The news that Socceroos skipper Mark Milligan had been ruled out of the Socceroos’ opening World Cup qualifier against Kuwait on Wednesday morning (AEST) with a minor leg injury may have come as a shock to some Australians.
And that’s not so much because of Milligan’s injury, but because many Australians would not even know the Socceroos were playing on Wednesday – let alone know how to watch them.
The lead up to this key series of matches has been all but lost in the noise of The Ashes, football finals and a basketball World Cup.
There’s a strong case to be made that the Socceroos represent the one national team that can truly rank where we sit as a sporting nation – let’s say, middling – and if we want to be serious about making an impact in football then World Cup qualifiers in far-away lands are the way we will develop the players to do so.
Socceroos coach Graham Arnold revealed on Monday that Milligan had been sent back to his English club Southend United and replaced in the squad by Melbourne Victory youngster Thomas Deng before the Kuwait City match.
“We didn’t want to take any risks with Mark, so we arranged for him to travel back to his club for ongoing care,” Arnold said, calling up Deng who had been in camp with Australia’s U-23 national team at Wollongong.
The South Sudanese refugee made his Socceroos debut in October in Kuwait City, where he replaced Josh Risdon in the second half of Australia’s 4-0 international friendly win against Kuwait.
The debut of Deng and Awer Mabil, also from South Sudan, was one of the great Australian sporting stories of 2018 and yet Arnold felt compelled to remind Australians who Deng is.
“Thomas was with us in October and November last year, and in June in Busan,” said Arnold.
“He has now arrived in Kuwait and will provide a great defensive option for our squad.”
What this highlights is that Arnold’s squad is clearly developing a new wave of Australian footballers, but the code itself still has work to do in bringing on a new and larger base of fans.
The code remains beset by drama and structural issues that has made increasing its audience harder than it should be.
With the departure of David Gallup as chief executive after seven years, perhaps the soon-to-be-appointed CEO should spend day one asking why the Socceroos qualification campaign is not on free-to-air television.
Emerging players like Deng and Mabil deserve to be household names well before Qatar and that requires national free-to-air television coverage.
For football to thrive in Australia it needs to harness the passion on show every four years at the World Cup and to do that the game must be visible to those fans who only tune in when there is something at stake.
And while hard-core types will scoff at that notion, and Telstra will tell you to buy a mobile plan and watch on your phone, the reality is that making the game bigger here does mean making the game accessible to all.
Mobile streaming, particularly given the blackspots around the nation – and in some cases even within capital cities – just doesn’t cut it, although there is a case to be made that the airways might be freer at 1.30am when the Socceroos play.
Now that Football Federation Australia is moving away from the management of the seemingly endless travails of the A-League, it’s time to get this right and make sure the nation can watch the Socceroos whenever and wherever they play.
SOCCEROOS WORLD CUP ROUND TWO QUALIFIERS
Wednesday 1.30am: v Kuwait, Al Kuwait Sports Stadium
TV: FOX SPORTS, Kayo Sports, and via Telstra My Football Live App
Oct 10 v Nepal, Canberra
Oct 15 v Chinese Taipei, Sydney
Nov 14 v Jordan
Mar 26 v Kuwait
Mar 31 v Nepal
Jun 4 v Chinese Taipei
Jun 9 v Jordan