Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Pim's Blueprint

The new head coach of the Socceroos, Pim Verbeek, probably didn't anticipate the debate that has dominated the Australian football community when he made his comments regarding the standard of the A-league compared to European leagues.

In the past couple of years, the Hyundai A-league has been doing things that many Australian football fans never thought possible - pulling big crowds, good tv ratings, engaging the mainstream media - but the question has always been in the back of fan's minds: how does this really compare to European football? Pim Verbeek's recent comments have brought this discussion out into the open - and all opinions are being laid on the table.

At a press conference last week, Pim made this claim: that a player who is training in Europe (specifically at clubs like Nuremburg and Karlsruhe in the German Bundesliga) would be better prepared for the upcoming World Cup Qualifier against Qatar than a player who is playing every week at an A-league club. These comments made headlines around the country - At times they were taken out of context, but they were very harsh comments. It is true that players who are training at big European clubs are generally better players than those playing in the A-league, with better skills and fitness, but training can not prepare you for a big international game, especially when you come up against a team like Qatar, who will be match fit - and very well prepared for the contest.

This is shown clearly by past results - in 2006 a Socceroos side with only A-league players beat Kuwait 2-0 at the Sydney Football Stadium (and were the dominant side), while a month later a side made up of European based players (many who had not been playing reguarly for their European clubs) were beaten comprehensively (loosing 2-0) in Kuwait City. Although the weather may have been partly to blame for Australia's loss on this occasion - there was no doubt that Australia's players were not ready for the physical contest. It was a similar story last year at the Asian Cup, the European based players were not ready - physically or mentally - even with a couple of weeks of preperation they could not prepare themselves well enough to even make the semi finals of the Asian Cup. If there was a bright spot in that campaign, it was the performance of A-league based players, who were match fit and showed that they had the quality to play at that level.

Both these examples demonstrate how the A-league, although maybe lacking some of the technical quality of many European leagues, provides decent preperation for international football. To say that to be training with a European club is better preperation for the game against Qatar than playing week-in-week-out in the A-league, is false - especially when the European based players will be getting off the plane only a couple of days before the match.

That being said, I still belive that the way Pim Verbeek has approached the game against Qatar - whether it be for the right reasons or not - is the best way to deal with these crucial matches - and should be seen as the blueprint for our future games of such nature. Pim has taken an A-league based squad, and prepared it for the game - he has worked with them for weeks, and they are ready to face Qatar in what will be a crucial game. He has then called up 19 European based players, due to logistical constraints, Pim will not be able to work with these players untill a day or two before the match. You can also expect that many players that Pim has called up will never actually make it to Australia, some will pick up 'injuries' on the weekend, some will miss the match through 'general soreness' - this is natural, and in reality these players would probably not be in the right condition to play against Qatar anyway.

This is why what Pim has done will work: when the inevitable occurs and many of the European based Socceroos do not arrive in Australia next Monday, Pim will be prepared - he has 20 A-league players ready for the contest. If 10-12 players arrive from Europe, in good condition and are ready to play against Qatar - then that is perfect. However if many players arrive tired, jet-lagged and ill-prepared for the game, then Pim has a whole squad of A-league players ready to step up. This will ensure a healthy mix of match-fit A-league players, and European based players who will add a technical 'edge' to the Socceroos side. You will not see a Socceroos side that looks slow, tired, unfit or unprepared next Wednesday - you will see a side in great condition, with a real attacking edge. This is the blueprint, that I believe will be used for years to come as we attempt to qualify for big international tournaments. What Pim has done has, I believe, has solved the problems we have over the past few years with no-shows and ill-prepared Socceroo teams. Whether he rates the A-league or not, I congratulate Pim on how he has approached next weeks game - let's just hope the result is the one we are looking for...

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