After a long and emotional qualification campaign, Australia has a clear picture of the required task to reach the World Cup; beat Honduras over two legs. What is far less apparent, however, is who will be in charge of the team, even if they succeed.
Less than 24 hours after overcoming Syria 2-1 in the second leg of their playoff, reports that Socceroos boss Ange Postecoglou will vacate his post after the Honduras tie, whatever the result, took hold in the Australian media.
In a statement issued on Wednesday afternoon, Postecoglou and Football Federation Australia did not confirm or deny his reported early departure.
So, what does all this mean for the future of the Socceroos?
In the short-term, the news that Postecoglou is already planning life after the national team will disrupt preparations for the two matches against Honduras in November. However often the players, coaches and officials alike will say it won’t change matters, such a drastic piece of news can’t help but send ripples of doubt through the camp.
That alone means the Socceroos’ future is less than ideal. Though their possession-based, short-passing style arguably suits playing an opponent such as Honduras more than it does many teams in Asia, Australia are starting the tie on the back foot.
But why is Postecoglou looking to move on when a World Cup berth is within reach?
One can only speculate, but his general demeanour — at least in the public sphere — changed after a spat between the FFA and the players union in September 2015.
Fresh off a watershed Asian Cup triumph, the former Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory coach was forced to retract comments made about the players and their ongoing pay dispute with the governing body. Postecoglou has never seemed the same since.
More easily riled over growing criticism for his tactics and team selections, the 52-year-old simply hasn’t looked as engaged about the bigger picture in recent times. That, truly, is the real blow for Australian football.
Postecoglou started his reign in 2013 promising to increase the depth of the national team by giving a large number of players an opportunity, which would trickle increased quality right down through all levels of the game, helping football reach its potential in Australia.
He has certainly achieved some of those goals, such as winning a major international tournament and using some 59 players in his relatively brief tenure. However, if he were to leave at such an odd time, it would significantly reduce the longevity of his legacy.
If a new coach takes charge prior to the 2018 World Cup — if the Socceroos actually qualify — all long-term plans will be scrapped in place of a need to get results in Russia. Playing style and player development will be the furthest thing from an incoming coach’s mind if thrown into the hot seat in such a circumstance.
So, regardless of the result against Honduras, Postecoglou’s achievements deserve a better send-off than to be forgotten in an instant like that. Indeed, the game deserves better.
Perhaps he believes that the end of this year is the only time he’ll be able to land a dream job at a strong European club? Or perhaps the idea of heading to another World Cup simply doesn’t entice him anymore? Whatever the reason, it seems Postecoglou’s initial grand plans have made way for his unhappiness.
The disgruntled coach now appears willing to give up an opportunity represent his country at a World Cup. Some would say there is no greater honour, evidently not Postecoglou.
For now, the FFA must stick by their man, as must the rest of Australia. He and his team can still earn a spot among the world’s elite, a position far too precious to be taken for granted.
Rob Brooks writes about Australian football and the A-League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @RobNJBrooks