A packed calendar of home internationals will combine with the Asian Cup and World Cup qualifiers in a pivotal year ahead for the Matildas and Socceroos, writes Joey Lynch.
Football Australia CEO James Johnson has told KEEPUP that ensuring Australian fans are well-placed to watch the Socceroos and Matildas in action will be one of the federation’s key drivers in planning for 2022.
Both the Socceroos and Matildas returned home for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in recent months; Australia’s men facing off with Saudi Arabia as part of 2022 World Cup qualification and the Matildas staging friendlies with Brazil and the United States – the latter seeing a new record-crowd set for a women’s fixture in Australia.
Though rising COVID-19 numbers and border closures are impacting on the A-Leagues seasons and the FFA Cup, Johnson said he was planning for both national teams to face a series of high-quality opponents next year.
The Matildas are just three weeks away from next month’s AFC Women’s Asian Cup, which would normally also double as qualifying for the subsequent World Cup in 2023. By virtue of Australia and New Zealand’s hosting of that tournament, neither the Matildas nor the Oceanian-based Football Ferns will need to sweat on qualification.
The Women’s World Cup is set to be the biggest sporting event to hit Australia since the Sydney 2000 Olympics, and moves to capitalise on the groundswell of momentum and excitement from its imminent arrival are already well underway.
Among those, the Liberty A-League, which has served as the home at one point or another for every member of the Matildas squad, has added Wellington Phoenix for the 2021-22 campaign and Central Coast Mariners and Western United will join them a year later.
For their part, Football Australia have already begun planning a program of fixtures that will serve to both align with coach Tony Gustavvson’s desire to face strong opposition and give Australian audiences the best possible opportunities to see the national side on home soil.
With six international windows presently planned for 2022 beyond the Asian Cup, James Johnson told KEEPUP that this likely meant the Matildas would spend three windows abroad in the next 12 months, and return to Australia on the other three occasions.
“We want to ensure that in order to build the brand of the Matildas the team is playing in front of home crowds as much as possible and if they’re playing abroad we want them to be in, as best as possible, friendly time zones so our fans in Australia can watch,” Johnson said.
“The starting point is six windows, we’d like three to be in Australia and three to be abroad. We’ve just got to figure out which windows we’ll have at home, which windows we’ll play overseas.
“We’ll be trying to bring the best nations that we can back here to Australia three times in 2022.”
He continued: “We’re in multiple conversations with the different member associations about teams coming out here. There are some complications because Europe has their own qualifications through the majority of 2022.
“But rest assured that if you went on the FIFA website and look at the top ten to 15 nations you can be sure we’re in contact with those.”
Taking Johnson’s advice and checking those rankings makes for intriguing reading.
Should agreements be reached, possible re-matches with the likes Germany, Brazil, or Sweden could be on tap in the months ahead, or fresh opposition such as old foes England, Tokyo Olympic champions Canada, powerhouses Spain and France, or 2019 Women’s World Cup rivals Italy could be making their way Down Under.
Meanwhile there is a little more structure to the Socceroos’ year ahead, but still much depends on their fortunes in the remaining four World Cup qualifiers in January and March.
Set to return to Melbourne for the first time in four years when they take on Vietnam at AAMI Park in January, the Socceroos will also take on Oman away in the same January window, before facing Japan and Saudi Arabia in March.
If coach Graham Arnold and his side – which may feature a number of A-League Men talents – then find themselves sitting in one of Group B’s top two slots come the end of this phase of qualification in March, they will qualify for the World Cup automatically and have June, July and September international windows open as part of their preparations for Qatar 2022, set to kick off in November.
Should they finish in the group’s third position, though, they would first need to defeat the third-best side in Group A – presently the United Arab Emirates – before then facing off with the fifth-placed team from South American confederation CONMEBOL in a single-leg tie in Qatar.
“We will have at least one window that we can [definitely] bring the Socceroos back to Australia outside the qualifiers, in September,” Johnson told KEEPUP.
“There are conversations about which team or teams that would be, we’re also having conversations about what the June/July window would look like and who we would play in the event that we qualify directly.
“Next year there will be a focus on the Socceroos to build the brand as we had with the Matildas this year and in order to do that, we need the team playing at home or in friendly timezones for the Australian audience.”
Yet regardless of the Socceroos World Cup fate, 2022 will also mark 100 years since Australia’s men played their first international fixture – a 3-1 loss to New Zealand at Carisbrooke Park in Dunedin. It’s an anniversary that will not go unmarked.
“It’s a 100-year history – we have to play against New Zealand in 2022,” said Johnson.
“They have their own uncertainty with qualification as well. So, we’re in dialogue in principle that we’ll play at some point in 2022. We’re just trying to figure out which team that will be and when it will be.”