Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Call Up

32 Days.

Tomorrow is the official FIFA date that a preliminary list of 30 players must be officially named by each World Cup squad. Some of these have been named, including that of our group rivals Germany and Ghana, but Pim Verbeek is to make his list known tomorrow, probably of 27 players. Closer to the date this must be made 23, basically two teams plus an extra keeper.

Those chosen, for the next two months, will become very important people indeed, the players of the Glass Bead Game of our world civilisation, competing on behalf of our national house for the symbolic military domination of the World.

No wonder Kevin Rudd chose this day to release the Budget.

There hasn't been much World Cup media since the draw, and most of that has been speculation, criticism and advocacy about who will be called up, as well as reports of injuries and form, to the same end. Tomorrow attention will begin to focus, as the national volunteers are selected.

Completely lost, incidentally, has been the Women's Asian Cup beginning on the 19th of this month in Qatar with the Matildas playing Vietnam. It's less than two weeks away and not a peep about it from anyone. Sure it's being shadowed by the biggest event in the World, but the Matildas actually have a hope to win it. It is the ultimate curtain raiser for the Australian football audience. Will it be televised? You tell me.

As the severals of readers of this blog know, women's football is one of my passions. One of the good things about it is also its main flaw for many, that it is slower. It's possible that I'm a bit slow myself, but being a recent appreciator of the tactical dimension of the game, I actually like the slower speed. I also note that referees are more likely to get decisions right, which I suspect is because they can actually follow it.

What I'm getting at is that for anyone getting excited about the World Cup who knows jack-shit about football, the Women's World Cup would be a great way to get a bit of education about positioning, tactics, the offside rule etcetera so that you have at least a preliminary grasp for the full-throttle version. The spectacle of football can be a lot of spirit and grunt, and indeed most football codes get away mostly with the same, but soccer is also a very fine art, which takes most of a dedicated childhood to learn well enough to play professionally, and which is never perfected, and soccer tactics are complex even if you assume every player has identical skills. In other words, soccer tactics are, like chess, virtually infinite and, also like chess, there is no stage when a coach can't get better at it.

My apologies for this little rant, dear reader. Of course millions of people enjoy a good sporting contest without giving a shit about tactics. And I really don't mind if people enjoy the World Cup just for the spectacle, for the feeling or for the sexy boys. I myself (and I'd put my expertise quotient at about 2.2) am enthralled by soccer tactics, and find them, at any speed, one of the most fascinating and satisfying worlds of mental engagement I've ever encountered. A Glass Bead Game of sorts indeed.

So Pim Verbeek earns a lot of his money when he, an effing foreigner himself, chooses the 23 Australians who will represent our country. Now I haven't done a whole lot of speculating about the team. Many others have but it's too late now, and I'm frankly not qualified and if I had a go by googling around and making choices on instinct I'd be being mightilly pretentious. But I've thought a bit about what it is to choose a team, and I think it's an extraordinary mustering of technical knowledge, experience, informed instinct, and a plan.

To old hands I think this might be boring, so by all means move on. But I'm trying to articulate my understanding of what Pim is doing when he chooses these players.

Pim has a formation that he likes to use. There's a lot of argument about it, but essentially it is a defensive formation (most critically, there's only one player based up front), designed to work well and maximise the possibilities against stronger teams. He might have other options up his sleeve as well, but he wouldn't intend to use them. In my view we may well have qualified through Asia with a much more attacking formation, as some argue we should have, but Pim was trying to build a team that would face, well, Germany, Ghana and Serbia. In short he did the right thing in my view. It's our best chance, and that's what Pim's paid to provide.

So clearly it's not just the best 23 players, it is the 23 most appropriate players for 11 specific tasks, now. The Socceroos are not like a big Club where you can shop around the thousands of top international for the player you want in a position. It is a pool of merely dozens of players around the World. They are largely sorted out just by which League they've managed to get a job in, and then by how much they've been playing and what their recent form is like. As Pim rightly says, reputation should not have anything to do with it. Pim, theoretically, should choose the players who have best demonstrated that they can deliver in the respective positions, now. If none have, he must choose the next best, the least inadequate, and the most coachable.

Then of course Pim has to coach them, to make the formation work. Once again, given his limited time, the more Pim can select players already actively in game-habit of doing exactly what he is going to ask of them, the better. He's utilising the coaching of other highly-paid professionals in fact. Then, depending what compromises he is forced to make - and Australia has no great wealth of talent - he must finish them with coaching and the three friendly games, and all of us must hope and pray for the best.

Whatever he chooses, there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth among the fans. With my small voice I'd like to declare that this is not the time. There is a time to throw stones, but now is the time for us to gather our stones together.

Pim is doing a job of enormous qualification. He is the General now and from the time those players are officially named until the time we are dismissed from the World Cup, I think it is incumbent upon Australian people to support the man and whichever personel he chooses.

Besides, I wouldn't have a clue whether Nicky Carle would be better than Brett Holman, and I'd have even less of a clue as to which observers I should trust. I just don't know. I can tell you Mark Schwarzer will be the first keeper, or that Lucas Neil will be a centre back, that we rely like hell on Timmy Cahill, and that Grella, Kewell and Breciano will all be there if they're fit enough, but anyone can tell you that.

I bow now to the wisdom of the gaffer. May the spirit of Johnnie Warren guide your choices mate. I wait with baited breath.

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