IAN LADYMAN: Graham Arnold was once branded a laughing stock by Australians... now he's set the country up with a plum last-16 fixture against Argentina and Lionel Messi

Daily Mail
Daily Mail

It was not long ago that Australia coach Graham Arnold was so unpopular at home that when he took his dog for a walk on a Sydney beach back in March, a member of the public reported him for breaking Covid guidelines.

Arnold, who was recovering from the virus at the time, was fined £14,000 by his own federation.

That wasn’t the low point either. That came a week later, when failure to qualify automatically for the World Cup led Football Australia to issue a statement saying Arnold, 59, was not about to be sacked.
Graham Arnold led Australia to the last 16 with a 1-0 victory against Denmark on Wednesday

And so to the Al Janoub Stadium, Doha, at around 8pm local time on Wednesday. Arnold’s team of drifters, journeymen and youthful hopefuls had just beaten Denmark to reach the last 16 of Qatar 2022 and their much-maligned coach was standing on the field with the chorus of Waltzing Matilda ringing in his ears.

In Australia they tend to back their sports teams, but nobody backed this one. Wednesday’s line-up did not include one player from a major European league. Arnold’s team is hewn from the Australian A League, the Scottish Premiership, the English Championship and the second divisions in Germany and Japan.

To lose 4-1 to France in game one surprised nobody. To then record 1-0 victories over Tunisia and Denmark surprised everybody.
The manager was once viewed a laughing stock but is now on course for a historic tournament

‘To look up and see the fans going crazy is surreal,’ said Arnold. What is even more fantastical is that his team’s next opponents are Argentina tomorrow night.

‘This is all about Australian DNA,’ Arnold (above) added. ‘Backs to the wall. Nobody giving us a chance. That always used to bring the best out of us.’

Australia seemed to be growing as a football nation when the so-called golden generation of Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Mark Schwarzer and Tim Cahill made the last 16 of the 2006 World Cup.
The public once reported Arnold for breaking Covid guidelines whilst taking his dog for a walk

Arnold was assistant to coach Guus Hiddink then but believes a lack of investment has cost his country since. Doubling up as Australia’s Olympic coach, he has nine of his Under 23 squad from Tokyo last year with him in Qatar.

‘Maybe we’re talking about a new golden generation. I’ve been hearing about the golden generation of 2006 who got four points and now we’ve got six,’ said Arnold, pithily.

He has every right to be bitter. He was vilified through a qualifying campaign that saw Australia squeeze into the hat after a play-off win over Peru on penalties.
Mathew Leckie's goal sent Australia through to the round of 16 for only the second time ever

Former Manchester United goalkeeper Mark Bosnich admitted on Wednesday that he had been wrong to criticise Arnold. ‘It wasn’t looking good for him,’ Bosnich said. ‘He stuck through it. Massive congratulations to the Socceroos. Minor miracle being there, proper miracle now.’

In Australia, it was the middle of the night when the whistle blew on their team’s crucial victory. TV images showed thousands of fans packed in public places such as Fed Square in Melbourne.

When Arnold, assisted by former Manchester United coach Rene Meulensteen, emerged to talk the following morning, he had been fuelled by a Subway sandwich and a can of Coke. Asked who he would want to play in the final, he said: ‘Brazil.’
Australia will face world-class superstar Lionel Messi when they face Argentina on Saturday

It is hard to see his team finding a way past Lionel Messi and Argentina, but Australian sportsmen are rarely lacking in confidence.

Defender Milos Degenek, who plays for Columbus Crew in MLS, was asked yesterday about facing Messi. ‘He’s the greatest to ever play the game,’ Degenek said. ‘But it’s not an honour to play against him because he’s just a human.’

It would be extraordinary were there another chapter to this story. Arnold has already warned his federation that much needs to be fixed further down the food chain but for now that doesn’t matter.

Yesterday, it was football and not cricket on Australia’s back pages. For one day at least.

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