socceroos’ offence. But the wins started coming – and coming in droves. Against relative Asian minnows, the Socceroos made winning a habit, even if it wasn’t pretty.
They racked up 11-straight wins, a world record for a World Cup qualifying campaign.
In the meantime, Arnold took over the Under-23 side, the Olyroos. He guided them back to the Olympics for the first time since 2008 – when he was last in charge of that team – and then stunned the world by beating Argentina 2-0 in the opening match in Tokyo. Results dipped after that, but the young guns had been exposed to some of the best rising talents in the world, and been exposed to the eyes of the football world. Since then, a full eight members of that team have secured moves to European clubs.
Youngsters were at the heart of Arnold’s long-term plan. He inherited a team in transition and in need of a makeover. Legends were departing: Tim Cahill and Mile Jedinak were retiring, while veterans Mark Milligan and Robbie Kruse weren’t getting any younger.
To increase the depth in the squad, he deployed a whopping 48 different players including 17 debutants. It was on for young and old: 34-year-old naturalised citizen Bruno Fornaroli got a run, while a host of those Olyroos kids took the step up into the first team. Players were brought in from around the world, too – Martin Boyle and Harry Souttar suddenly were pulling on the green and gold thanks to family ties, never mind their accents.
The criticism of Arnold had quietened, but never disappeared. Never mind that the Socceroos took a two-year break from playing due to Covid-19, and hardly had the opportunity to train together even when action did resume. Australia’s border restrictions almost completely ruled out home games – just four of the 20 qualifying matches were on home soil – and stopped a raft of Australian-based players from travelling to multiple games. Others missed matches after contracting the illness.
Covid-19 had an even greater impact as the campaign wore on. Having spent months on the road away from his family, Arnold himself also contracted the virus twice, forcing him to miss two crucial Socceroos camps and coach via video calls.
Today, Arnold revealed he came within a hair of quitting due to the brutal toll the qualifying journey took on him. “I’ll be honest, there were times that I nearly walked away … The only reason that I didn’t walk away was because of the players.”
Immediately after the game, he told 10: “Really no one knows what those boys have been through to get to here.
“It was so hard you know, the whole campaign, and the way they’ve stuck at it and committed themselves to it, incredible.”
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With the Socceroos’ results collapsing – winning just once in their final seven group qualifiers – the criticism became a deafening roar. Not only were the Socceroos losing, the issues that had been covered up by victories were back and worse than ever. Many of those issues were painted as being down to Arnold. Dull, risk-averse, and lifeless in attack. A static game plan with no backup strategies. Poor selections.
Arnold certainly didn’t help his cause when he breached self-isolation regulations by taking a walk along the beach while Covid-19-positive, ahead of the crucial clash with Japan in March. That dismal defeat in Sydney ended Australia’s hopes of automatic qualification – and it all-but-ended Arnold’s time in charge of the team. Football Australia considered hiring a coach for the playoffs, not that there was much confidence in the squad set with the task of beating the UAE and Peru.
In the end, Football Australia declared Arnold would remain, having slapped him with a $25,000 fine for the Covid-19 breach. They named ‘certainty’ and ‘a stable environment’ as the key factors in the decision. CEO James Johnson said Arnold ‘still has the opportunity to finish the job’ he was signed to do back in 2018. The message was clear: this was Arnold’s ship, and he would go down with it – or pull off the miraculous.
Entering the camp a fortnight ago, the Socceroos copped even more blows. Tom Rogic withdrew for personal reasons, while regular centre-back Trent Sainsbury was injured. Having been criticised for years over his selections and his tactics, Arnold responded by making bold changes to both.
In a friendly against Jordan, the last warm-up before last week’s do-or-die clash against the UAE, Arnold fielded a surprise new-look squad. Six of the players that were used in that game took no part in the matches against the UAE or Peru. It included a debut for young centre-back Kye Rowles alongside Bailey Wright, who hadn’t played for the Socceroos since 2019. Arnold also tinkered heavily with the tactics, keeping his fullbacks narrow and defensive – the polar opposite of how he had deployed them over the past three years.
Against the UAE, Arnold again rolled the dice: Rowles and right back Nathaniel Atkinson both were given just their second caps. Wright remained. The team overcame a sloppy start to deliver a brilliant second half and a 2-1 win. 68th-ranked UAE was the highest-ranked opponent Arnold’s Socceroos had beaten in his entire tenure – and it was arguably the best performance they had delivered in his three years in charge.
Even so, Peru was always going to be a different level. Ranked 22nd in the world, they are a slick and well-drilled unit. Since the 2018 World Cup, when they battered the Socceroos, they had finished in the top four at the Copa America twice, beaten Brazil, and finished fifth in the brutal CONMEBOL qualification conference. No wonder they were heavy favourites.
But Arnold delivered another masterclass of selections and tactics. He backed Atkinson to improve on his difficult game against the UAE. Atkinson copped a yellow card with an early wobble, but never looked like being sent off – or beaten – from that point on. Rowles and Wright were outstanding, rewarding Arnold for sticking true rather than turning back to regular centre backs Trent Sainsbury and Milos Degenek. Mitch Duke was brilliant at centre-forward, his aerial prowess giving the Socceroos the ability to use long balls more frequently than against the UAE.
The narrow, restrained use of the fullbacks also worked wonders, almost completely nullifying the dangerous Peruvian attack. And just as importantly as the selections or the tactics was the mindset he had reiterated for weeks leading up to the match: the reiteration of the ‘Aussie DNA’, the underdog mentality, the need to fight until the end. The Socceroos showed that fight from the opening minute, from the youngest player to the oldest.
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The first half was arguably the best 45 minutes the Socceroos had played in four years. As the match wore on, Arnold turned to his bench. Each and every substitute made an impact – like Jamie Maclaren, Awer Mabil, and Craig Goodwin who ALL scored penalties in the shootout. And then there was the defining moment of the match, one that took everyone by surprise – even the Australian players.
Captain Ryan was off. Andrew Redmayne was on. It was a career-defining call from Arnold. It was brave, it was gutsy, and it threw a middle finger up to all the nay-sayers. It was the epitome of that ‘Aussie DNA’ he had drilled into his players.
It worked. Arnold had delivered the finest victory of his Socceroos career. The players bought into his philosophy and his tactics, and each one played his part, whether that was for one minute or 120. The Socceroos are back in the World Cup for a fifth-straight time.
“The doubters don’t bother me,” Arnold said. After today, those doubters must be eating their words.
Arnold promised the Socceroos would get the job done, and they did – courtesy of a coaching masterclass and the best performance in four difficult years.
They’re still a long way from being “the greatest Socceroos team ever”. But today they walked in the footsteps of the golden generation – beating a South American team in a penalty shootout for a place in the World Cup.
What comes next could make Arnold’s grandest claim a reality.