The Sydney Morning Herald

Will Australia be the worst team at the World Cup?

Date: 28/05/2014
Words: 766
Source: SMH
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Sport
Page: 40
The bookmakers regard Australia's World Cup prospects as something worse than a snowball's chance in hell.

The world rankings, which place Australia last of the World Cup qualifiers in 59th spot (between Mali and Burkina Faso), also give the Socceroos little hope.

And, judging by the social media response to the Socceroos' stuttering 1-1 draw against a less-than-fearsome South Africa on Monday night, large numbers of the Australian public share that pessimism.

Coach Ange Postecoglou was missing three key players - injured skipper Mile Jedinak, playmaker Mark Bresciano and first-choice centre half Matthew Spiranovic - so some leeway might be given. But only some, given the nature of the occasion, the strength of the opposition and the expectation of a rather more upbeat performance this close to a World Cup.

Postecoglou, of course, cares little - at least on the outside - for public opinion. He is very much his own man, has secured the job on his terms and is determined to pick his team and play his own way.

He is also anxious to ensure the squad is cherry ripe for its opening World Cup match on June 13 in Cuiaba against Chile and isn't concerned about some patchy results during the preparation phase.

A number of those who started - such as Melbourne Victory's Mark Milligan and James Troisi - had not played a game since the end of April, when their A-League seasons finished. In racing parlance they will be better for the run.

Whether Postecoglou and his fitness and management team are capable of giving the Socceroos a Bart Cummings-style preparation to have them fit and healthy, injury-free and ready to peak on the right day is not in doubt. But the real question is whether they have the ability to actually compete at the level that will be required.

On the evidence of the qualifiers, when a vastly different Australian squad fell over the line to qualify for Brazil, and what we have seen in the three matches for which Postecoglou has been in charge, you would think not.

While Sportsbet has priced Postecoglou's squad at 500-1, it has four teams at even longer odds: Iran (1500-1), Algeria (2000-1), Costa Rica (2000-1) and Honduras (3000-1).

Given what we have seen in the three matches Australia have played under their new coach (a 1-0 win in Sydney against an under-strength Costa Rica, a bizarre 4-3 defeat to Ecuador in London and the laboured draw with the South Africans) it is fair to ask whether Australia are in fact the worst team in the tournament.

Iran, unlike Australia, finished top of their final qualifying group in a closely fought Asian section, emerging with 16 points following a win over South Korea in their last match. The group was tougher than Australia's final qualifying section in which only Japan, the runaway group winners, were regarded as one of Asia's top sides.

The Algerians, meanwhile, were once one of Africa's football powers - they even beat West Germany in the 1982 World Cup in Spain - but had endured a fallow period before qualifying for the 2010 tournament in South Africa, where they failed to score in three games against England, the US and Slovenia, but did manage to secure a point.

They won their group against Mali, Benin and Rwanda, but then endured a nervous playoff qualifier, losing 3-2 in Burkina Faso before edging their rivals out on goal difference after winning 1-0 at home. And with a world ranking of 25, they are 34 places above the Socceroos.

An under-strength Costa Rica may have lost to the Socceroos, but qualified comfortably for Brazil as runners-up to the US in the Central American section.

The Hondurans are appearing at their second World Cup in succession, having lost to Spain and Chile in the group phase last time. But new coach Luis Fernando Suarez has transformed the team and brought in several younger, more promising players.

Honduras reached the quarter-finals of the London Olympic football tournament in 2012 and managed to qualify for Brazil ahead of Mexico, finishing third behind the US and Costa Rica in the final qualifying section in Central America. They got there by winning in the Azteca for the first time against the Mexicans, a formidable achievement.

Honduras will field a few players familiar to watchers of mid-table and struggling Premier League sides. Stoke's Wilson Palacios is one of their better-known names, as is Hull defender Maynor Figueroa. Wigan duo Roger Espinoza and Juan Carlos Garcia have been named in the squad, as has Celtic's Emilio Izzaguiree.

In short, these teams look better credentialled than the Socceroos.

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