Joey LynchAustralia Correspondent9 Minute Reading
On Thursday, the trip will start again. The Socceroos will host Bangladesh at AAMI Park in Melbourne, the first game of Australia’s AFC World Cup qualifying campaign and the first step in a journey that coach Graham Arnold hopes will culminate in the 2026 FIFA World Cup, 950 days ago.
Since AAMI Park saw the last games of the legendary international careers of Megan Rapinoe, Christine Sinclair, and Marta just a few months ago, it felt right to host the beginning of a new dream there today.
Qualification for 2026 — which will be held in the United States, Canada and Mexico — will make it six consecutive men’s World Cup appearances for Australia, a remarkable feat as they have not qualified for a tournament between 1974 and 2006.
– WATCH ESPN’s in-depth interview with Graham Arnold on YouTube
“The first game of a new cycle, if you can play it on home soil, in your hometown, it doesn’t get any better,” said Melbourne-born Socceroos midfielder Jackson Irvine.
For Arnold, however, Thursday is not just special because it is the start of a new cycle, where he has the chance to become the first coach in Socceroos history to lead his country to two World Cups. He’s guaranteed to make history this week: Passing Frank Farina into sole possession of the record for most games in charge of the national team as he coaches his 59th game.
The hair on Arnold’s head became more white than the gray color when he was appointed to his position in 2018, accompanied by a beard of the same color. The natural process of aging, of course, but it is inevitable to wonder if the teaching period dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and marked by some as very high and very low has something to do with it too; the football version of before-and-after photos of politicians after taking office.
As he spoke to ESPN on the eve of the new chapter, however, it was clear that the belief and the emphasis on setting one’s own standards and expectations remained. That’s who the 60-year-old is and it’s what brought him this far. He will not change. Thus, there is talk of more energy in the coming years, more performances and efforts, and many other cries. Arnold without these things would be like a dog that has stopped eating; that’s when you know something is wrong.
But at the same time, there is also a bit of bombast about him now. He came across as gentle, secure in his position and his heritage, with a greater emphasis on how that could be used for a greater purpose.
“There have been good lessons in the last four or five years,” he thought. “Times change, and as generations go on I believe communication is the biggest key.
“What I’ve done, and what I’ve been trying to do for the last four years is talk to the players a lot, whether it’s picking up the phone or texting.”
Indeed, times have changed since Arnold first led the Socceroos. Almost 20 years have passed since that debut, an Asian Cup qualifying win over Kuwait in which Travis Dodd and Sasho Petrovski were on the scoresheet and Arnold’s future coaching rival Kevin Muscat wore the armband of captain Previously, he acted as a caretaker, stepping in after Guus Hiddink’s departure after the 2006 World Cup, with the hope that that stint would be permanently cut short when the Socceroos scrapped in the group stages of the 2007 Asian Cup. before being eliminated by Japan in the quarterfinals.
With the literal birth of a website called “sackarnold.com”, it’s not the best of first impressions. But it’s a period that Arnold sees as simultaneously something he wishes he hadn’t done but also one of the most important lessons of his coaching career – lessons he can implement when he replaces Bert van Marwijk at the helm of the Socceroos in 2018.
But you don’t get to 59 games with any national team with just one low point. And although the comparison with the current feeling of affection around the team is striking, it was not so long ago – March 2022 – that the Socceroos reached their lowest blow in Arnold’s second stint: A sluggish 2-0 defeat to Japan at the Sydney Football Stadium, condemning the Socceroos to a dreaded intercontinental playoff to qualify for the Qatar World Cup.
A number of Football Australia figures have come out against Arnold, leading to a report in The Age saying the ax was imminent. With the writing seemingly on the wall, previously supportive voices began openly posting about a replacement, adding more pressure to the coach. Adding insult to injury, the Socceroos boss was also dealing with COVID in the lead-up to that game, and was fined $25,000 by Football Australia for breaching self-isolation protocols in New South Wales.
“It’s probably one of the hardest times you can go through with COVID,” Arnold recalled. “The players are stressed out of the eyeballs just having to get to Australia; the trip is a nightmare.
“If we do get back to Australia, the pressure they’ll get from their clubs not to go because if they come and come back with COVID, they’re basically out of the squad for months on end.
“When we were allowed to come back to play here in Australia, [it was]: ‘Okay, the boys have to go back now we are allowed to play in Australia, but you can’t see your families. You can’t see your friends.’
“I learned, maybe the hard way, not to listen to people’s voices. I was able to set my own ways and focus only on the players. [and] what’s right for the players.”
In the end, Football Australia didn’t or couldn’t pull the trigger.
Then Andrew Redmayne danced a jig against Peru. Then Harry Souttar put in a final sliding challenge on Taha Yassine Khenissi. And then Mat Leckie scored a breakaway goal against Denmark. In short, everything changed. In a dramatic way.
Today, the memories of Japan’s loss feel very distant. The sweetest cure for the animus is success, and even if it’s completely destroyed when things take a turn — Arnold has been in the game long enough to joke about the negative attention he knows is coming. with bad results – the World Cup was followed by positive performances against global powers such as Argentina, Mexico, and England, as well as national team debuts for emerging stars such as Alex Robertson and Samuel Silvera.
Both the start of World Cup qualification, and the Asian Cup in January, present a new challenge for Arnold. Lately, the Socceroos have largely been able to operate as a reactive team: Handing over possession, maintaining a backs-to-the-wall defensive block that fits in closely, us-against-the-world mentality, and looks to feast on transition and set pieces.
But against Asian opposition, apart from heavyweights like Japan and Saudi Arabia, the roles are reversed. It’s the Socceroos who have to be active and destroy the parked buses in bad and challenging environments. This won’t be an issue against foes like Bangladesh, where the talent gulf is significant, but at some point they will have to show the conditions that led to Japan’s nadir have been addressed.
“When you play against these types of countries, it’s all about technical skills and that part of it,” Arnold explained when asked about the challenges of this cycle.
“I call it, in many ways ‘Backyard football time,’ because you have to show what your qualities are with the ball.”
Arnold says the Socceroos get more respect overseas than in Australia. And he may be right, although this esteem may be inflated by said international figures who have not seen the Socceroos bluntly draw the likes of Oman and China in the necessary qualifiers.
But the reputation the coach has built with his undeniable success over the past 12 months, boosted by rising respectability for Australian football more broadly, has also brought him other kinds of attention. Scottish Premiership side Hibernian offered Arnold a head coaching role in August, but was rebuffed, while clubs across the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia and the United States have all shown interest in the 60-year-old’s signature.
What will it take to get Arnold out of his Socceroos deal that takes him until the end of the 2026 cycle?
“Something special, I’ll be honest, it would have to be something special,” he smiled. “This badge in my heart, the Aussie badge has always been something unique and special.”