After the Socceroos’ grueling World Cup qualifiers, it’s back to the drawing board for head coach Graham Arnold

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.

Two men, one with a yellow and green shirt, hug
For Arnold, Australia’s penalty shoot-out win over Peru was a breath of fresh air. Shortly afterwards, he burst into tears.Getty Images: Xinhua / Nikku

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.

Graham Arnold watches from the sidelines as Australian players take on Peru
Arnold’s tenure as Socceroos boss has been a rollercoaster, with the former Sydney FC coach coming under increasing pressure in recent months.Getty Images: Joe Allison

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.

Soccer player in yellow and green uniform lies on his back in the grass with his face in his hands
As the pandemic ravaged the Socceroos, players struggled on and off the pitch.Getty Images: Adil Al Naimi

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.

Two middle-aged men in coaching gear sit chatting on metal chairs, with green grass behind them and shadows from invisible trees
Graham Arnold’s World Cup dream was not realized as a player, but after he joined Guus Hiddink’s staff in 2005, it became reality as a coach.Getty Images: Robert Cianflone

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.