In Graham Arnold walked through the side door and onto the landing, sat down in front of the sponsorship board, and cleared his throat into the microphone. “An extra day.” No, he didn’t actually say that – it would have required a 19th century French rebel outfit which, frankly, is not available in Qatar.
And even then, it would have seemed too clear for a Graham Arnold press conference. A Graham Arnold press conference, in its purest form, presents a slogan or an analogy, or perhaps even a blatant redirection of the lyrics of Les Miserables, which has become an Internet meme to the point of an inglorious cliché – whatever that distracts from the problems on the ground or pushes the desire for the message of the day.
Tuesday was similar in some ways, but it also had a slightly different feel. This one, his 36th – and potentially last – pre-match press conference as manager of the Australian national team, looked more like an arrival. It was his moment. The end of the struggle.
Whether Arnold is staying for another game, longer or leaving – that’s unclear, although he did stress the need for an extended break – he did more than he came to do. He built a young team from scratch and won his first World Cup match in 12 years, in a World Cup his team nearly failed to qualify for. It was a near miss for which he was nearly sacked by Football Australia, during a pandemic.
The Socceroos could yet qualify for the Round of 16 in the early hours of Thursday morning, adding another historic achievement to their bloated portfolio. Whatever the result against Denmark, Arnold said he felt “really relaxed and ready”. He seemed to think so.
The 59-year-old has been in football as a player or manager for 37 years. With experience comes wisdom, which sometimes turns into success. And with success comes more jobs and ever-increasing pressure. The mind must twist funny under the weight of public opinion – and public opinion has not always been kind to Arnold.
Let’s stay in the area of media relations. Some of his press conferences from the past, honestly, sound like bullshit. Fortunately, the “expect to win” slogan was dropped somewhere in the first phase of qualifying when it started to clash with the results. The talk of “the subconscious mind” is also long gone. For the outside world, at least, it’s easier to understand when it’s unfiltered.
Now that the pieces of the puzzle are finally falling into place, he felt on Tuesday that he was giving himself permission to add at least some of his real voice to the public record. He said his players possessed “quality”, rather than calling them “boxer kangaroos” full of “self-belief”. He also spoke freely about the quality of Denmark, which “has been one of the best teams in Europe for a very, very long time”.
The motto “we only focus on ourselves” finally got some airtime, but the words weren’t as polished, less practiced. There was even an analogy with a half-baked cake.
“The Socceroos are just the icing on the cake,” Arnold said. “And whatever that frosting is – whether it tastes good or bad – the most important thing is the ingredients. The ingredients are junior development and junior national teams, and if that’s not the case, the icing won’t taste very good.
We got the message, especially as it came directly on the heels of a sharp assessment of Australia’s youth development infrastructure, during which he called on Football Australia to carry out a thorough review of its setup. He joked that if he had the power to change the status quo he would “hire about 150 people”.
These were the words of someone who really has his future in his hands. “Over the past four and a half years, we have gone through some tough times,” he said. If a new contract at the end of the tournament in Qatar is not agreed, foreign clubs are likely to appeal.
But he, his staff and his players will always have this moment. “If there’s probably anything that’s been proven, it’s that there’s one sports team that unites a nation, and that’s the Socceroos,” Arnold said.
“The celebrations in Federation Square in Melbourne show that football is alive and well in Australia, and putting a smile on Australian faces once is not enough – let’s do it many times.”
He also sat next to Mat Leckie, the second most experienced squad member behind Mat Ryan, and told the overseas press where football sits in the pecking order in Australia. “It’s probably the fourth or fifth main sport after the AFL, rugby league, rugby union and cricket,” he said. “And they call it football. So leaving a legacy is huge.
However, there is a legacy. And for 32 minutes inside Doha’s main media center, Arnold was able to talk about a match that is both the biggest of his career and the one without the pressure of others. One more dawn. An extra day. An extra day.