Beaten but unbowed: Tim Cahill and Ange Postecoglou after the Socceroos' 3-2 defeat to the Netherlands. Photo: AFP
"Just making the trip for fun.”
That was the assessment of Lance! – Brazil’s largest and most respected daily sports newspaper – about Australia’s prospects on the eve of this World Cup.
The Socceroos won’t be progressing past the group stage, but the heart displayed in their 3-2 loss to the Netherlands in Porto Alegre best explains the rebirth under coach Ange Postecoglou and how they weren’t in Brazil merely to samba.
Premature celebration: A mural depicting Neymar holding the World Cup trophy on a wall in Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Andrew Webster
Nothing makes the heart of Australian sports fans thump louder than their national teams giving highly-fancied rivals a bloodied nose on a world stage, and save for a telling minute when Socceroos forward Mathew Leckie missed from close range after Tommy Oar failed to shoot, and the beautifully named Memphis Depay put a bendy, swervy shot past Mat Ryan, the game could’ve been theirs. And this, against the Netherlands and their talisman, Robin van Persie.
Postecoglou’s cold-blooded selection policy appears to have been vindicated – and that includes his controversial decision to overlook veteran defender Luke Wilkshire.
The decision to cut Wilkshire, a specialist right-back and experienced hand with 80 international caps, from the final 23-man squad has been widely criticised, not least after Ivan Franjic suffered a tournament-ending injury in the opening game against Chile.
Protest: Not all in Rio are smitten with the World Cup (translation: "Who said that the World Cup is more important than health and education? F--- Cup"). Photo: Andrew Webster
But the unwritten reason has been known by some in football circles for some time, and it relates to Wilkshire’s attitude off the park.
The 32-year-old’s demise followed a series of incidents stretching back to the reign of former coach Holger Osieck, including his attitude while recovering from a soft tissue injury before last September’s friendly against Brazil, and then failing to reach Postecoglou’s new standards of professionalism as the Socceroos rebuild ahead of next year’s Asian Cup on home soil.
Building a successful team has never just been about picking the best players, and the brave call sums up the new direction under Postecoglou, who has been unforgiving in moving on veteran players such as Wilkshire, captain Lucas Neill and Josh Kennedy.
‘‘For a long time, we’ve leant on the same players,’’ Postecoglou told me in an interview before leaving for Brazil. ‘‘It’s a privilege, not a right. I want our national players to be excited or disappointed if they miss out, not to expect it.”
The trouble with Wilkshire started in September last year when he flew in from Moscow, where he plays for Dynamo Moscow, for the friendly against Brazil in Brasilia with a soft tissue injury, and support staff were not happy with the way he had treated the injury. He was turned around and put on the next flight back.
Then, in October, Wilkshire angered Socceroos officials with his attitude after his side had suffered a 6-0 loss that ended in Osieck’s sacking.
The final straw came under Postecoglou, who has ushered in a fresh, professional approach, which heavily involves sports science. Players were asked to install an application on their phones, and feed in information about their bodies – about their diet and sleep patterns and so on – but Wilkshire did not follow the directive.
There have also been rumours of an incident in Vitoria, which other media have been chasing, but it doesn’t seem to have any foundation.
Well, that’s what we’ve been told. When this column started sniffing around the issue, FFA spin doctors threatened to restrict access to the national team and the All Stars match against Juventus at ANZ Stadium in August.
This directive did not come from the coach, but it is in stark contrast to his claim to this journalist before leaving for Brazil that he expected and even welcomed criticism if his side struggled in Brazil. If football wants to grow in Australia, tough decisions need to be made. Postecoglou is making his.
Wilkshire’s axing has clearly been one of his toughest. But someone, somewhere along the line, should have been upfront about it from the start.
Calls and texts to Wilkshire’s Russian number went unanswered.
So, Australia can hold their head high in defeat. Tim Cahill’s dynamite goal was something to savour.
Postecoglou’s side has attracted many new admirers, and they include the most unlikely of sources. Author Irvine Welsh, of Trainspotting fame, tweeted during the match: “I’m f---ing enthralled by this Aussie performance. Win lose or draw, bloody heroes.”
Hosts’ yellow fever
So, now, to the Brazilians, where the expectations of 11 men also in yellow shirts is starting to gather momentum. On Tuesday in Sao Paulo, I watched Brazil play Mexico from the vantage point of the footpath, outside a cafe, with dozens of fans watching on.
The sight of Brazilian star Neymar crying at the end of the Brazilian anthem didn’t raise an eyebrow, but it certainly illuminates the pressure the little fella is feeling.
At the top of the winding and narrow cobbled streets of Santa Teresa, in central Rio de Janeiro, I came upon a mural of Neymar already holding the World Cup aloft, with his teammates looking on from a cable car (see photo). It seemed exceptionally premature.
But then one local told me there had been an image of Argentinean counterpart Lionel Messi with his head in hands, depicting defeat in the final, right next to him.
Presumably, it had been painted out – and this was before Messi’s stunning display against Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Widespread reports in the foreign press that model Gisele Bundchen will present the World Cup to the champions next month have been knocked on the head.
As it was explained to this column, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff wanted to avoid the public spotlight because she feared being heckled on the world stage. But the model, to her credit, said she wouldn’t be sullying her reputation. Brazilians respect her for that.
The anti-FIFA sentiment is still running strong and shows no sign of abating. When president Sepp Blatter has been shown on the big screen at live sights, the crowd started chanting, “Puta! Puta! Puta!” Translation: bitch.
As one sign (see photo) read on the Rio metro: “Who said that the World Cup is more important than health and education? F--- CUP.”
The craziest things I've seen in Brazil:
A lunatic cyclist doing about 70kph slipstreaming less than a foot behind a van in Sao Paulo.
At Rio airport, there is CCTV footage that shows your luggage being taken off the trolley and “placed” on to the conveyer belt. You’ll never pack breakables again.
A Croatian grandmother forehead-slapping her two misbehaving grand kids before the opening match against Brazil.
And a man in Sao Paulo pleading with me to pay him to have my shoes shined.
I was wearing Havaianas.
And, finally, congrats to the NSW team and coach Laurie Daley for their epic win over Queensland in Origin II. The enduring image, from the vantage point of a Sao Paulo hotel room while watching on the internet, is of Josh Reynolds laughing as Johnathan Thurston gave him an elbow facial.
Go rugby league.
“Hey! Hey! Give me the f..king ball!" - England keeper Joe Hart blows up at a ball boy, before kicking an advertising board.
How do you keep at entire nation silent and also spark a chain of speculation that Liverpool and Arsenal want to sign you? Do what Mexican keeper Guillermo Ochoa did against Brazil and deny the host nation a goal in their second group match on Tuesday. "We just lost," said one Brazilian local.
What’s worse? Prime Minister Tony Abbott calling Socceroos captain Mile Jedinak “Mike” in a pre-recorded speech. Or this tweet from former Socceroos star Scott Chipperfield, who said of Ivory Coast midfielder Serey Die: "Serey die looks like a typical African. Forget how to play. Need brains to play football." Check out the big brain on Scott.
It’s a big World Cup weekend for … Cristiano Ronaldo, who said he had nothing to prove at this World Cup. Then his side was spanked by Germany. Portugal plays the USA in the Amazon.
It’s even bigger World Cup weekend for … Rio de Janeiro. Let’s just say, having been there in recent days, few people seem to be mindful of the shadow the Christ the Redeemer statue casts over the city. Fans from all corners of the globe are partying like it’s their last day alive. Something has to give.