Ahead of the Socceroos opening FIFA Confederations Cup match, PFA Chief Executive John Didulica discusses the ambitions of Australian football and the bold approach taking Australia out of its comfort zone.

By JOHN DIDULICA | PFA Chief Executive

In 2005, Australia was judged to have failed at the Confederations Cup. Losses to Germany, Argentina and (most damagingly) Tunisia culminated in Frank Farina losing his job.

At the conclusion of the tournament, then Chief Executive Officer of Football Federation Australia, John O’Neill, publicly said something to the effect of ‘maybe we just don’t have the cattle.’ I remember that because (and blame it on my ethic suburban upbringing), I’d never heard that turn of phrase used. Ever. Let alone in relation to elite professional athletes.

The implication was that maybe we’re not as good as we think we are. And, whilst they may deny it now against the backdrop of history, many public commentators agreed. Maybe our players really aren’t that good so let’s not expect too much.

Ironically, the team that failed at that Confederations Cup became the Golden Generation. A decade on, the 2006 team has become the benchmark for every national team that played before it and after it.

And the facts bear that out. In 2005, Australian footballers played 30,000 minutes in the so-called “Big 5” leagues of Europe (Spain, England, Italy, France and Germany). This is the largest number of minutes that an Australian cohort has ever played in those competitions.

So, in actual fact, we did have the “cattle”. John O’Neill was wrong. In fact, it proved that we have prize-winning cattle. The best. Unbelievable cattle.

By comparison, a decade later in 2015, Australian players combined to play in 4,000 match minutes in those same five leagues. Ange Postecoglou takes a team to the Confederations Cup whose global experience is, based on this metric, 80 per cent inferior to the Golden Generation. If O’Neill thought that the 2005 herd was poor, so what of 2017?

Yet Postecoglou continues to be bold. And defiant, almost aggressive, in his boldness. Why? Because his interpretation of success and his roadmap for it are so different to what Australian football has become accustomed to.

First, there is no question he views success as being inherently attitudinal. Whilst, subjectively, outsiders will point to a talent deficit, Ange is unflinchingly and unapologetically aspirational and sets stretch goals for players to achieve. His work with South Melbourne (particularly at the World Club Championship), Brisbane Roar and the 2015 Asian Cup are testament to his almost unique capacity to create these self-fulfilling prophecies in sport.

Second, through the vision he sets and his management style, he takes players out of their comfort zone. Some prosper, some are found wanting, but his contrarian spirit ensures that every player is taken to a place where they need to stay sharp and alert to survive. And the best flourish.

The clash we are seeing now is Postecoglou taking not only the players, but the entire sport, out of its comfort zone. Re-setting our ambition. Nowadays, long-term ambition is seen as the domain of the boardroom, so when a head coach of a sporting team does it, it becomes cognitively dissonant. Coaches are meant to focus on getting results in the key matches, not dictate industry policy.

Ange has set for himself a broader challenge as national coach. He has challenged himself to build a team that can start delivering an authentically Australian way of playing and winning matches of football. This is a cultural revolution, more than a tactical one. And achieving it is what sustainable success looks like.

Indifferent results at times make justifying this approach, in the short term, more difficult. However, we cannot lose sight of the bold ambition, we need to have a vision for the sport that is inherently linked with the way we play football. The success of his ambition will be tested at the Confederations Cup, the final two matches of qualifying and, one trusts, at the 2018 World Cup. And the team may well lose a battle along the way.

Only the passing of time tells you if you were at a peak or a plateau. In 2005, we perceived ourselves at a nadir – although it quickly shifted into what we now see as a high watermark. For Ange and his 2017 team, it will be their capacity to start a journey to imbed a sustainable world class culture and standards throughout Australian football that will define its success.