Six minutes that exposed Australia's soul

by Michael Huguenin on Aug 09, 2011

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It only took six minutes.

Spain destroyed any chance Australia had of qualifying for the knockout stages of the World Youth Cup in just 360 seconds.

The Spaniards’ first two goals came before the Aussies had even worked out what was going on. Fourteen minutes later and the Young Socceroos were utterly embarrassed.

Four goals. Easily created. Expertly finished. Spain led the Young Socceroos 4-0 and any hopes of a fairytale finish were squashed. At the final whistle the score read 5-1.

It was a pathetic end to a disappointing tournament. This was supposed to be the new generation of Socceroos. The batch of players that would step up into the senior team and take us to Brazil. But now a large group of them have proven that they shouldn’t be anywhere near the Socceroos for many years (if ever).

What was Jan Versleijen thinking?

Before the match the Dutch manager said he wanted his team to take the game to the Spanish.

“Our aim is to press them from the start,” Versleijen revealed the day before the match.

“Don’t let them build up from the back. Don’t let them get into their game.”

But here’s the ugly truth Versleijen was ignoring. We had no chance of ever beating Spain.

In the past year or so I have seen both the senior Spanish national team and the Spanish Under 21s live and in the flesh. The Spanish system is now all pervasive. Every Spanish national team plays the same way. Tiki-taka has taken over.

Confidence is one thing, but going into a match against Spain saying that Australia would pressure from the start and not let the tournament favourites play was completely naïve. As our boys ran around like Energizer bunnies in the opening stages of the first half, they looked desperate. They had no idea how to beat Spain and were hoping that bluster would make the difference. It didn’t.

Plus, what did we learn?

After the match Versleijen mentioned that he’d been disappointed in his defence.

“It is very obvious that, in the first 15 minutes of this game, especially in the backline, we had some players that were not at a World Cup level,” Versleijen said.

News flash Jan. We’d already worked that out.

Against Ecuador the Young Socceroos’ defenders let their opponents through time and again. Australia’s back four was more like a sieve than a brick wall. Our boys got away with a draw but only because of a combination of poor finishing and great goalkeeping by Mark Birighitti. Ecuador had 8 shots on target but only scored once.

Against Costa Rica the theme continued. The Central Americans were too fast for our defenders, Marc Warren and Rhyan Grant had particular problems with their respective opponents out wide. Costa Rica had nine shots on target and scored three times. Again Birighitti saved Australia’s bacon on numerous occasions but it wasn’t enough.

Why didn’t we see some new defensive faces against Spain? Apart from Bernie Ibini-Isei, there were no new starting players in Versleijen’s line up. We already knew that the majority of players who’d performed so far in the tournament couldn’t cut it. That wasn’t going to change against Spain. So why not give some of the other guys a go?

Would Jake Barker-Daish, Petar Franjic or Corey Gameiro have made much of a difference against Spain? Probably not.

But if one of them had shown even an ounce of promise against such tough opposition it would have been clear to Australia’s coaching staff, led by Holger Osieck, that here was another gem to be nurtured into the Socceroos. Now we may not find out for another few years.

In the end Versleijen’s post match comments reveal the problem.

“When you have to play a third game against one of the better teams in this World Cup and you know you have to win this game, you have to also take some risks,” Versleijen said.

But who said we had to win the game? The Under 20 world championships in Colombia were supposed to be a learning experience. Maybe our boys could have learnt how to defend and counterattack against a superior opponent. Maybe some new faces could have had a chance despite the knowledge they would probably lose, just to see what they could achieve.

Putting out almost the same starting line up for the third successive match doesn’t provide that learning experience. The World Youth Cup was supposed to be a chance to see the future of the Socceroos. It’s hard to know what to think now.

Only three players had positive tournaments for Australia and could be considered for future Socceroos selection. Tommy Oar was easily Australia’s best. The speedster scored twice and hit the post once and while not dominant on his left wing, Oar did show some good stuff. Mark Birighitti had plenty of work to do and for the most part couldn’t be blamed for the goals conceded. The Adelaide United back-up pulled off some stunning saves during the tournament. Finally, Kerem Bulut managed to snag a goal against Spain. It was a deserved reward for the Czech Republic-based striker. Bulut battled hard throughout the tournament and showed that he can get into dangerous positions. With a little more luck ‘The Bullet’ might have scored a couple more goals.

In the past few years, Football Federation Australia has set out to improve Australia’s youth set up. This tournament in Colombia was a set back (as was the performance of the Joeys in Mexico) but it shouldn’t mean mass changes. Versleijen, in all likelihood will part ways, but FFA needs to believe in its system. Keep tinkering, keep improving, but the reality is we won’t see the fruits of an improved system for at least 10 years, probably closer to 20.

But here’s a tip for the FFA. Take a close look at what Spain has done over the past decade.