Socceroos full-back Aziz Behich spoke to the media on Monday as Graham Arnold’s side arrived in camp to begin their World Cup qualifying campaign against Bangladesh and Palestine.
Aziz Behich is very familiar with the rollercoaster that is FIFA Men’s World Cup qualifying in Asia.
The 32-year-old full-back is preparing to enter his third World Cup cycle as part of the Socceroos setup, having helped Australia achieve qualification in both 2018 and more recently 2022, where they qualified in the most dramatic of circumstances.
But this time around, the arduous qualification phase kicks off in a special manner for the 61-time Socceroo, as Australia commence their road to 2026 in his home town of Melbourne against Bangladesh on Thursday night.
“It’s exciting,” Behich told reports on Monday morning.
“Obviously every time playing for the national team, it does mean something, but, look, it’s another another cycle beginning, to qualify for a World Cup.
“It’s going to be a long one, but we’re excited to get started.”
The Socceroos come into Round 2 of AFC qualifying with heightened expectations to qualify, especially with extra World Cup spots on offer going into an expanded 48-team World Cup in 2026.
Eight sides will earn a spot in the tournament set to take place in North America, which is double the amount of teams afforded a spot for previous iterations, while another could qualify via the playoff route.
In 2018 and 2022, the Socceroos took that path, having to go through the intercontinental playoffs instead of advancing automatically in the final round of qualifiers.
Australia will be among the favourites to be one of the eight Asian sides to advance without playoffs, but that hasn’t always yielded results for the Socceroos.
But being a favourite or an underdog doesn’t change a thing for Behich.
“We just focus on ourselves first and foremost,” he said.
“We just try and prove every camp and obviously, coming into camp, you don’t have much time to prepare.
“It’s pretty much in and then the game’s a few days later. So it’s how much you take on board from the coaches… we don’t look if we are an underdog or favourite or not.
“Internally, we know what we can produce on the pitch and what we expect from ourselves and that’s high standards and it’s going to be no different if we verse a lower ranked nation or a higher one, it’s an international football game.
“So we just want to get better every camp and every game.”
Behich has seen the evolution of coach Graham Arnold first-hand, who is now tasked with aiming to become the first Socceroos boss to achieve qualification in back-to-back cycles.
The left-back has been a mainstay under Arnold, particularly during the World Cup last year, where his performances helped Australia qualify for the Round of 16 for only the second time.
He lauded Arnold for instilling a strong culture during his time in charge and the standards he has set on the field, but also levelled praise for his manner in the midst of spending time in and out of Covid hubs, while international borders were still shut as a result of the pandemic.
“He’s been great since he’s come in,” he said.
“The culture he’s put in, from day one has made it easy for players to just slot straight into our environment. It was a difficult one for him with the Covid qualification phase but it’s obviously different this time around.
“He set the bar high for us and we do that on the pitch as well and everyday at training as well.
“It’s going to be no different, we’re expected to qualify, and that’s our main goal.”
During the last 12 months, Behich and his Socceroos teammates, along with the performances of the Matildas at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, have helped usher in a groundswell of support for our national teams.
The 32-year-old missed the initial boom of support after the Qatar World Cup due to playing his club football in Scotland with Dundee United, but since returning home with Melbourne City in the Isuzu UTE A-League, Behich has had a front row seat to witnessing the excitement around the game locally.
He hopes the strong support will continue this Thursday at AAMI Park.
“Definitely, you can see it’s growing,” he said.
“The Matildas did well during the World Cup, and we had a good run also during the World Cup.
“So it’s not surprising that it’s, slowly going on the up in in the country.
“It’s my first year back in Australia after 10 years… I missed all the hype after the World Cup because I was abroad, but being back now and seeing the crowds from Matildas games for the A-League, it’s great to see.
“And obviously what we do on the pitch is going to affect that, so starting with this campaign, and our main goal is obviously hopefully get full crowds in, every home game and try drive football in this country.”