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Graham Arnold desperately wants to turn over a new leaf with the Socceroos, but the past won’t let him go. This week it latched onto him in the form of a warm embrace from Lionel Scaloni, Argentina’s World Cup-winning coach, who he is hoping to see again in an opposing dugout very soon.
The reunion happened this week, a few days before the Asian Cup draw, at a FIFA conference in Doha involving the 32 coaches from the World Cup, who collectively showered Arnold and his team in praise for their remarkable performances which have changed the way the Australian game is perceived overseas.
Graham Arnold and Lionel Scaloni could be set for another reunion next month.Credit: Getty
“It was a fantastic couple of days for me, I have to be honest,” Arnold said. “To be able to sit and socialise a little bit with those type of coaches was great fun. They were very complimentary of the Socceroos and what we did at World Cup.
“[Scaloni] came over to me, gave me a hug and said how much they appreciated the game against us. He felt we were the hardest game for them at the World Cup, but also he loved the way we played and the players’ attitude, the fight and the grit in our performance.”
Arnold lapped up all the love, of course, from others like France’s Didier Deschamps and England’s Gareth Southgate. But over the last five months, he has grown tired of all the pats on the back, the stories from punters about where they were when Australia knocked off Tunisia and Denmark and then took Argentina to the wire.
The hunger is back. Arnold has officially moved on – which is why, after Thursday night’s Asian Cup draw, which put the Socceroos in Group B with India, Uzbekistan and Syria, he ripped that day’s page out of his diary, and sharpened his gaze forward.
Socceroos coach Graham Arnold wants to leave the past behind.Credit: Getty Images
“It’s a whole new chapter now,” he said. “That coaches’ review really put the final nail in that campaign. It’s over now. We move forward.”
Yet the future looks an awful lot like the past. For the next Asian Cup, as an example, they will face two of the nations they met at the last edition in 2019 in Uzbekistan and Syria. Next month, all things going well, the Socceroos will play a rematch of their World Cup round of 16 tie with Argentina – and while they’ll have to go to China for it, and it’s still subject to official confirmation, Arnold sees it as a way to steel them for the battles that lay ahead.
“It would be amazing,” he said. “I just get goosebumps now thinking about it. It would just be fantastic to play against the world champions. There’s no better way to test players than put them out against top opposition.
“I want these tough games. I want to play against teams that are going to push us to the limit, and we’ll push them to the limit – and then when you get those good results, when you do well against those type of teams, it builds that belief and confidence in the players.”
“[Lionel Scaloni] felt we were the hardest game for them at the World Cup, but also he loved the players’ attitude, the fight and the grit in our performance.”
The only match locked in for the Socceroos between now and their Asian Cup opener against India on January 13 – which, as it happens, will be played at the same Doha stadium where they faced Argentina – is a historic clash with England at Wembley Stadium.
“When I spoke with Gareth Southgate the other day, [he said] they’re expecting the full house because of the number of Australians that live over there,” Arnold said. “That cricket rivalry will come back, the Ashes. This will be a great opportunity for us on the football field to do the same.”
When he returns home early next week, Arnold will kick into full-on preparation mode for their new World Cup qualification campaign, which kicks off in November, and his third shot at Asian supremacy with the Socceroos.
The Asian Cup will take them back to Qatar, who were brought in as emergency hosts after China pulled out due to COVID complications. It is their home away from home – so familiar that the Socceroos have actually played more matches in Qatar over the past 12 months than Qatar themselves.
Arnold wants to leverage the good memories there, while also escaping any sense of deja vu that might entrap his players. That is why Australia won’t be seeking a return to the Aspire Academy, their World Cup training base and the bubble within which Arnold was able to breed in his players an unprecedented level of belief and confidence.
In any case, it is not on the AFC’s official list of accommodation options for them to choose from, but even if it was, he’d be looking elsewhere.
“It’d be good to go somewhere different. It’s all about today and moving forward. If we keep going back to where we used to stay … something fresh, something new here in Qatar [would be ideal],” Arnold said.
“The players know exactly what my expectations are and what I expect from them. They showed at the World Cup what their level is, and I expect that again. There are no easy games, Asian football’s come on enormously. The only thing we can do is prepare ourselves the best we can, and I’ll make sure we do that well.”
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