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‘It’s only positive’: latest victory gives another glimpse of Socceroos’ future | Jack Snape

The winners were everywhere. For coach Graham Arnold, it was securing passage to the next phase of World Cup qualifying, without conceding a goal. The near-capacity crowd in Perth were treated to a first Socceroos match since 2016, and goals to boot. The West Australian players, scattered throughout the team, delighted their friends and family at hand.

But more than anything, this 5-0 triumph over a valiant Palestine was a victory for the Socceroos’ future. The glimpses were numerous. A clinical Kusini Yengi, with two goals ahead of his first season in England’s Championship. Alessandro Circati, going up to Serie A himself, cultured and committed when called upon. A powerful, efficient Cam Burgess – Circati’s partner in central defence – ahead of his imminent debut in Premier League.

Where once Australia lacked a presence in the world’s top club competitions, now they are everywhere. Captain Jackson Irvine and Connor Metcalfe are both to feature in the Bundesliga with St Pauli. Even Joe Gauci, tipped to become Aston Villa’s second choice goalkeeper next season, is likely to see top-level minutes. And then there is Bayern Munich’s latest recruit, Nestory Irankunda, scoring his first senior international goal from the spot to make it 5-0. Of these, only Irvine contributed to Australia’s success in reaching the round of 16 in Qatar.

The next World Cup, in North America, kicks off in exactly two years from Australia’s clash with Palestine. Fifa president Gianni Infantino marked the occasion on Tuesday, issuing 16 separate social media videos for each of the host cities, and saying he is “counting down the days”. For Australia however, chasing a first-ever quarter-final appearance, these days are precious.

Much of the squad that went to Qatar are still in contention for the 2026 World Cup. Aaron Mooy has retired, but veterans like Mitch Duke and even Aziz Behich – both involved in the latest window even as they approach their mid-30s – are a chance of making it.

That may be been cause for concern, given the side’s unconvincing performance at the Asian Cup in February. The recent period has proven to be not so much the golden generation of the Socceroos, but more the iron age.

The squad has been absent of teenage academy sensations, or Premier League stars. Rather, they have proven themselves as determined professionals, A-League graduates and sometimes naturalised Scots, deeply familiar with adversity. They are generally tough, resilient, and – their narrow round of 16 loss to Argentina at the 2022 World Cup as the feather in their cap – largely successful. But the next iteration under Arnold was unclear.

Before the match against Palestine, the coach said the squad has newfound depth, and there is little separating his first and second XIs. Five or six years ago, he said, the first choice players would have won a match with the reserves by two or three goals.

It was a humblebrag from the man who took over in 2018, and one few could argue with. But while the dynamic does highlight the Socceroos’ depth, it also suggests the first choice players have room for improvement. Arnold has spent his six-year tenure as Socceroos coach laying a slab. Now he has a two-year window to build something on it.

In the next phase of qualifying, starting in September, the Socceroos will be placed in one of three groups of six, with two places in each going directly to the expanded, 48-team World Cup. Simply put, Australia need to show, across 10 matches, they are one of Asia’s six best teams. Even if they don’t, they can still squeeze onto the plane to North America through subsequent Asian and intercontinental play-offs.

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They will face one of Asia’s giants in Japan, Iran or South Korea in their group, but as long as they can finish above the likes of Iraq, Uzbekistan and the UAE – as well as a bunch of relative minnows – a sixth-straight World Cup finals appearance is theirs. And so the challenge will be to not just reach North America, but do something there.

That makes their latest performance in Perth significant. Already missing 10 players through injury or the risk of yellow card accumulation, Arnold leant heavily on the unproven. And they delivered, against deep-lying opponents who have shown their defensive capability in finishing second in the group behind the Australians.

The match against Palestine was only one fixture, but it kicked off the race for North America, and the genuine competition for places in the Socceroos. These new arrivals, playing in top leagues next season – assuming they can still earn minutes – threaten to squeeze out established names and usher in a new generation. More gold or green, or something else entirely, their performances will decide.

The two-year countdown is on, and the mood in the Socceroos is high. “I’m excited for the future,” Arnold beamed afterwards. “It’s only positive.”

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