Having taken Australia to new heights at last year’s World Cup in Qatar, coach Graham Arnold will scale a peak of his own when the Socceroos kick off qualifying for the 2026 finals in North America.
The 60-year-old will guide his nation in a 59th ‘A’ international against Bangladesh on Thursday, eclipsing the Australian record held with friend and former Socceroos team mate Frank Farina.
While reluctant to make a big deal out of it, Arnold can expect a warm reception at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium, particularly if his Socceroos thump the low-ranked South Asians.
Arnold, after all, steered a lightly-regarded squad to two wins and a round-of-16 appearance in Qatar, their best performance at a World Cup.
Just getting the Socceroos to the tournament was a triumph given the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
With Australia all but shutting its borders, the Socceroos had to play many of their home qualifiers abroad and only squeezed into the Qatar finals via playoffs.
Qualifying for the 48-team World Cup in 2026 should be a cakewalk by comparison, with eight Asian teams able to qualify directly, double the allocation for Qatar.
Arnold will again hope to break new ground as the first coach to take Australia to two World Cups, while regenerating a squad sapped of experience by player retirements.
“If I asked you how many players aren’t here who were in Qatar? Seventeen,” Arnold told a press conference on Wednesday.
“So, you know, it’s how quick national team football can go.
“I’ve always been one that keeps my eyes open — for not (just) plan A for now. I always have plan B and plan C for the future because things can change very quickly.”
Arnold has learned the hard way how to deal with the unexpected – both as player and coach.
He was part of four failed World Cup qualifying campaigns as a Socceroos forward in the 1980s and ’90s.
In front of a huge crowd at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, he missed chances for a match-winning goal against Iran which would have sealed a ticket to the 1998 finals in France.
He was an assistant under Farina when the Socceroos failed to qualify for the next World Cup in Japan and South Korea.
Arnold took over as a caretaker boss after Guus Hiddink stepped down following Australia’s drought-breaking appearance at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
By his own admission, Arnold’s first stint in charge was a failure as a strong Socceroos squad bowed out of the 2007 Asian Cup in the quarter-finals.
“I tried to be someone who I wasn’t as a human being. I tried to be Guus Hiddink, be hard and all that stuff,” he recalled.
“I honestly say that the boys didn’t respect me as a coach in those days. And they were right because I hadn’t done anything as a coach.”
When Arnold returned for his second stint as boss in 2018 he carried more weight, having won domestic championships at two clubs.
Still, his ebullience occasionally got ahead of him.
His insistence that Australia would win every match at the 2019 Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates came back to bite him when the hosts knocked them out of the quarter-finals.
Arnold will have the chance to make amends at the next Asian Cup in Qatar, which starts in January.
He will hope to emulate Ange Postecoglou, the Tottenham Hotspur boss who coached the Socceroos to their maiden Asian Cup title at the 2015 event on home soil.
Without a single player in a top European league, Arnold’s squad boasts more heart than talent, and he will hope to unearth a gem or two before the next World Cup.
If none are forthcoming, Arnold will likely shrug, clear his throat and wax lyrical about “Aussie DNA”, the term he coined for the grittiness and graft that carried the Socceroos to acclaim in Qatar.