Doha, QATAR -- At a base level, DNA operates as a kind of a recipe book. Containing a person's unique genetic code, these special molecules hold instructions for the proteins that come together to make up everything that we are. Strengths, weaknesses, virtues and vices all encapsulated inside a tiny building block.
And while Socceroos coach Graham Arnold might not be a geneticist, he is a big believer in the power of DNA. Or, to be more precise, a more intangible version of that he calls "Aussie DNA."
When Arnold began to prepare for do-or-die World Cup qualification playoffs against first the United Arab Emirates and then Peru in June, the 59-year-old made the concept of a symbolically unique Australian genome a key part of his messaging and motivational plan for his players, going so far as to tell Australian radio network SEN ahead of the eventually triumphant fixture against the South Americans that "our best chance is the Aussie DNA." Results based analysis aside, victory followed.
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Thus, given that it has seemingly taken precedence over tactical and technical factors in the determination of the Socceroos' success, it's a concept that merits some examination. Especially if the validating effects of the win over Peru will likely mean it will likely be reprised with even more enthusiasm in Qatar, a campaign that will start against a suddenly Karim Benzema-less reigning world champion France on Tuesday.
In interviews, Arnold has frequently centred his definition of Aussie DNA first and foremost around values such as determination, effort, and possessing a winning mentality -- albeit these things should generally be considered a baseline expectation in elite international sport.
Making reference to members of Australian football's golden generation such as Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell, as well as figures from other sporting codes such as tennis players Pat Cash and Lleyton Hewitt and boxing great Jeff Fenech, the coach talks of running until you drop and fighting, kicking, and clawing for every opportunity in every minute of the game. By turning games into 11 individual battles and gaining the edge in eight or nine of those, Arnold told World Soccer, games can be secured without winning the tactical or technical battle.
As part of Arnold's transformation to a friend, confidant, even father figure to his players, there are also the classic Antipodean concepts of mateship, reinforcement and togetherness in the face of perceived detractors, doubters, and snobs. As a result, few that have observed the Socceroos would doubt their camaraderie and a deep sense of fraternity. There are often references to negativity outside the tent and some back home not believing in them, but this is a team that will not collapse due to internal schisms and disunity.
A time-honoured Australian sporting tradition, there's an enthusiastic embrace of the underdog label and taking motivation from those that doubt you. Fenech recorded a motivational video at the behest of Arnold before the Peru game, obtained by Australia's Daily Telegraph, in which he told players: "Be prepared to die out there for Australia. As a matter of fact, f--- Australia, do it for yourself. Be ready to die to win, do this for yourself."
On the whole, it's all very nostalgic, a throwback to the days when Arnold himself was running around in a green and gold shirt and kids walked to school uphill, both ways. Indeed, when the Socceroos were officially consigned to a playoff and his job was under increasing jeopardy ahead of a fixture with Saudi Arabia, the coach pointed blame at an Australian system that's lack of jeopardy had created a generation of players that didn't know how to hurt when they lost, and that he'd been unable to change that in the time he'd had in his role despite his best efforts.
It's also illuminative of a deep-seated ideological battle over what Australia values in its football and what kind of ceiling that places on its development.
But what do the 26 members of the Australian team in Qatar think that Aussie DNA is? Especially the nine members of the group that were born overseas but are now passionate and committed members of the Socceroos and proud Australians? Certainly, Arnold's approach to the concept doesn't discriminate based on birthplace, meaning they can possess just as much as anyone else.
"For me, I think it's about sticking together," defender Thomas Deng said. "Especially in a World Cup, it's a tough tournament and we're going to need every player. It doesn't matter what age you are, it's about making an impact and representing our country and making them proud."
A possible future captain of the side, Deng is one of three members of the Socceroos whose journey to Australia began with their families fleeing their homes in South Sudan and, eventually, seeking asylum Down Under. Alongside Garang Kuol and Awer Mabil, they are representative of the changing face of the game in Australia and the increasing waves of migrants arriving in the country from Africa.
"I think there's a togetherness, always," Mabil said of Aussie DNA. "Especially in our group, not many believed in us but we always believed that we would be here, it was just a matter of finding whatever way.
"But I think us Aussies, we like the hard way. So, I would say grit, actually, that's the DNA we have. Never giving him."
Plucked from the land of his birth by Arnold thanks to an Australian mother, Scottish-born Harry Souttar has gone from representing Australia's under-23s in a steamy Cambodian junior tournament to an integral member of the senior side across the past four years -- one of which was lost to a ruptured ACL. These days, he quite literally wears the passion he has for Australia on his skin in the form of the tattoo of the nation's coat of arms and his cap number with the Socceroos.
"I think it's pretty simple, it's just about never giving up," the towering defender said. "When I first came into camp, the lads have such a great culture and the young boys coming through are brought up to that culture straight away. We know what it means to play for Australia, it's drummed into us straight away. So it's just about never giving up."
Another Scottish convert, striker Jason Cummings has only been living and playing in Australia since January but, despite this, radiates an appreciation and gratitude towards the country.
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"I'd say the Australian players, they're really hungry," he said. "They really want to do well and succeed. Maybe because it's not as big a platform in Australia as it is in the U.K. so they need to kind of work that double times as hard to make a name for themselves. Everyone here, they work hard and they're honest. It's good to see.
"The boys have made it easy for me [to fit into the team]. It's a great group of boys who are proper close. The last camp helped me, against New Zealand. I came in and got a goal and we had a couple of good games, so that's put me in good stead for this camp."
Born in Croatia and a representative of Hrvatska at a junior international level, Fran Karacic first committed to Australia without ever stepping foot on its soil: permanently switching his allegiance to the land where his father and grandfather hold citizenship when he was in the frame for selection for the 2018 World Cup.
He might have missed out on Bert van Marwijk's squad back then, but under Arnold he has become a regular member of the team and was able to visit Australia for the first time during qualifiers. A good friend of fellow defender Milos Degenek, who arrived in Australia in 2000 as his family fled conflict in the Balkans, and Ajdin Hrustic, who is of Bosnian and Romanian heritage, he has previously described his time in Socceroos' camps as "everything that I've ever wanted" and a place where "I feel like I belong."
"We are like a big family. We all do it together," he said. "We are a team on the field, we are dying for each other and, honestly, that's the that's our formula to win the games.
"Against Peru, everybody expected that Peru would go to the World Cup but in the end, we won the game because we came there two weeks before and we had good preparations. We were 100% Ready.
"We respect our opponents and we just tried to do the best on the field. In the end, we won the game and we show the world that we belong here.
"Honestly, I would like the World Cup to never end, it is something special, a special feeling."