The choice of Bert van Marwijk as coach of the Socceroos was a selection based on pragmatism and short-term goals. This does not necessarily make it a bad one; but rather merely being the most viable option based on circumstances in the wake of Ange Postecoglou’s departure. The tension around his appointment, and the position of Socceroos coach in general, reflects the perpetually fraught state of football (soccer) in the Australian sporting landscape. Despite this fraught and precarious state, some certainties remain: criticism of any decision from the FFA, a sudden case of nostalgia for the very-recent past, and a sense that any moment now, the code will be in a state of terminal decline.
Australia’s connections with Dutch footballing knowledge goes beyond the recent trend of having Dutch coaches: Guus Hiddink, Pim Verbeek, and now Bert van Marwijk. As Adam Muyt has written (Shoot Farken, 2015) post-war migration saw a number of Dutch-identifying clubs emerge in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia. Although these clubs have largely disappeared, the Bakrie-owned Brisbane Roar retain a symbolic connection through their orange jerseys and lion crest. The re-emergence of Australia on the global football stage in 2006 was famously led by Guus Hiddink. The well-travelled Hiddink’s reign marked a highpoint in Australian soccer with the victory over Japan and draw with Croatia. Yet, the defeat to Italy in the knock-out stage proved anti-climactic. He was revered for taking the Socceroos to the World Cup, but, he was also coach of Australia’s ‘golden generation’. In hindsight, the Socceroos’ performance was on par, rather than spectacular.
Verbeek’s tenure proved a disappointment and his style was regarded as ‘un-Australian’ (see: this Craig Foster clip). The style of Verbeek’s team was derided for being too defensive and lacking in ambition – exemplified in the 4-0 defeat in the Socceroos’ first game of the 2010 World Cup. ‘Style’ in soccer, in this case, was more to do with attitude, rather than any clear identity about playing methodology. Not ever having developed exportable footballing tactics such as catenaccio, total football or the gegenpress, Australian sports fans seek to invest the ‘typical’ characteristics of the ideal Australian sportsman: they should be tough, macho and willing to use any method to win. Verbeek, lacking the international reputation of Hiddink, was always going to be at the wrong end of public favour. Only the dreariness of Holger Osieck’s reign (2010-13) serves to shed some mild favour on Verbeek.
The fickleness of the Australian football public again marked the rise and fall of Ange Postecoglou: feted for winning the AFC Asian Cup (2015), his team fell out of favour due to having too many draws throughout the most recent World Cup qualifying campaign. Ange was regarded by some as being too ambitious and trying to turn average footballers into stylists capable of beautiful football. Despite the rigours of the qualifying campaign, and the stresses of putting together a disparately-placed team of professionals, the Postecoglou-led Socceroos only re-captured the public’s imagination at the moment of (final) qualification. Rightly so, by then, Ange had had enough. He had experienced negative media commentary, lack of support from the FFA and a strained family life. He should be remembered and praised for his long-term vision for the game; his team’s performance at the 2016 World Cup and winning the AFC Asian Cup with a team of players below the calibre of the Golden Generation.
The ambivalence towards Bert van Marwijk’s appointment is difficult to be understood given the credentials he comes with. His success at Feyenoord (2000-04, 2007-8) positioned him as a legitimate candidate for the coach of Holland (as the Netherlands’ national team is affectionately called). The Holland team of the 2010 World Cup not only made the final but had gone un-beaten for two years leading up to the finals. As van Marwijk has stated, during the World Cup itself, the players were supremely confident in their capacity to win. They proceeded through the knock-out stages as underdogs, only to be a few Arjen Robben-missed opportunities short of at least taking the lead against the highly fancied and ultimately victorious Spanish team. The final was brutal – largely being remembered for de Jong’s kick on Alonso. But, Spain’s players weren’t angels either, with five players being given yellow cards.
Critics of van Marwijk’s appointment such as Howcroft (The Guardian), Jukic (The Guardian) and Craig Foster and even Ange Postecoglou – to a lesser degree – bemoan the lack of a long-term vision and the discrepancy between Ange and Bert’s footballing vision. The FFA’s lack of clarity about its long-term vision, however, was apparent in the half-hearted support throughout Ange’s tenure. This, to me, was the fatal mistake during Ange’s reign. Postecoglou no longer felt there was sufficient backing for implementing his long-term plan.
The Lowys were displeased by Ange’s insistence of living in Melbourne; now they have appointed a coach who has only visited his bosses on a whistle-stop tour (Squires cartoon). The traditional ‘farewell’ match will no doubt be missing. In this case, the Lowys, were willing to accept van Marwijk’s demands, in contrast to the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, whose team will go to Russia without the coach who took them to the finals. Van Marwijk is a coach who will do it his way and on his own terms. Moreover, he’ll be closer to where the core of the Socceroo’s team plays: in Europe and in the UK. He’ll also be able to maintain his regular routine of playing cards (klaverjas in particular) in his favourite pub in Meerssen.
Van Marwijk’s appointment indeed smacks of short-term goals: and that is what the Socceroos face. A difficult group stage against stronger footballing nations: France, Denmark and Peru. Us fans can’t be so arrogant to presume automatic progress. Van Marwijk’s Socceroos will be a cohesive team, underscore by a desire to keep the ball and to be aggressive when they don’t have it. Just as ‘Dutch football’ can’t be reduced to ‘totaalvoetbal’, neither can van Marwijk’s football philosophy be reduced to the violence seen in the 2010 World Cup final. Moreover, he has little time to implement a new tactical approach and undo too much of Ange’s work. No doubt, the bandwagon will be full and the doubters will have forgotten their doubts, in the event of the Socceroos making the knock-out stage and going deep into the tournament. The Socceroos face tough opponents in the group stage, but, they – under van Marwijk – will be no easy-beats.
PS: I have a book on my watching of games in the Netherlands. See, After Totaalvoetbal: Footballing travels in the Low Lands.