Graham Arnold can catch his breath for a moment. There is relief everywhere now that the Socceroos have qualified for the FIFA World Cup.
He held his head in his hands during the penalty shootout against Peru; unable to bring himself to look, he instead relied on the reaction of the players and staff around him to know if Australia continued or if his task ended there and then, on the sidelines of Khalifa International Stadium.
But if you thought the road to qualifying was dramatic, it’s not even halfway there.
Off the field, Arnold had to be much more than just a coach. From psychologist to politician, he has faced COVID challenges, player crises, mounting media pressure and a critical fan base.
Now, 1008 grueling days after this qualifying period began, he has a moment to reflect on the journey so far.
What initially comes to mind is something Justin Langer once said.
“I read this great article Justin Langer wrote when he was an Australian cricket coach, where he talked about how lonely it is to coach the national team, and it resonated with me very much,” Arnold told The Ticket.
The Socceroos coach is quick to point out that he has “great staff” around him who, “especially during COVID, were very special”.
But despite their unwavering support, none of them can comprehend the magnitude of the constant stomach cramps and inner discussion that a head coach must relentlessly grapple with.
Building a team culture that unites a group of journeymen to achieve something greater than their individual talents is a 24/seven mission.
All the while, the loneliness of a head coach knows that the media will soon doubt you and seize any perceived weakness.
Their words strike those closest to you like poisonous arrows finding their target, and sometimes sow the seeds of discontent in the minds of some who watch from headquarters.
A head coach takes the position with the sword of Damocles hovering above him.
“That’s something that has never bothered me, because you can only focus on what we can do, and I’m only here to help the players,” he said.
“Coaching has changed so much over time… the generation of people and the players.
“Just being there to support the players, more than being a ‘dictating’ coach, which I probably was when I was younger.
“These guys have been through a lot in the past year and a half with COVID, because they couldn’t go back to Australia.
“Some of these guys had COVID for a long time and missed a few camps, and then we lost players because of COVID. I also missed two camps with COVID, so it was difficult. But if you stay on it [and] really make those sacrifices, then everything is possible and feasible.”
While COVID has been the major disruption to many people’s lives for the past two years, it is felt that it has become something of a distraction, masking many of the other internal crises Arnold has faced.
What the world sees when the team plays a game is like serving a meal: those who consume it are unaware of what happened during the long preparation.
“What you get on the field is what you do off the field,” Arnold said.
“In the end, the game only lasts 90 minutes, but if the players don’t go on the field and are not willing to give everything for each other, you will never be successful.” †
“One of the most important things in coaching is making sure you do it right.”
Making a manager
Arnold’s journey to this year’s World Cup is 40 years or more in the making.
As a child, he played rugby league at school and football on the weekends. He was coached by his father during his early years in an era where well-being meant nothing and getting tougher was all that mattered.
Arnold was a Socceroos striker for over a decade on a national team that came painfully close to breaking the team’s decades-long World Cup drought, but it wasn’t to be.
Fate sometimes comes through a different door than the one we walk through.
“It’s been a long journey,” Arnold said.
“But I just have the passion for Australian football. I just want to help children and help the players achieve their dreams because I feel very blessed and privileged to have had the life I’ve had in Australian football. As anyone could have a life like I’ve had, I’d be very happy.”
So, what does it take for the Socceroos to win a World Cup?
“People talk about the golden generation and all those players, and they’re all in the Premier League and everything… and that’s all over the development system.
“We have to get the game right at the junior level because there are so many different things happening that shouldn’t happen for the kids.”
The cost of entry to football is one of them, excluding large segments of the Australian community, especially those of lower class and minority backgrounds.
“One hundred percent. Most people who are successful in life are the hardest raised, and they can’t afford to play the game.”
Does that description fit Arnold’s own childhood experiences?
“Yes,” he says. “I lived in my grandmother’s garage for 24 years. That’s where I grew up.
“My mother and father had no money. My father was a taxi driver. My mother died when I was 18 or 19.
“When you get bought up the hard way, you appreciate the things in life more.”
The greatest players of all time emerged from the struggles Arnold describes:
- Pele, from a slum in the southern city of Santos. in Brazil
- Maradona, a poor child from a slum on the outskirts of Buenos Aires
- Zinedine Zidane, settled in the rough working-class neighborhood of Marseille after leaving Algeria
- Cristiano Ronaldo, who lived with his three siblings in a single room on the Portuguese island of Madeira
- Lionel Messi, born and raised in central Argentina.
Those who develop their skills barefoot or on dirt roads are the ones who know they have to fight to survive. Nothing is handed to them. It’s no surprise that they also have a love affair with the game: they play with a different kind of passion.
There are plenty of Australians who love the international game but fall outside the trophies leading to the national team.
Arnold can’t fix that. Football Australia can. The Moriarty Football Foundation is one that knocks on the door with a huge, largely untapped cohort of young First Nations players who are talented but raw; hungry for the same opportunities that others get.
Arnold’s mission now is to work on some more surprising moves, such as this week’s goalkeeper replacement, with Socceroos captain Mat Ryan being replaced by Andrew Redmayne, leaving Peru’s penalty takers perplexed.
That psychological trick was probably the difference in getting Australia to the World Cup, while Peru has to wait another four years.
“I need a break,” Arnold says.
“I’ve been gone for seven weeks now and managing about fifty people every day, that gets quite tiring.
“But the most important thing is that they are satisfied and that the staff and the players have an integrated mentality.
“They have to go back to their clubs and work hard and perform well because to play for your country we need the elite.
“I’ll watch them…sit back and enjoy watching them play.”
Arnold is reminded that there are only 23 Wednesdays left before Australia will face France in the opening game in Qatar.
“Is that so? I haven’t even thought about it,” he laughs.
The time for reflection is over. It’s back to the drawing board for Graham Arnold, only the third Australian in history to be tasked with guiding the Socceroos through a World Cup campaign.