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In search of the elusive "Australian" football style

by Sebastian Hassett on Mar 23, 2018

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Whenever somebody asks me about what I like most about football, it is a simple answer. It is the only sport that provides a credible window into the national character.

Brazilians play the sport like they live their lives. Stereotypically, this means carefree and fun, which is true – to a point. Yet they’re immersed in a deeply conservative values’ system.

To me, this explains how the country can produce a ridiculously talented side in 1982 (that failed) but an incredibly pragmatic 1994 side (but succeeded). Brazil is a complex country; its football equally so. For the 5000 people on the Copacabana each day, there’s 50 million doing thankless labour. There are two sides to their narrative – but one is hidden from global view.

Of course, one must be incredibly careful about offering cultural stereotypes, but it’s undeniable that some nations boast different traits to others. And that’s what makes football so beautiful.

Germany is a country that balances industry, innovation and execution – with a great inner pride. They hate being outfoxed and, generally-speaking, are excellent at working out solutions to problems or isolating the “next” evolution. Our sport being a prime example.

Football is also where a nation’s best and worst qualities get exposed. The best nations are those which maximise their strengths whilst harmonising their weaknesses.

I can’t think of a better example than France. In 1998, 2000 and 2006, they doubled down on the job at hand and were a single penalty away from conquering three tournaments in four years. Yet has anyone had greater implosions than Les Blues suffered in 2002 and 2010?

In Australia, we are constantly wondering about who should influence us. Back in 1998-2000, we were messianic about Aime Jacquet, Clarefontaine and being the next France.

But wait! Brazil were champions in 2002 – and I can remember the big push to embrace the Latin rhythm, undoubtedly influenced by the final exalts of Johnny Warren, who begged Australians to both love and play the game like Brazilians.

Then came the big bang: Guus Hiddink. For Australia, it was all the way with what the Oranje say. We embarked on a decade of slavish KNVB methodology. Now the mention of “Dutch” in Australian football is followed by a suffix of “failure”, “broken system”, “robots” or, even worse, “mafia”.

Then Belgium produced a generation of superstars, so we grabbed a Belgian technical director. Yet then we went Dutch again with the national coach, who actively promotes ideas opposed to those espoused in the “Whole of Football plan”.

If you’re lost, don’t worry. Our football culture is an alphabet soup right now, flavoured by various innards of conflicting textures and origins. At some point, we need to pause and work out what’s actually in our soup, rather than adding random bits to it.

Indeed, some may say that this mix reflects Australia – and that’s probably true. We are far from a homogenous people and our evolving demographics reflect this.

As we go into our fourth consecutive World Cup, it’s a good time for a frank and honest appraisal of what we are and who we are.

Let’s ask ourselves some big questions. What do we do better than others? Where are we falling behind? For example: if we’re not a highly technical country, are we better served by a massive focus on changing this or working out how to optimise our other strengths?

Much has been talked about what we want to be, an active topic during the Ange Postecoglou era. But with his departure, and the dismantling of his vision, some reference points are badly needed.

We have been hurtling along one path at speed, but with that gone, we need to pull over and find out where we are on the map – and which road we ought to take next.

If I am completely honest, that sounds like Australian society as a whole. Rapidly changing before our eyes, but without a clear picture of where it is heading.

How ironic that our football culture, ever wandering, reflects this state of flux.