Socceroos relishing Australian return as Johnson pushes states to come to the table for future internationals

Football Australia CEO James Johnson has challenged states around Australia to come to the table if they want to host national team matches, as Graham Arnold and his Socceroos’ squad savour the prospect of playing in front of home fans for the first time in over two years. 

If the adage that good things come to those who wait rings true, then the fans that make their way to Paramatta Stadium for the Socceroos World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia next week are in for a bit of a treat: the game marking the end of a 763-day absence of Australia’s men from their home shores; their last game a 5-0 win over Nepal back in October of 2019. 

A win against coach Hervé Renard’s undefeated Al-Suqour enough to see the Socceroos re-ascend to the top of their group and a loss potentially sending them tumbling down to fourth, the game carries not only significant symbolic import, but also crucial footballing implications for the side’s hopes of securing one of two automatic qualification spots on offer in their group for next year’s World Cup in Qatar. 

The Australian’s squad for the fixtures was released on Friday: Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic, and striker Adam Taggart ruled out — the latter two through injury and the former forced back into quarantine in China — as Melbourne City trio Jamie Maclaren, Andrew Nabbout, and Mathew Leckie were all tapped to return. 

See Also: Socceroos set for significant Saudi test as A-League Men’s trio returns

But according to Arnold, the presence of a 12th player in the stands — something he declared to be a significant factor in his side’s 2-1 loss to Japan in October — is set to provide his side with its biggest boost.

“One thing I did learn from Japan is the effect that the crowd has and the energy that a crowd brings to a game,” the coach said on Friday.

“When [Japan] walked onto the pitch before the game, not having walked out in front of a crowd for a long time, the energy that the fans brought to the game… that helped them with that great start they had. By the time we got back in the game, the crowd again got in behind the Japanese players and they came home strong. 

See Also: Socceroos hit first bump on road to Qatar after record winning streak ended by Japan

See Also: Australia’s loss to Japan in World Cup qualifying a missed opportunity for Socceroos

“I expect the same thing on Thursday night against Saudi Arabia here in Sydney. The Socceroos have not played for a couple of years. We’ve played 11 out of 12 World Cup qualifiers away. 

“We need our 12th man. We need a full stadium to get behind these boys who have committed a lot to Australian football and our 12th man will get across the line. I’m appealing to all the fans here in Australia to get to the stadium. It’s going to be a fantastic night, the Socceroos are back in town and we can’t wait.”  

After so long away, the air of excitement that has come with the Socceroos return to Australia to play in front of home fans and with a prime-time kickoff has been undeniable. And for figures such as Arnold, who has effectively been living out of a suitcase for six months as he crisscrossed the globe in charge of the Socceroos and Olyroos, both a welcome homecoming and, with the next international break not until January, the sign of some much-deserved rest back at home on the horizon. 

Further, in examining the Socceroos form in Sydney, the weight of history suggests that there will be a clear footballing benefit to the return to Sydney as well. 

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However, that the return of national team football to Australia following its COVID-enforced shutdown has been entirely localised to New South Wales has also not gone without notice in other areas of the country, themselves eager to see the Socceroos and Matildas in action.

As has been oft-repeated, negotiations for the current slate of games began long before recent announcements surrounding the loosening of COVID-related restrictions around the country; the NSW government’s willingness to find a workaround for the then 14-day quarantine period that would allow games to take place in FIFA’s nine-day international windows meaning they were effectively locked in.

And Johnson, himself a Queenslander, batted away criticisms that his organisation was too NSW-centric on Friday; challenging other states to come to the table and work with Football Australia to meet the unique needs of staging international football. 

“I’ll throw the question back to states outside of NSW,” the executive said. “We are a national association, we do want to play in all parts of Australia. 

“The reality is that we could only play today in NSW; NSW is the only state that has been open to playing national team football at home within the 14-day quarantine period until today. 

“It’s a challenge. We’re asking other states: allow us to play in the 14-day quarantine period and you will get national team football — both men and women. 

“As soon as the rest of the country opens up and they can deal with the specificities of our code — which are different from other sports because players are released from clubs and there’s only a nine-day window in which they can be away from their clubs — we will be discussing it with them because we have a heap of national team football over the next 12 months.”

Melbourne, which last hosted a competitive Socceroos game in 2017, opened for fully vaccinated international and domestic travellers this month.

With the Matildas set to spend January competing in the 2022 Asian Cup in India, the next set of international fixtures confirmed to be hitting Australia in the months ahead will be Socceroos World Cup qualifiers against Vietnam and Japan in January and March respectively.

And according to the Football Australia CEO, the venue for these contests remains to be decided. 

“Everything is on the table at the moment,” he said. 

“We haven’t yet decided where the January home match will be. The January home match is against Vietnam and the March home game is against Japan — two big games. 

“There’s a lot of Vietnamese in the Australian community and that’s a crunch match for us. And obviously, Japan at home in the last round of the qualifiers is going to be a big game as well. 

“We haven’t yet determined where those matches will be but we will be looking at where we can play those matches, we’ll be looking at which states would allow us to stage those matches. 

“If [states like] Victoria want to come to the table of course that’s a conversation that we’re going to have for one of those two matches.”

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Header Image Credit: Football Australia

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