Scott McIntyre takes a look ahead to the first leg of Australia’s World Cup playoff against Honduras taking place in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on Friday.
As South Korea relax at home with a couple of friendly matches and Saudi Arabia, Japan and Iran travel to the comforts of Western Europe for the same purpose, Asia’s lone remaining World Cup hopeful is descending into one of the most dangerous cities on the planet for a playoff match that could be a generation defining one.
The Honduran city of San Pedro Sula was rated earlier this year by Business Insider as the third most violent place on earth with an estimated homicide rate of 112 people per 100,000 residents and it’s here that Australia play the first of their two-legged playoff this Friday to determine which of these nations will join the party in Russia next year.
If the edgy reputation of Honduras’ second largest city wasn’t bad enough things were made even more problematic for the visitors after a local newspaper published details on the team’s accommodation, arrival and training schedule and topped it off by also listing the hotel where the small band of traveling supporters are staying.
— Caltex Socceroos (@Socceroos) November 7, 2017
That’s enough to have the team rightly concerned, but in a way there’s bigger issues at stake for a nation whose football scene is on the verge of chaos of its own doing.
A drawn-out and bitter struggle over governance reform has seen domestic clubs and the FFA at loggerheads for a lengthy period of time with FIFA and the AFC having already held talks aimed at resolving the impasse, but with no breakthrough in sight the game’s governing body has set a deadline barely three weeks from now for things to be cleaned up or else there is the very real possibility that they will remove the FFA from power and step in to administer the game.
Youth development domestically has long been a key concern and the fact that 37-year-old Tim Cahill was the man who fired Australia to this stage by scoring both goals in a 2-1 win over Syria last month does little to dispel those fears.
Where are the youngsters?
At the same time as the traditionally ‘smaller’ Asian nations are pouring huge resources into youth development the gap between those at the top and the bottom at age group level is clearly closing at a rapid rate, it’s not beyond question that should Australia fail to qualify for this World Cup then it may be a long wait before they do so again.
Moreover, slumping crowds and ratings have been an issue at the start of the latest A-League season and then there’s the surprise speculation that national coach Ange Postecoglou is set to walk away from the job regardless of the result against Honduras.
The 52-year-old has been linked with several vacant posts, the latest being the job at Scottish side Rangers, since news first started to break that he is prepared to walk away from the Socceroos over as yet unexplained ‘frustrations.’
A fire that hardly needing fuelling got that and a whole lot more intense with the coach himself refusing to directly address his future and the FFA also bizarrely allowing the ship to sail on its merry way even though they are no doubt fully aware of the coach’s plans.
On the pitch the task has also got a whole lot more difficult with Robbie Kruse already ruled out through injury and other key squad options in Mile Jedinak and Tim Cahill both battling complaints.
That comes on top of the suspensions to both occasional captain Mark Milligan and Mathew Leckie and they are key absentees – those trumpeting the claims of Son Heung-min as Asia’s most important player may do well to have a closer look at the Bundesliga form of Leckie (four goals in eight Bundesliga starts is pretty hard to argue with) and see just how important he is domestically and for his national side.
Leckie’s absence is a blow.
In many ways then this is really backs-to-the-wall stuff for the Socceroos but at least it’s hardly unfamiliar territory.
Amazingly, this will be Australia’s ninth playoff match and while the famed victory over Uruguay in 2005 is regarded as one of the nation’s most treasured sporting moments the sobering reality is that they’ve failed in six of the other seven occasions that they’ve found themselves in this situation.
The long and arduous path through qualification in Asia has already seen Australia travel a greater distance than any other nation (an estimated 250,000 km) and at the end of these matches with Honduras it will be a remarkable tally of 22 matches that they’ve played in an attempt to qualify – a figure that no other nation in history has matched.
That journey will come to an end one way or another in Sydney early next week and despite the ongoing differences in many quarters this is yet another important milestone for the AFC as Asia seeks to have a fifth World Cup representative for the first time in its history.