In March last year Graham Arnold seemed a dead man walking – the Socceroos World Cup qualification campaign was lurching towards failure and the manager was being battered from all sides.
Arnold’s team had finished seven points off automatic qualification for Qatar after a shocking run of one win in seven games left them facing a Asian playoff against United Arab Emirates and then another against Peru to make the finals.
While rumours swirled and ex-players and fans bayed for his blood, Football Australia took the pragmatic course and stuck by Arnold. It likely had more to do with the lateness of the hour and financial considerations than any overwhelming faith in Arnie to run around the fortunes.
But he did just that with qualification – and an excellent run at the finals – bowing out to the eventual champions Argentina and after nearly taking them to extra time.
He got to answer critics like Mark Bosnich and Craig Foster as well – bluntly rejecting their negativity with the dismissive “who cares?”. That would have tasted sweet.
On Tuesday, FA CEO James Johnson, who held firm on Arnold 20 months ago, got to congratulate the coach on his impending record-breaking match against Bangladesh as 2026 World Cup qualifying starts on Thursday.
“Graham is one of the greatest contributors to the Socceroos,” Johnson said in a statement.
“He’s been a constant in the Australian football landscape for more than 30 years as both a player and coach, being a part of some of the Socceroos most memorable moments.
“Anyone who knows Arnie will tell you he bleeds green and gold. His love for the Socceroos and football in Australia is both infectious and inspiring. That energy and passion is a huge element to the way he’s able to lead and inspire our nation’s best male footballers in some of our sport’s most challenging arenas.
“On behalf of Football Australia, I’d like to congratulate Arnie on everything he’s achieved in reaching this milestone and we look forward to him continuing to build on what is already an exceptional legacy.”
In a remarkable few weeks last year Arnold went from on the nose to a man revived. Since then he’s been linked to club jobs in Europe but opted to stick around with the national team.
While national team coaches make important calls every game, Arnold’s record-breaking achievement is conceivably down to one big ballsy call in the playoff against Peru.
With moments left in extra time against the South Americans, Arnold dragged Mat Ryan and replaced him with Andrew Redmayne – who saved the decisive spot kick (and also threw his opponents water bottle with cheat sheet attached away from the goal).
Ryan might well have gotten the Socceroos to Qatar, but if Australia had not advanced there’s little chance Arnold would still be their coach today.
And there’s virtually no chance he’ll have to endure a similar level of stress through to the next finals – with FIFA expanding the tournament from 36 to 48 teams meaning eight direct Asian confederation qualifiers will proceed directly instead of four.
Arnold, in his second stint as national team manager, will prowl the technical area for a 59th time on Thursday, taking him clear of Frank Farina.
Arnold – who also represented the Socceroos 56 times as a player – has been involved in national team coaching ranks since 2000, first as an assistant to Farina and then Guus Hiddink, before a brief period as caretaker coach in 2006.
“It’s certainly a proud moment and an achievement that I’ll reflect on when the time is right,” Arnold said.
“I look at some of the names on that list – Farina, Arok, Thompson, Rasic – guys I played under or assisted in the early part of my coaching career, and it gives you some perspective on what a journey it’s been so far.
“I think back to that caretaker period and how much I learnt about coaching; it was a challenging experience and one that on reflection I probably wasn’t ready for. I’m grateful for the opportunity I was given and what it was able to teach me ahead of my pathway into club coaching.
“I was able to put lessons from that time into practice, develop and eventually return to the Socceroos much more prepared for the role. It’s been a privilege to be part of the national team again with the benefit of that experience, and I’m immensely proud of what this group has been able to achieve in the last four years.
“In my opinion, there’s no greater honour than representing your nation on the international stage. I look at the young players coming through the Socceroos system now full of pride in the work they’ve put in to get where they are, and the journey that’s ahead of them.
“I’ve always loved being a part of the Socceroos culture and my desire to see Australia fulfil its footballing potential is still driving me to take this group to further success.”
Australia starts the road to north America in Melbourne at AAMI Park on Thursday night, before travelling to the Middle East to play Palestine next Wednesday (1.00am AEDT).
For this stage of qualifiers there are nine groups of four teams, with Lebanon the other team in Group I.
The top two teams from each group will advance into three groups of six for the next stage. The top two from those games – from September 2024 to June 2025 – will directly advance to the play offs with another qualifying round to determine the seventh and eight direct qualifiers.