Australia's squad for the 2022 World Cup is in, 26 players that coach Graham Arnold hopes will fight against France, Tunisia and Denmark in Group D, and there's plenty to be excited about.
Newcastle United-bound teenager Garang Kuol is in, as his Central Coast Mariners strike partner Jason Cummings -- a "dream come true" after his switch in allegiance from Scotland to Australia. A bevy of potential difference makers such as Ajdin Hrustic and Nathaniel Atkinson have all overcome injuries, while Thomas Deng, Cammy Devlin, and Riley McGree represent a talented crop of Olyroos that will get their first taste of World Cup action.
"We've seen these types of things happen many times before at World Cups and massive games where players who are unknown come out and shock the whole of the country," Arnold said of the 18-year-old Kuol, who will join English Premier League side Newcastle in January. "He is really a player that has absolutely zero fear who just goes out and wants to entertain. He did that against New Zealand [in a recent friendly] and he's shown from the start of the A-League this season that he's a player that can change a game."
In all, 17 members of the Australia squad will be making their first appearance at a World Cup, with some players set to arrive on Nov. 12 and continue to feed in as their various leagues around the world halt for the World Cup. Several of this number will have found out about their place on the plane via the video that went up on the Socceroos' social media -- Arnold saying that he has prioritised informing those that hadn't made the squad over those that had in the days leading in.
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Inevitably, though, there are some shocks among the ranks of those that have missed out. Central defender Trent Sainsbury, a sometime-captain of the side throughout qualifying and Arnold's son-in-law, is not on the plane. Neither is Melbourne City dynamo Marco Tilio nor Macarthur attacker Daniel Arzani, both passed over as off-the-bench options in favour of Kuol. Young midfielders Denis Genreau and Connor Metcalfe shape the future of this side and likely should have had more scope this cycle, but a lack of minutes has cost them despite their talent.
After being begged out of international retirement by Arnold just months ago, Mitch Langerak has now inexplicably been dropped and Tom Rogic, despite his re-emergence from the wilderness at West Brom, has missed the cut.
Cristian Volpato is out too, the prodigious AS Roma prospect turning down three overtures from Arnold a day before the squad was announced to try his luck at getting into the Italy side heading into the 2026 World Cup cycle. At just 18 years old and already playing in Serie A, the obvious dilemma Australia face with the teenage midfielder's decision is that they may have lost out on another Christian Vieri. On the flip side, it at least guarantees that the "will he or won't he?" talk around Volpato's international eligibility can at least subside.
As much as Arnold wanted to focus on the positives of those who have been picked when he faced the media following the team's announcement -- taking great delight when Kuol's fantastical journey of semi-professional, Victorian-second tier football to the World Cup in two years was brought up -- it wouldn't be a World Cup squad announcement if it didn't immediately create a firestorm of controversy, excitement and appreciation.
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The squad is an eclectic and, at times, contradictory group. Some have earned their place on the plane thanks to consistent minutes and strong performances at their clubs -- even if they play at lower levels -- compared to their peers. Devlin and Keannu Baccus' form for Hearts and St Mirren getting them the nod over Genreau and Metcalfe, who have been sparsely used at Toulouse and St Pauli, is an obvious example. Also, Adam Taggart's omission likely does not happen if he had been playing regularly for Cerezo Osaka in Japan's J1 League no matter how strong Cummings has been playing for the Mariners.
But others such as Atkinson, Harry Souttar and Kye Rowles have earned call-ups despite missing varying degrees of time with injury; the latter two seemingly presenting enough upside and potential in Arnold's eyes to get in at the expense of Sainsbury and his absence of high-quality minutes.
"It was a very difficult decision," Arnold said. "[Sainsbury] hasn't played for several weeks, but overall I've gone for players like Souttar and Rowles who are doing exceptionally."
Elsewhere, as frequent members of the squad throughout the qualification process, Joel King and Awer Mabil have both been included, despite not featuring much for Odense Boldklub and Cadiz respectively. Jason Davidson at Eupen, Kenny Douggal at Blackpool, and even Tilio and Arzani in the A-Leagues -- the duo having played more minutes than Mabil in 13 LaLiga rounds in just five weeks of ALM -- will be bemused.
The National Curriculum implore Australian football to learn from the 'Golden Generation' Socceroos and how society has changed since, rather than just dream of the 'old days'.
Indeed, in some corners of the squad, loyalty and familiarity appear to have been the primary driver in selection -- the decision to omit Langerak seemingly defies reason otherwise. The 34-year-old has played more first-team minutes than any other Australian goalkeeper this season and was coaxed out of early international retirement by a personal plea from Arnold in September after setting multiple clean-sheet records in the J1 League; form that had seen him tapped in some corners as a potential starter even before news of Mat Ryan's potential injury broke over the weekend.
Yet despite declaring himself content to be a backup and support for Ryan if that's how he could beat support the team, Langerak has instead been passed over for ALM pairing Andrew Redmayne and Danny Vukovic on the word of goalkeeping coach John Crawley. Former Socceroo Tommy Oar described it as "an absolute wind up" and said it "takes jobs for the boys to a whole new level," in a tweet that was liked by several former Socceroos.
Yet ultimately, perhaps above all else, an overarching story of this squad is that it is well and truly Arnold's team. Seven members of the group were also in the unit that Arnold brought up through the ranks of the Olyroos during his time at the helm of the U23s, while Mitch Duke was one of his overage players in Tokyo. Talking up fighting spirit, energy, and determination multiple times in the announcement news conference, this is a team that the coach confirmed had been built to execute the gameplans he believed would be needed against France, Denmark and Tunisia.
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And that is the key. While the makeup of the squad reveals the type of player that Arnold and his staff value and, in turn, what qualities and attributes are likely to be biased by Football Australia's developmental pathways in coming years, the effect on how the team plays in Doha is less certain. While there have been plenty of surprises pulled at the selection table, and there is certainly a lot of innate talent amongst those selected, the team is still coached by Arnold. This is his baby, his legacy, and after his side got through an intercontinental playoff doing it his way, he's not going to change for anyone.
How the Socceroos have played throughout the four-year cycle leading into Qatar suggests that the specific identity of the 26 players named by Arnold -- their attributes, preferences, and character -- are not as impactful on the way that the Socceroos will play as the way their coach will inevitably set them up. This is a team that have largely played the same way throughout the 2022 World Cup qualifiers regardless of who has been available and, with 48 players used at one time or another, there have been a lot of opportunities for variation.
Australia will be dogged in Qatar. They will be full of fight, intensity, and determination. Not a single observer will be able to take issue with the levels of commitment and bravery the team have. As hinted at by Arnold, they will take glee from every doubter and piece of criticism they can find and turn it into inspiration. The question, as ever, is if these priorities are what Australian football can ride to bigger and better things.