Football Australia chief James Johnson is staying calm amid a cacophony of unease over the Socceroos’ World Cup qualifying prospects, insisting “there is no need to panic at this point”.
Having slipped to third spot behind Saudi Arabia and Japan in pursuit of an automatic qualifying spot for Qatar 2022, the Socceroos have four Group B games left to remedy the situation and avoid the roulette wheel of the playoffs.
Former Socceroos goalkeeper turned pundit Mark Bosnich has heaped criticism on coach Graham Arnold, calling for tactical tweaks to turn the tide.
But after seven points dropped from their last three games against Japan, Saudi Arabia and China, Johnson is remaining steadfast, pointing out that Australia’s destiny still remains within their own grasp in the remaining fixtures against Vietnam, Oman, Japan and Saudi Arabia.
FA stands to reap more than a 10 million bonanza should Australia qualify, even if that means defeating the third placed team in Asia’s Group A and the fifth placed in South America to do so.
“The facts are the Socceroos lost once, drew twice and won seven times in 2021," Johnson told FTBL.
“There are several scenarios but the reality is the group is a three horse race and two will go through direct.
“Our destiny is still in our own hands and we must be calm and focused on direct qualification by maximising our points in the last four matches .”
Responding to the mounting disquiet over lost momentum after Australia’s record breaking 11 match winning run, Johnson added: “Our focus remains supporting Arnie and the team to qualify for Qatar and we have confidence that Arnie will lead the Socceroos to their fifth consecutive World Cup”.
The Socceroos play Vietnam in Australia on 27 January, Oman in Muscat on 1 February, Japan in Australia on March 24 and Saudi Arabia in Riyadh five days later.
“All four remaining matches are winnable and the Socceroos against Japan in March is going to be a huge night, perhaps reminiscent of the Uruguay match in 2005," added Johnson.
"It's shaping up to be the decisive match of Group B.”
Whilst not giving currency to doomsday scenarios, Johnson has a strategy for every eventuality - and the rise of the Matildas provides a buffer for whatever slings and arrows might befall the Socceroos.
“Our vision is to have two iconic brands in the market - the Socceroos and Matildas,” he said.
“The Socceroos have led the way for the sport for many years attracting strong fan engagement, match day attendance and broadcast numbers.
"But the challenge, due to the International Match Calendar congestion, has been the Socceroos don’t play often enough like a club in a league would.
“A related challenge has been the Socceroos don’t play often enough in Australia during international windows. In the past six years, the Socceroos have averaged two to three matches at home each year.
"This isn’t enough. More Socceroos matches in front of home crowds needs to be a strategic priority going forward.
“When you look at the Saudi Arabia game, we had a strong attendance of 23,000 (and these are healthy numbers as ticket sales are hard during COVID), whilst our broadcast numbers of circa 447,000 for this game were one of the highest on free to air on that night”.
Johnson reiterated the importance of diversifying FA business revenues through growing the brands of both the Socceroos and Matildas.
“The Matildas brand has grown rapidly in the past 18 months and will continue to do so," he said.
"The first match against Brazil attracted circa 465,000 viewers and it was the best Saturday night numbers for Network 10 in nearly a year.
"The first match against USA broke the all-time record attendance for the Matildas with over 36,000 fans in attendance.
“This is where the opportunity is for the sport: two iconic national team brands in the market playing regularly at home and on free to air TV.
“The past approach was to predominantly focus on the Socceroos, and not so much the Matildas, meaning there will always be a high risk to the business if the Socceroos don’t qualify.
“But we’re bringing our vision to life and if the Socceroos qualify for Qatar the game will go to new levels - we’ll have the Socceroos and Matilda firing at the same time.”
Assuming the ticket to Qatar is stamped without an intercontinental detour, Johnson plans a number of warmup matches at home ahead of the November showpiece.
“In the case the Socceroos qualify directly we would have a June-July window open and we can play whoever we want, then we have a September window for the Socceroos and I can assure you my strong preference will be to play quality opposition at home in front of our home fans in those windows. That’s how you build a brand”, he said.
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