Socceroos equal World Cup qualifying record with gritty win over Vietnam

If nothing else, Socceroos coach Graham Arnold, whose side ground out a 1-0 win over Vietnam at the Mỹ Đình National Stadium on Tuesday evening, is consistent with his messaging.

The 58-year-old’s frequent references to the expectations he and his squad hold surrounding performances and results have become a ubiquitous part of his public persona. Refrains about his squad bringing “great energy” to their work and tributes to the “family atmosphere” that exist between members of the Socceroos touring party have become a common theme.

Arnold’s commitment to these mantras has become somewhat of a running gag in Australian football – particularly his expectation to win – but they also serve a clear purpose in fostering the visualisation-heavy culture he wants within the Socceroos camp. Players’ vocabularies notably shift to mimic their coach’s whenever they pull on the green and gold jersey.

But since his group returned to international action for the first time since 2019 earlier this year, the national team boss has added another watchword to his repertoire: a desire to have his team put smiles on the faces of the fans watching on back home.

It is a noble sentiment that speaks to the symbolic power Arnold sees in the national team and perhaps too a tinge of homesickness the coach, who has effectively been living out of a suitcase since June, is feeling.

Of course, the ability to gain solace from the performances from the national team may vary – especially during a Covid lockdown. And while the game in Hanoi ended in a win, it would likely require a masochistic attitude to have gleaned much pleasure from the actual 90 minutes of football on display.

Coming off a comprehensive, 3-0 dispatching of China, Arnold’s side were forced to grind against the Vietnamese; Sydney FC defender Rhyan Grant’s goal in the 43rd minute ultimately proved the difference just 15 minutes after he survived a heart-stopping VAR review for a possible handball in his own penalty box.

The heat and humidity was oppressive and the pitch underfoot far from ideal, while Vietnam coach Park Hang-seo – an assistant to Guus Hiddink with South Korea at the 2002 World Cup – had the hosts set up in a highly organised manner. They sought to soak up pressure in numbers before springing forward in transition, meaning they ceded significant amounts of the ball to the Australians. Yet Vietnam nonetheless led the shot count 11 to six and consistently loomed as a threat over the 90 minutes.

By the end, few but the most ardent of Socceroos fanatics would have found reason to argue had the Vietnamese, who had not lost at home in six years heading into the game, found an equaliser.

But as the dust settles and the Socceroos prepare to return to their overseas-based clubs (with the exception of Grant, who will remain with national team staff in the Middle East in order to avoid two weeks of quarantine ahead of the October window), they do so knowing they are ensconced in one of the two automatic World Cup qualification slots in their group and in the midst of a 10-game winning streak – the best ever run of form in the Asian confederation. In their six games in 2021, just a single goal has been conceded by Arnold’s side.

Football Australia is adamant they will be able to gain special dispensation to play the next home qualifier – against Oman on 7 October – in Sydney, without the need for participants to quarantine for two weeks. And there is a good chance the Socceroos will make it 11 wins on the bounce if they return home for the first time since 2019 next month, given their home record is significantly stronger.

Thus, while the actual performance against Vietnam may not have evoked much joy, six points from a possible six is a perfect start to this final stage of qualification and followers of Arnold’s team have found plenty of reasons to smile over the past week.

So too, in a broader sense, has it been a good week for Australian football. Last Friday, the Australian Professional Leagues announced a plan to expand the W-League from nine to 12 teams ahead of the Women’s World Cup landing in Australia and New Zealand in 2023, with Wellington Phoenix widely expected to be announced as an inclusion for the coming season.

In the coming days, the players union, Professional Footballers Australia, and the APL will announce the signing of a new, far-reaching collective bargaining agreement that will improve working conditions for players, further embed gender equality in the professional game and, crucially, provide stability for the coming years. Remarkable, considering that last year’s negotiations – staged in the shadow of player stand-downs and economic uncertainty – almost sparked a civil war in the game.

Inevitably, a week is a long time in football, and complacency is the most certain way to ensure that these good times are liable to disappear in an instant. Certainly, the way the Socceroos played in Hanoi simply won’t cut it against teams like Japan and future opponent Saudi Arabia.