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We take a look at the moments that shaped the game of soccer in 2015, and what lies ahead.
1. The Asian Cup (I)
Australia had never won anything of significance in their soccer history. With all apologies to the Oceania Football Confederation, beating up on some 10th-rate nations and a bunch of Pacific Island atolls hardly counts, so we will not regard winning the Oceania Championship as that big a deal. So when the chance came for this country to host the Asian Cup it offered the Socceroos their best chance to make a mark on the international scene. While lead-up results had not been all that promising, coach Ange Postecoglou had always asked to be judged not by results in friendlies and preliminaries but the tournament itself. It was a slow burn for the local fans as Australia went a goal down to Kuwait in the opening game and then lost to South Korea in the group phase before getting their act together. The national team won every game thereafter, culminating in that thrilling extra-time victory over the South Koreans in the final in Sydney. Australia showed grit and character in that final: the Koreans’ late equaliser would have knocked the stuffing out of most teams, but Postecoglou’s men, having been denied at the last, simply rolled up their sleeves and went out and won it again.
Massimo Luongo starred for the Socceroos in the Asian Cup. Photo: Brendan Esposito
2. The Asian Cup (II)
The Asian Cup mattered in so many ways, and not just because of Australia’s victory. Sure, that provided a timely boost for the game and a feelgood month for all who follow soccer. But the staging of the tournament was first rate, and proved to all in the Asian confederation, and those further afield in FIFA’s tainted corridors of power, that there should never be any concerns about staging a major soccer competition – the World Cup – in this country. Australia’s migrant population came out in their hundreds of thousands to support their teams, producing a cacaphony of colour, sound, movement and emotion at so many games. The Iranians and the Iraqis produced a thriller in Canberra. The Chinese came out in droves to follow their nation, while teams with a small diaspora – Uzbekistan, for example – seemed to attract every national in the country to watch them play wherever they turned out.
Palestine fans at an Asian Cup game in Melbourne this year. Photo: Getty Images
3. FIFA’S descent into farce and chaos
That there was something rotten in the state of FIFA was long known everywhere, it seemed, except among the delusional powerbrokers and officials in the Swiss-based organisation who managed to convince themselves that the chicanery they indulged in was not criminal or illegal but driven by a desire to help grow the game. Whether they felt it or not – and it beggars belief that they thought they were doing nothing wrong or would get away with it for ever – they most clearly were not acting in the best interests of the sport. So when agents of the FBI and the US tax authorities swooped in Zurich in May and arrested several high-profile FIFA names and laid charges against 18 federation and sports marketing executives from North and South America on corruption counts totalling up to $150 million, the world cheered. Things only got better when the egregious Sepp Blatter was finally driven to say he would step down, and with each week that went by more allegations or evidence of some other crime against decency and probity came to light. It seems impossible for FIFA to reform itself, so many now believe that the only solution will be to scrap the organisation and start afresh.
It has been an inglorious year for Sepp Blatter and FIFA.
4. Melbourne Victory’s triple treat
The FFA Cup has only been in existence for two seasons, but it’s a measure of Melbourne Victory’s determination to set benchmarks in the game that they made a concerted effort to win the 2015 tournament. Why not? Victory had already won the premiership and championship, and were determined to make sure that they would become the first club in the A-League to win the treble. Victory achieved their aim in routine style, seeing off Perth Glory in the final at AAMI Park in a contest that was a lot more low key than the game six months earlier when Kevin Muscat’s men took the championship. That was a fantastic advertisement for the Australian game, a match pitting the two best sides in the competition – the runners-up were Sydney – against each other in a febrile atmosphere that Muscat described as perhaps the best he had experienced at an Australian game, certainly a club match. Victory dominated, but only sealed it with two late goals that gave them the buffer their overall play deserved. Carl Valeri’s late dismissal was the only downside in a 3-0 triumph.
Trophy team: Coach Kevin Muscat and Victory players celebrate after being presented the FFA Cup. Photo: Getty Images
5. Fan Power and FFA’s failure to read the play
Whoever leaked the document naming and shaming the 198 supporters banned from Australian soccer stadia may, unwittingly, have done the game a favour. The Sunday Telegraph’s decision to splash the story, identifying those locked out, produced a spark of fan fury the likes of which had never been seen before. Their biggest beef was the lack of an appeals process against the banning orders and active supporters made their displeasure abundantly clear. FFA seemed to think they could just mouth platitudes or ignore the fans as they have done so often before. How wrong they were. The game’s leaders were left to look lead-footed, slow-witted and out of touch in the way they handled the growing protests, and they were unprepared for the concerted action that followed when co-ordinated boycotts of games all over the country reinforced the fans’ point. In the end a truce prevailed when FFA agreed to introduce an appeals process, and the fans agreed to come back to matches. It is to be hoped that both parties to this stand-off now know, understand and respect each other more than they did before the stoush began.
The answer to this question, posed by Adelaide fans on December 6, appears to be in the positive. Photo: Getty Images
6. The Matildas’ exploits against the odds
Few gave the Matildas any chance in their World Cup pool when they were drawn against the might of the US and the always competitive Swedes, alongside the improving Nigerians. But Alen Stajcic’s squad dug deep and surprised the world, coming through that group with a win over Nigeria and a draw with Sweden after giving the US a scare in the opening match. Once again they were the underdogs when they took on the fancied Brazilians in the round of 16, and once again they pulled off a surprise, winning 1-0 to advance to the quarter-finals. It was there that their run came to an end, but only narrowly as they went out with honour, going down 1-0 to Japan. That is when the fun and games started, as they then became embroiled in a pay row with FFA as the players’ union, the PFA, fought an increasingly bitter wage battle over a new collective bargaining agreement with the game’s governing body. Industrial action in the shape of a training camp strike and subsequent refusal to travel back to the US to play the World Cup winners in September pitched the Matildas back into the headlines. But they felt vindicated in November when they got the pay increase they sought. The top Matildas will now receive $41,000 a year, with a new second tier set at $30,000 per annum in addition to match fees. The previous base salary had been just $21,000.
Matildas captain Lisa de Vanna was pivotal in Australia’s Women’s World Cup campaign. Photo: Getty Images
Predictions for 2016
(I) Melbourne Victory recover from their mid-season stumble and power their way back into the grand final, where they will meet the rapidly improving Melbourne City in the first “local derby” playoff for the championship. It is to be hoped that somewhere bigger than AAMI Park might be available for the title decider should this come to pass.
(II) The Socceroos sweep Tajikistan and Jordan aside in their next World Cup qualifiers, and proceed to make a strong start to the final phase which begins in June.
(III) Pressure continues to mount on FIFA to cleanse their tainted structure, and talk of World Cup boycotts in Russia and Qatar begins to be heard more loudly.
(IV) The European championships pass off without incident in France although heightened security measures mean fans are left milling outside grounds for hours as they patiently queue to get in. Les Bleus reach the final on a wave of public sympathy and emotion only to find world champions Germany a bridge too far. England go through the group phase winning all their matches, and then fall apart in the knockout stages when they lose to Italy. Croatia prove the best outsiders, while fans from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland join forces to win the best supporter sing-song awards.
Who will win Euro 2016? Photo: AP
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