Australia: The (Un)lucky country
Ah, Australia. The sunburnt land. The land down under. The lucky country.
Don't worry; I promise this post isn't about the latest Federal budget, though many of you are aware how much I have to say about that. Cutting $8 billion for foreign aid to the world's poorest? Sure, why not; they can't vote anyway, right? Sorry; I promised not to.
No, this is about a topic that many Europeans would consider to be far more important than anything else: the upcoming football World Cup. By 'football', I of course mean soccer. That round-balled game whereby players stare at each other for 45 minutes, score a goal, celebrate like they've won the shirtless lottery, and then stare at each other for another 45 minutes. Nah, I'm joking (well, partially). During my time in Europe, I've come to appreciate the game a lot more - the skill, the nuance, the culture, and even the sheer scale of the soccer world in business terms. (Incidentally, the total salaries of the English Premier League last season topped $3 billion. If the annual salary of the average player was reduced by a third from $2.7 million to $1.8 million - still not a bad payday for kicking a ball - the savings would completely cover the $2 billion in foreign aid projects cut from next year. But, you know, I promised...)
Anyway, back to the World Cup. It's a huge extravaganza, uniting the world for a month in a sea of nationalism and euphoria. And amazingly, Australia made it in as one of the 32 countries to compete for the cup. Given that we are currently ranked 62nd in the world on the FIFA Rankings, some might call this a lucky break - and they'd be right, as, to a certain extent, Australia's qualification path is a little easier than some of the higher-ranked countries. But hey, once you're in, you're in, and then it's anyone's game. Well, at least the draw is done pseudo-randomly, such that there's always the chance you get paired in a relatively favourable group, increasing your chances of making it past the group stage.
Unfortunately, in Australia's case, that hasn't happened. In fact, according to a recent New York Times article, Australia has received the unluckiest draw of any competing nation. I had already publicly declared (much to my Aussie friends' shock) that Australia was in my opinion favourite to finish last, even before the groups were announced. But now I'm convinced; if we score even a single draw, I'll be impressed.
Australia's opponents in Group B are: Spain, the Netherlands, and Chile. Yep.
Spain is the world's best team and the reigning World and European Champions. That's already an unlucky draw, but to be honest, we would have struggled against any of the other "Pot One" teams that we could have drawn, such as Germany, Argentina, Brazil or even Belgium. Bad luck, but not the end of the world.
No, the real pain comes in the form of the other two teams. To qualify for the group stage, we need to be in the top two finishes of our group, which basically means finishing higher than the teams other than Spain. In this case, we've drawn the Netherlands, the finalists in the last World Cup and one of the historically great football teams. A recent form slump has seen their ranking fall to a paltry 14th, meaning that they were candidates for our "Pot Four" team. We could have instead faced Bosnia-Herzegovina, or Croatia, or even Greece. Not a great result.
But the real pain comes in the form of our 'weaker' group member, Chile. Chile has had an incredible run of late, and is now ranked even higher than the Netherlands at 13th in the world. Moreover, it's well known that South American teams tend to do much better in their own continent. They're understandably the favourite to take the second spot in the group ahead of the Netherlands. In football parlance, we're in the Group of Death.
Sounds bad, but wait, there's more. One of our national legends of the game, Josh Kennedy, is out through injury. One of our new young stars, Tom Rogic, has also just been ruled out because of injury. Our old captain has just retired, but I'm sure our new guy, Mile Jedinak, will be up to the challenge. That is, if he recovers from his recent ankle injury in time.
Am I too pessimistic? Perhaps. On the other hand, several betting sites have Australia has favourite to finish last (you can get 4 to 1 odds in some places). Call me unpatriotic if you will, but I'm already thinking ahead to my 'second' team to support in the Cup. I've decided that if I'm going to double-dip, I should at least choose a team with which I have some innate connection, so England it is. I'm not sure it's going to bring much more joy, though, particularly given I live in the Netherlands with flatmates who support Spain and Germany.
Still, on the plus side, Australia's chances in the partially knock-out draw have to be higher than Australia's chances of winning the upcoming World Chess Olympiad. At least, according to chess commentators Lawrence Trent and Jan Gustafsson in a recent broadcast, Australia finishing first would be nothing short of a 'miracle'. Two years ago we could have had our best-ever finish, sneaking into the top ten, had I not stuffed up the final round. This year, we're also fielding a team with only one Grandmaster, but things are a little different. The team has gone for youth, a good long-term strategy, and I'll be easily the oldest (and the tallest) member of our team. The squad will hopefully bring a hunger and energy to the campaign that I'm looking forward to cultivating. If nothing else, perhaps we have a good chance in the informal soccer matches on the rest day. If we're lucky.