Australian men’s soccer coach Graham Arnold sprung several surprises on Tuesday when he announced his squad for the upcoming World Cup in Qatar.
Headlining the youthful make-up of the 26 man Socceroos squad was the remarkable rise of 18-year-old Central Coast Mariners winger Garang Kuol, who made the plane to Qatar after making just one appearance for the national team, as a substitute against New Zealand last month.
Although many had tipped Kuol to be included in Arnold’s squad for Qatar given his explosive talent, it’s still a remarkable rise for a player with only 12 A-League Men appearances in his fledging career.
It was clear at Tuesday’s press conference to announce the squad that Arnold was delighted for the Shepparton-raised flyer, who he described as having “zero fear and just wants to entertain”.
Born in Egypt to parents of South Sudanese origin, Kuol moved to Australia aged six – another example of a young kid from an immigrant family going on to represent his adopted nation on the sporting field.
“Difficult decision” to leave out stalwarts
Probably a bigger shock than Kuol’s inclusion was the number of experienced stalwarts left out of the squad, with centre back Trent Sainsbury, striker Adam Taggart and playmaker Tom Rogic all omitted.
Arnold admitted that “difficult decisions had to be made” regarding the experienced trio, who share 131 caps and 20 goals for the national team between them.
Sainsbury has been struggling for form and fitness in recent months, but having started all three World Cup finals games in Russia four years ago, he would have been hoping that this experience of major competition football would get him over the line.
Instead Arnold, who also happens to be Sainsbury’s father in-law, opted for the relative youth of Harry Souttar and Kye Rowles in the centre back positions – who have only 16 caps between them.
In the case of Souttar, it’s a risk as the young Stoke City player is only just coming back from injury himself, having spent nearly 12 months out with a torn ACL.
Additional central defensive options exist in the squad, with Bailey Wright, Milos Degenek and Thomas Deng all capable of stepping into the role, but it remains to be seen if Sainsbury’s experience will be missed.
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Ex-Perth Glory and Newcastle Jets striker Adam Taggart is another who could be deemed unfortunate to miss out on selection, having scored three goals in qualification.
His spot seems to have been taken by late bolter Jason Cummings, another in-form Central Coast Mariner, who has scored 14 goals in just 26 appearances for the Gosford based outfit since arriving from his native Scotland in 2021.
Cummings has clearly impressed Arnold with his versatility, describing him as “very brave, and a player who can play as a nine and also between the lines”.
Whether he can translate his A-League Men’s form to the world stage will be a question for all Socceroos supporters, as scoring goals has not been Australia’s strong point in recent years.
Creating a legacy
One message that came through loud and clear in Arnold’s press conference was his faith in young players.
“If there is a legacy, it’s the young kids coming through,” the Australian coach remarked, a pointed reference to his uncertain future beyond the finals in Qatar.
In addition to the youngest member of this squad – Kuol – the Socceroos chief has gone for youth in several key areas, with midfield being the most noticeable one.
Choosing to leave out experienced playmaker Tom Rogic – who infamously withdrew from the play-off games with UAE and Peru in June this year – was not unforeseen.
However, the replacements were less predictable, with young Sydneysider Cameron Devlin and South African born Keanu Baccus both included.
Describing Devlin’s selection, Arnold praised his development since moving to Scotland, where he represents Hearts, stating that “he has grown in the last 18 months, where he has played over 50 games. It would take him two and a half years to play that many in the A-League”.
The inference was that fitness will play a major part in the sweltering conditions they are likely to encounter in Qatar, and having athletic, ball winning midfielders like Devlin and Baccus (who also plays in Scotland), may allow playmaker Aaron Mooy more licence to get forward and create.
It would be a bold man that predicts Australia will progress beyond what is undoubtedly a tough group in this year’s World Cup finals.
However, if they do or don’t, Arnold seems determined to leave a youthful legacy for his successor; and may even unearth a couple of players capable of becoming the next ‘golden generation’ in the years to come.
The Socceroos kick off their World Cup group stage campaign against France on Wednesday, November 23 at 6:00am AEDT.
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