Young guns make their mark and allow Socceroos to glimpse bright future
Despite him being barely 30 minutes into his senior international career, nobody can accuse newly minted Socceroo Alex Robertson of showing a lack of ambition for the future. Indeed, it would be difficult for him to be showing any more. “You’ve got to reach for the stars and win a World Cup,” he told reporters after Australia’s 3-1 win over Ecuador on Friday. “You never know what’s going to happen. You see what [Australia’s] just done at the last one and for the next few years, building up to  I think we can do some really big things in the future. I mean, why not say it?”
Now bombastic declarations, commitments to future success, and an almost fanatically unwavering sense of self-belief aren’t exactly a new phenomenon for this Australian team. Graham Arnold is back for another four-year cycle, and once again declaring his belief that these coming years will give rise to the greatest Socceroos team of all time. But to hear such a statement from a 19-year-old with less than 45 international minutes under his belt, for a nation that’s progression to the last 16 at the World Cup was considered a bit of a miracle, is still striking.
Related: Australia 3-1 Ecuador: international football friendly – as it happened
In most circumstances, you’d call it brash. But if you’re training week-in and week-out under Pep Guardiola as Robertson is at Manchester City, to say nothing of rubbing shoulders with players such as Kevin De Bryne, Bernardo Silva, and İlkay Gündoğan, then a few things are going to rub off on you. Things such as an all-encompassing focus on winning and a special kind of belief in one’s abilities to take whatever adverse circumstances are placed in front of you and replace it with a more acceptable reality. The kind of mental acuity that only the elite of the elite possesses.
Time will tell if the midfielder has the ability to actually demonstrate this mentality with action, or if even has it to begin with, but his half-hour cameo against Ecuador on Friday at least demonstrated a level of deftness, instinct, and aggression exists within the 19-year-old. His maiden call-up was inevitably designed to see off potential competition for his loyalty and get him into the national setup at the start of a new cycle, but a youngster isn’t afforded the opportunities to absorb the lessons he is at the Etihad unless they possess a significant amount of innate talent and potential.
According to the marketing, Friday evening’s game was all about “welcoming home” and celebrating the achievements of the squad that belied all sense of rhyme and reason in Qatar. An easy, feelgood moment for the side and Football Australia to soak it all in before competitive fixtures, and potential reality bricks to the face, return. But the present’s great curse is that it will never quite match up to the plentiful future of the imagination. And with injured statesmen such as Aaron Mooy and Mat Leckie absent, the fixture quickly became about the mystery box that is the next-gen.
Robertson was one of two players to make their senior international debuts in Sydney’s west, Melbourne City midfielder Aiden O’Neill starting alongside fellow 24-year-old Keanu Baccus in the heart of the Socceroos’ midfield. Handed the task of containing Moisés Caicedo, the duo unspectacularly but effectively marshalled the threat of the Brighton man. And though one middling game won’t make his suitors rethink their position, it was Caicedo and not any error on their part – a poor back pass to Piero Hincapié – that provided the game’s turning point in allowing Australia to take a 2-1 lead.
Behind O’Neill and Baccus, Harry Souttar and Kye Rowles reprised their roles from Qatar in the heart of the Australian defence, a role it appears they will be given every chance to maintain over the next three-and-a-half years. Further ahead, 18-year-old Garang Kuol did his thing as a late substitute and netted Australia’s third from close range, inevitably providing him with a mental boost to continue to persevere after a challenging, but not unexpected, start to life in European club football.
Friday evening, as well as Tuesday’s return fixture in Melbourne, never really had much hope of retaining a focus on reflection over projection. The coming game in Victoria will likely see senior international debuts for Joe Gauci (22), Jordy Bos (20) and Nestory Irankunda (17), as well as potentially greater roles for Connor Metcalfe (23), Marco Tilio (21), Nathaniel Atkinson (23), Riley McGree (24), and Cameron Devlin (24). Alou Kuol (21), Denis Genreau (23), Tyrese Francois (22), Daniel Arzani (24), and Gianni Stensness (24) will be watching at home.
If it feels like there’s a lot of talent coming through, that’s because there is, and with more on the way behind them. Certainly enough to banish the lazy (and incorrect) claim that Australia doesn’t have “the cattle” to compete in Asia for a while. Yes, there are never any guarantees in football, but a new generation is seemingly on the way, one that can give Australian football fans reason to be optimistic. Even if you’d struggle to find many quite as sanguine as Robertson.