Graham Arnold lived out of a suitcase for seven months during 2021. World Cup qualifiers had resumed after a lengthy Covid-enforced hiatus, but Australia’s strict border restrictions made it next to impossible to host home games. Opponents were not willing to complete the 14 days of hotel quarantine. Neither were some of his own overseas-based players, and even those who were faced resistance from their clubs.
So Arnold left home bound for various parts of Asia, navigating a labyrinth of fixtures across the world’s largest continent when few international flights were running and border restrictions varied. The 59-year-old stayed in Dubai for some locked-down periods, and regularly oversaw matches on the back of only one full training session with a squad that was regularly changing.
All up, 45 players participated in the Socceroos’ qualifying campaign, a 20-match odyssey over 1,008 days featuring hundreds of thousands of kilometres in travel across 10 countries. Arnold, away from family and friends in Sydney, spent his days “sat there looking at the walls” and ruminating about results and players’ wellbeing.
Less than a year later, after March’s loss to Japan sent the besieged Socceroos to two qualifying playoffs, Arnold was almost sacked. He saved his skin three months after that by beating the United Arab Emirates and Peru – the latter on a penalty shootout in which the goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne made international headlines for his wiggling – to qualify.
Five months on, he has taken Australia to a first win at a finals in 12 years, first back-to-back wins in history, and the knockout stages for the first time since 2006. On the eve of Australia’s last-16 meeting with Argentina at Doha’s Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, Arnold jokes he “was going to write a book on it all”.
“I think the universe is paying us back for all the hard work we’ve done,” he said. “The universe is looking down on us and repaying the support and sacrifices that the players and staff made through all that.
“And I’m trying to look at the positives, but I do believe this has been crucial, that Covid helped unite this team together and create the family culture of mateship. Because these boys were in lockdown in hotels, they couldn’t go off the floor they were on and had to be with each other in the social room playing pool or table tennis. That really united the players as a family.”
There was another silver lining in the Socceroos’ nomadic existence: they played five World Cup qualifiers in Doha, which ensured they were well acclimatised to the environment and playing in the air-conditioned stadiums. “We’ve now won six out of seven games here in Qatar. It is, for us, a home away from home.”
Arnold took over the Socceroos after the 2018 World Cup and quickly learned why the job he held is perhaps Australian sport’s most underappreciated and unrewarding one. The fact he was replacing an interim coach in Bert van Marwijk – Ange Postecoglou had qualified his team for Russia and then quit in frustration months before the tournament – said it all.
Football in Australia is a minority sport battling for relevance and cash, and run by a network of competing agendas. Nonetheless, in a country known for its sporting achievement, expectations have remained high. Since November 2005, when John Aloisi’s famous playoff penalty against Uruguay broke a World Cup drought dating to 1974, qualification has been the minimum requirement.
Arnold’s career depended on his ability to carry the team to Qatar 2022. His polarising reputation (see the aforementioned politics), along with a short-lived tenure overseeing the Socceroos for a year between 2006 and 2007, meant sympathy for the unique challenges in his path was less forthcoming. Former players – some former national teammates – called for his head, attacking his tactics and selections. At points he compounded his own pain by deflecting or calling out what he perceived to be “negative media”.
One such selection that was criticised was the inclusion of Mitchell Duke, the striker whose header downed Tunisia last weekend. Duke and a handful of other older heads including the captain, Mat Ryan, are players he had coached from a young age in the A-League. Largely, though, he picked a young, inexperienced squad, dropping more senior members including Tom Rogic, Adam Taggart and his son-in-law Trent Sainsbury in favour of new faces he had brought through the under-23s team.
That was the other stress – the last of Guus Hiddink’s “golden generation” had retired and, having spent years coaching domestically, Arnold knew there were not many waiting their turn. He felt he had no choice but to manage both teams concurrently with the help of his assistant, René Meulensteen, and trusted coaching staff he had mostly taken with him from Sydney FC.
“At the 2018 World Cup it was an ageing squad,” Arnold said last month. “I was thinking: ‘Where am I going to get these players?’” At the time he could hardly field a squad, but qualified the Olyroos for the Tokyo Olympics – breaking a drought dating back to Beijing 2008 – and upset Argentina in their opening match before losing the rest.
He also scouted the world for players who could feasibly acquire an Australian passport. This exercise yielded some Scottish gems in the defender Harry Souttar, who had never previously stepped foot inside the country but is arguably the side’s standout player so far, and the winger Martin Boyle, who is unfortunately injured.
After Wednesday’s 1-0 win over Denmark wrote this unknown team into Australian sporting folklore, the public started to call them the “platinum generation”. International media, who had written them off after last week’s chastening 4-1 loss to France, backtracked and watched more closely.
“Pretty early on the culture embedded the young lads coming up,” Souttar said. “The belief that we’ve got as a squad is one like I’ve never experienced before. It’s taken probably three and a half to four years for everyone to think the same way. I think that the last two results have showed what can happen when everyone is on the same path.
“If you told me four years ago we would be in this position I would probably have believed you, because we had so much belief in ourselves. We’re not surprised, though I know we have surprised a few people, and hopefully we could do that again.”