On Sunday the first Socceroos players will assemble in Qatar, readying for a footballing challenge like nothing they’ve ever faced before.
Of course they won’t be alone in that respect – the first ever November-December World Cup, held smack bang in the middle of the European season, is going to throw up a unique set of challenges for all 32 nations.
It means while chaos is expected off the pitch at this World Cup – when an estimated 1.5 million people cram into the world’s 37th smallest country – there’s could also be plenty on the pitch when it comes to results.
Socceroos coach Graham Arnold certainly hopes that’s the case and he genuinely believes Australia will be better equipped than many, more fancied, rivals to tackle an unprecedented footballing challenge.
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Largely, that’s because Australia, members of the Asian Football Confederation since 2008, are veterans of the Middle East and Qatar – where Australia has played 15 matches in that time – became even more of a “home away from home” during a Covid-ravaged qualification campaign.
But the real game-changer could be the brutal schedule allowing for just a week between hefty club commitments and the opening Cup games. Kylian Mbappe’s PSG, for instance, will have played three games in 10 days before many of their stars will assemble in France camp to prepare for their opening match, against the Socceroos on November 23 (AEDT).
Injuries will also play a big part in this World Cup. They already are, with Sadio Mane (Senegal), Paul Pogba (France) and Diogo Jota (Portugal) among the big-name casualties and there could be more before the final weekend of domestic leagues is done.
The Socceroos have their own issues – up to five players in Australia’s ideal starting line-up are heading in under injury clouds. But while a lack of minutes in top-flight football for Australian players is usually a cause for concern, it could provide a blessing at the Cup of chaos.
“One way of looking at it is the bigger nations’ players have been getting pounded,” Arnold told foxsports.com.au earlier this month.
“They’re playing on the weekends with their clubs but Champions League as well and plenty of midweek games.
“A lot of our boys are playing one game a week. Some are obviously three a week in Europe. But yeah, it is what it is.
“The boys we’ve done this many times before where we’ve come in at the last moment and had to play. So it’s not like we are walking in as strangers.”
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Most Socceroos players will have little more than a week to prepare for their Cup opener. It sounds frantic, but Australia actually has one of the more measured build-ups.
“I’m hearing that some of the European nations or lot of nations are having a camp first in Europe and then coming over only three days before their first game,” Arnold said.
“But my experience is Qatar is different. The weather is a lot different. The stadiums, air-conditioned stadiums, are different and making sure you get that right is a big point.
“…I think there will be quite a number of surprises at this World Cup and I can see the Asian nations doing well. Saudi Arabia, they have been playing a heap of friendlies. They’re in camp, the Saudi league has stopped and they’re using it like a proper World Cup preparation whereas other nations get in seven days.
“I think some of the bigger nations will find it very difficult and for us being an Asian nation, having the experiences of playing in many of the Middle East countries before we know what it’s like.”
The Socceroos will likely need any edge they can get if they’re to make a mark at a World Cup few expected they would even get to.
Arnold believes another trump card could be the Socceroos’ base at the spacious Aspire Academy in Doha, also being used by the host nation.
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Australia’s players will eat, sleep and train at the venue, which features a full-sized indoor pitch, seven outdoor pitches, and other sporting facilities including a swimming pool, outdoor gym and squash courts
While there have been suggestions the Socceroos will be slumming it in dormitory style sleeping arrangements, Arnold insists Australia’s players will have a key advantage over the many rival nations staying in fancy hotels.
“A lot of these nations are going to have a beautiful hotel… with no football park, nothing nearby. OK, they’ll have shops but there’ll be 1.4 million people (in Doha) and they’re not going to be able to go outside their hotel,” Arnold said.
“But with us at the Aspire, we’ve got football pitches all around us. The boys can go have a game cricket if they want and they can go out and just lay in the sun. We’re getting set up a big TV, with a cafeteria outside with a big tent over it so the boys can sit and watch other games and have coffees and just be together.”
Rated as big as 750/1 outsiders and drawn in a daunting group featuring reigning champions France, world No.10 Denmark and Tunisia, Australia need something special to reach the knockout stages for only the second time.
If things play out as they’re supposed to, the final team to book its place at Qatar 2022 will be among the first departing Doha after the group stage.
But if ever a World Cup was set up to veer off script, this could be it.