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What Australia can learn from Montenegro & Co

by Michael Huguenin on Oct 17, 2011

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As followers of football it’s very easy for us to look at the world in a conservative way.

It seems that football never changes. The winners keep winning, the losers keep losing. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Clubs from Spain, England, Italy and Germany consistently dominate the Champions League. The same countries keep qualifying for major tournaments time and again.

Most of us have probably subscribed to these kinds of ideas at one time or another. It seems that if your team (whether it be a club or a country) is unsuccessful now, it will always be so and vice versa.

But in the early hours of last Wednesday, Europe reminded us that change does occur. Minnows can become sharks.

The final matches of the Euro 2012 qualification groups were completed and the collection of countries that came out on top includes a couple of new contenders. While the automatic qualifiers (the group winners and the best second-placed country) are regular participants at European Championships and the World Cup, some of the teams that will be involved in the play-offs for the final four spots are on the rise.

Something’s happening in the eastern regions of Europe and it’s something that Australian football fans should keep an eye on.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia and Montenegro have all qualified for the European Championship play-offs for the first time. The three tiny countries (combined population around 5.8 million), all with Communist heritage and with a relatively short contemporary history of independence, have defied the status quo in European football and are on the verge of qualifying for Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine next year.

For Montenegro, which has a population of just fewer than 630,000, and is only five years old, the achievement is truly remarkable. Montenegro gained independence from Serbia in 2006 and its football association wasn’t a member of FIFA and UEFA in time for qualification for Euro 2008. Yet despite the collective inexperience of the newest Balkan nation, Montenegro managed to twice draw with Group G winners England and finish above Switzerland, Wales and Bulgaria.

Estonia’s achievement of getting out of Group C was possibly more impressive considering the country’s lack of football pedigree. During the Communist era, football was a distant second to basketball in terms of popularity. Football was seen as the sport of ‘stupid Russians’ and it was associated with the Soviet control of the Baltic state. Since independence in 1991, Estonian football has slowly grown, but to surpass 2010 World Cup participants, Serbia and Slovenia, in qualifying is a huge step forward.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has been consistently close to qualifying for major tournaments since it joined UEFA in 1998. Despite never qualifying for European Championship play-offs before, the country actually qualified for the play-offs to the 2010 World Cup before going down to Portugal 2-0 on aggregate. While the play-offs is a great achievement for the former war-torn country, Bosnians and Herzegovinians must be ruing what might have been. The nation went into its final qualifying match one point behind France and led the French for 38 minutes in Paris. Luckily for France, Sami Nasri scored a penalty with twelve minutes to go and the 1-1 draw sent Les Bleus through automatically ahead of the visitors.

The play-offs for Euro 2012 will be held next month and while it’s hard to expect all three of the above countries to proceed, it does exemplify a drift to the east in Europe, in terms of on-field performance. western and central European countries with strong football heritage such as Belgium, Scotland, Switzerland and Hungary are falling behind the rising minnows of the east.

This change can be both an inspiration and a warning to Australian football followers.

Australia is trying to break into the upper echelons of global football. The Socceroos have taken the first step by qualifying for two successive World Cups. But as Johnny Warren said, not long before his death, ‘it’s time Australia stopped talking about qualifying for World Cups and started talking about winning one’.

To do this will require massive upheaval. Australia will most likely have to achieve over a long period of time and produce hundreds (if not thousands) of top footballers before a man in a green and gold shirt holds that golden trophy aloft. But maybe we need to have a bit more belief that change can happen in world football. It wasn’t that long ago that Spain was the recurring laughing stock of major tournaments.

Change isn’t easy, but it can happen.

But the events in Europe this week are also a warning. The Socceroos should never get too comfortable in Asia. In the ocean that is the AFC, Australia is currently a shark but there are plenty of minnows ready to take us down a peg. In a confederation that is still finding its feet, there is always the possibility that a new power will emerge. China has obviously got huge potential with its financial clout and huge population, but the Socceroos’ World Cup qualifier against Thailand last month was a reminder that South East Asia shouldn’t be ignored.

The Socceroos, FFA and Australia in general need to keep focused. Football is dynamic. Winners can become losers, losers can become champions. As the Socceroos chase the global leaders like Spain, Germany and Brazil, our national team needs to be constantly reminded that there are plenty of Asian nations at their heels.