Australia commit to Graham Arnold but expectations are high after World Cup showing

Australia's World Cup run to inspire a generation (1:21)

The National Curriculum's Joshua Parish thinks the Socceroos will inspire a new generation of Australian soccer fans despite World Cup exit. (1:21)

Get ready for an encore, because new dates have been added to the "Arnieball" world tour. All those hits you've come to know and love such as "All We Need is Aussie DNA," "Playing With Great Energy," and "Expecting a Great Performance" are set to hit locations across Australia, Asia and North America across the next four years. Graham Arnold is back as coach of the Socceroos.

Football Australia confirmed on Monday that Arnold had agreed to a new contract that will see him lead Australia's men to the end of the 2026 FIFA World Cup cycle. History beckons, as the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams almost certainly means that he will now become the first coach to lead Australia into two iterations of the tournament.

As unsurprising as the news is, the reported details are eye-opening. Not just because, according to News Corp, the 59-year-old's deal is worth AU$6 million. His return will also see him serve as a mentor to the coaches of Australia's junior men's national teams, support chief football officer Ernie Merrick on pathway development and talent identification, and as a special Football Australia lobbyist for greater footballing access to facilities and infrastructure.

It's a significant investment of capital, both monetary and intellectual, from the federation. The coach is effectively being given the keys to Australian men's football and he plans to do a good amount of driving: hammering home at a news conference on Monday the need to lobby for further government investment, a proper home for Australian football, and an urgent need to increase the number of match minutes available to young Australian players.

For his part, Football Australia CEO James Johnson said at that event that no other candidate had been talked to since the end of the 2022 World Cup, meaning that he and his organisation have well and truly tied themselves at the hip to the coach and his philosophical approach. Where he goes, they go. Where he wins, they win. Where he fails, they fail.

"I want to see more young kids playing in the A-League," Arnold said when asked about his vision for the next 3½ years. "The junior national teams, start seeing them qualify for junior World Cups. Seeing some great transfer fees for young kids going overseas and clubs being rewarded for trusting the development of those kids. The success of the Socceroos is first and foremost because when they're successful it inspires everyone. And I'm going to keep saying this, but a home of football: it's something that we need badly.

"[I want to see Australian football] where it belongs. Everyone loves football in this country. When the Socceroos play, the Matildas play, and the national teams play, every AFL fan becomes a football fan and every NRL fan becomes a football fan."

That this level of trust has been instilled in Arnold is remarkable, given that it has come just three months after he looked long odds to return to his post and just under a year on from when the axe was set to fall on his tenure. But a lot has happened since. And the foundation for Football Australia's decision to keep him was laid across the Socceroos' World Cup campaign in Qatar.

Last March, leaks from multiple figures from within Football Australia appeared in The Age less than 24 hours after the Socceroos were defeated by Japan in a World Cup qualifier, declaring that he was soon to be axed. Those drops, in turn, arrived less than a week after the federation fined Arnold AU$25,000 for breaching New South Wales' COVID-19 isolation protocols. At the time, the Australian public appeared to be falling out of love with a side that were no longer papering over the cracks with results over Asian minnows, and even figures that had previously been among Arnold's most ardent backers had begun pontificating about replacing him with the likes of Tony Popovic, Kevin Muscat or Patrick Kisnorbo.

If Football Australia had had a viable replacement lined up, local or foreign, few would have been shocked to see them sack Arnold. But then qualification for Qatar happened, followed by the magical run to the round of 16. And all of a sudden, when it was once unfathomable that the federation would stick by its coach, 270 minutes of football had turned it all on its head.

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Given Australian football's preference for the familiar, it was now incomprehensible for anyone familiar with the local game to think that they would do anything other than offer him the chance to become the first coach since Frank Farina to occupy the Socceroo dugout in back-to-back World Cup cycles. And the case that he deserves it is obvious. Arnold had just overseen the most successful World Cup finals campaign the team had ever experienced, surpassing the exploits of the 2006 "Golden Generation" squad. According to every member of the playing group that fronted the media in Qatar, he had done this while fostering a dressing-room spirit that was unbreakable in its fraternity and belief.

Further, not only was re-upping easily justifiable, but it was also the safest move that the decision makers within Football Australia could make. Renewing a record-setting coach is common sense, after all, and the federation will not have to undertake the nightmarish task of explaining the nuance of technical and philosophical justifications that would have underpinned moving on. Should they have looked elsewhere and got the appointment wrong, it would have hung over every member of the administration involved in the decision like a cloud. Ultimately, the Socceroos' performance in Qatar meant that Football Australia was never going to do anything other than attempt to bring Arnold back.

But the logic behind this decision-making process, this results-based analysis, also represents the biggest question mark. For all the off-field possibilities, the truth is always on the pitch.

In retaining Arnold, the federation is banking on the hypothesis that the Socceroos' performances in Qatar weren't some kind of a flash in the pan or a perfect storm of opposition, circumstances and fortune coming together for one magical run but, instead, a harbinger of things to come. As magical and unifying as the Socceroos' run in Qatar was, it cannot be forgotten that it was preceded by a qualifying campaign that threatened to go off the rails and a disappointing Asian Cup that ended with an ignominious 1-0 defeat to the UAE in the quarterfinals.

Particularly as the quality of opposition increased, the pragmatic and risk-averse approach of Arnold, to which he remained steadfastly committed, resulted in the Socceroos consistently struggling to create high-quality chances on goal and reliably function in possession. For all the justifications that were provided for poor performances and results against Japan and Saudi Arabia, these problems were just as prevalent, if not more so, in a 1-1 draw against a China side hit even harder by domestic COVID restrictions than the Australians, or a 2-2 draw with Oman -- both games in which the arguments about the quality of players carry little weight.

Unlike in the World Cup when the Socceroos were able to snugly nestle into the role of the underdog -- a position that suits the siege mentality Arnold increasingly instilled as his tenure progressed -- and play reactive football, Australia will be expected to have the ball and break down tightly packed defences on unkind surfaces and with a reputation as favourites that was enhanced by their performances in Qatar.

Talent won't be able to be blamed for any lapses, either. One of Arnold's most commendable accomplishments in his first four years was bringing the likes of Harry Souttar, Riley McGree, the under-utilised Denis Genreau, Cammy Devlin and more exciting young talents into the national setup -- especially between qualification and the World Cup itself. These players will be entering their primes during the upcoming cycle and represent a cohort of talent that is capable of not just winning games but playing good football while they do.

Whether Arnold is willing or even capable of adjusting his approach to meet the challenges that lie ahead will ultimately define his tenure. It is now not a matter of if he can prove the numerous doubters wrong, but instead if he can meet the expectations of a fanbase that, to borrow one of his phrases, expects him to win.