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Where to after Joeys failure?

by John Davidson on Oct 01, 2012

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Australia’s old football foes Iran have delivered another devastating blow, this time at the junior level.

Australia will not play in next year’s under-17 World Cup after the Joeys were beaten 5-1 by Iran in the AFC U-16 Championship quarter-finals.

The loss is an undeniable blow – the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup is an important step in the development of our nation’s football talent. We have a proud history of competing at the under-17 tournament, which pits our best against the best in the world. Missing qualification also comes on the back of the Olyroos recently failing to make this year’s London Olympics.

Things were looking good for the Joeys early in the U-16 Championships, after they started the group stage with two wins. They accounted for Thailand 2-0, beat Oman 2-1 but then suffered a crucial defeat to Iraq. This came about through an unlucky penalty shoot-out loss, with the Joeys going down 3-2 from the spot.

This meant Australia finished second in the group and was drawn to play the hosts Iran in the quarters, the tougher opponent. Hardly ideal, but penalty shoot-outs are a lottery. The winners of all four quarters received automatic qualification to next year’s World Cup.

The Joeys rested eight players from the starting XI of the first two matches for the Iraq game, to keep them fresh for the quarter-final. With three games in five days, this made perfect sense. Of course, now, with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to say this could have been a big mistake.

While the Joeys did make the quarters, they lost the crucial Iraq game and had to play the hosts in front of a big, parochial crowd.

And then Iran was in rampant form in the quarter-final, knocking in four straight goals before Australia could reply in the 88th minute. Iran then added insult to injury with a fifth goal in stoppage time. Our old enemy from the MCG in 1997 was back to strike another dagger into Aussie hearts.

The AFC website stated that “Australia looked second-best in every department to the imperious Iranians”.

Quoted in the website, Joeys coach Alistair Edwards said: “"Of course we had hoped we would qualify and we didn't expect such a result but Iran played a high-pressure game and didn't allow us to get into our rhythm. We made too many mistakes at times but again this was mainly down to Iran's pressure.
“At the end of the day Iran played much better than us and deserved their victory.”

So where did the Joeys go wrong? Let me first say that playing the home nation in any tournament is not easy, particularly at this age level. Reading the match report it seems as though the very young Aussie team might have let the occasion get the better of them, which is understandable.

Heading into the tournament the Joeys were in good form, had a solid preparation and a talented squad. They had beaten Indonesia 5-2, Guam 10-0, Hong Kong 1-0, Myanmar 4-0 and lost to Thailand 3-2 in the AFC Championship qualifiers. They had been to Bolivia to prepare, training at altitude and playing against local sides there, and also traveled to Saudi Arabia to play a competition. Earlier this year the Joeys were in Laos where they were up against Japan, Thailand and the hosts. They managed to reach the final of that comp, where we drew 1-1 and lost 3-1 to Japan – the benchmark of Asian football – which is fair results.

This squad boasted two overseas players and a host of AIS talent, with the likes of Taylor Tombides, Josh MacDonald and Steve Kuzamanovski particular standouts.
So the signs heading into the Championships were promising.

As I wrote earlier this year “Having seem them train recently in the flesh at Blacktown Olympic Park, under the watchful gaze of technical director Han Berger, I can say the Joeys are not short of talent, desire or ambition. They seem a technically astute bunch eager to learn and succeed. Considering the current debate around Australia’s football development structures, there will no shortage of eyes keenly watching their progression over the next two months.”

Debate will surely rage around the failure to qualify for the Under-17 World Cup. It’s an unfortunate occurrence we hardly need, but there shouldn’t be scape-goating.

We do need some perspective. This Joeys squad was well coached by Alistair Edwards and Tony Vidmar. They were a well-prepared and talented bunch, taught to play the right way. They set out to impose their positive style of football on their opponents – keeping the ball and playing out from defence – which remains a risky approach. It doesn’t always work.

Football, as in life, is far from straightforward. You don’t always get what you want, and the Joeys had little luck in Iran. It wasn’t their day in the quarter-final. The reminder is that qualification is never a given until it is achieved.

The failure to qualify is also another reminder that the Asian confederation is not a walk in the park for our footballers – at any age or for either gender.

Most importantly, Asia’s vast number of footballing countries are pouring all their efforts and resources into junior development and we must do the same, or risk getting left further behind. This is no for half-measures or hysteria.

Bumps in the road remain on our journey to becoming a better football nation.