Socceroos coach Graham Arnold didn’t shy away from bold calls in his 26-man squad for this month’s World Cup in Qatar – none bigger than axing sometime captain and half-centurion Trent Sainsbury.
The absences of Mitch Langerak and Tom Rogic were equally momentous. But for every big name left out there’s a youngster waiting for their chance on the biggest stage – or a veteran handed a call-up they thought might never come.
Here are the biggest winners and losers from the Socceroos squad.
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One of the biggest shocks in the squad, 37-year-old Vukovic’s gamble to return to the A-League in August and put himself in the shop window for selection has paid off handsomely.
Vukovic has played just four matches for the Central Coast Mariners – and currently has the lowest save percentage in the league, having stopped 5 of 11 shots on target (45.5 per cent).
Vukovic has been around the Socceroos set-up for many years, and is a reliable back-up – but has made just four international appearances and is unlikely to feature in Qatar unless clear first choice Mat Ryan is injured.
Vukovic has a very long relationship with Graham Arnold, stretching back as far as the 2008 Olympics, when Arnold was head coach of the Olyroos. Vukovic played all three games in that tournament – including against an Argentina side featuring Sergio Agüero and Lionel Messi. He also played alongside Ryan at the Mariners in 2010 under Arnold, with the pair set to reunite on football’s biggest stage.
He’s still yet to start a professional match for the Central Coast Mariners and has just turned 18.
To the average punter, it looks like a baffling decision to take someone to a World Cup who is so inexperienced.
But Garang Kuol is a special talent and absolutely deserves his spot on the plane to Qatar.
Kuol scored four times in his first seven games as a pro and at just 17 years of age to set tongues wagging in the Australian football community.
A dazzling cameo in his Socceroos debut provided more power behind the undeniable hype train, with a run down the right side playing a pivotal part in setting up the Socceroos’ second goal against New Zealand.
He picked up right where he left off in the 22/23 A-League Men’s season as well, bagging two assists coming off the bench in a 3-0 win against the Western Sydney Wanderers.
His fearlessness with the ball at his feet makes him an irresistible option off the bench and is the X-factor Arnold is looking for.
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Cummings couldn’t have asked for a better journey since moving to Australia in January.
Moving to the Mariners in January, the 27-year-old scored 10 goals and chalked up six assists in 20 games.
He’s shown no signs of slowing down this season either, with two goals and three assists to date in the 22/23 A-League Men’s season.
A cult hero, Cummings’ inclusion could be a result of his larrikin personality and the positivity he might bring to the squad off the pitch.
But make no mistake, Arnold clearly believes in his on-field talent as well and Cummings proved just as much in his Socceroos debut when he cooly converted a penalty against New Zealand.
After being left on the bench at every 2014 World Cup game, and missing from the 2018 World Cup squad, Bailey Wright will be hoping it’s third time lucky.
The 30-year-old has experienced a rollercoaster international career after his 2014 debut. He was a staple of the squad from 2015 onwards, guiding the Socceroos to the 2018 World Cup – only to be dumped from the squad between March 2018 and mid-2019. He fought his way back into the squad in 2021, but never made it off the bench. Then, in June, he finally made a first appearance in three years, scoring against Jordan in a friendly, before playing every minute – and delivering brilliant performances – in the two qualifying play-offs that booked the Socceroos their place in Qatar.
It’s been a remarkable journey. Bring on the World Cup.
Harry Souttar and Kye Rowles
Australia’s two standout centre-backs, both 24 years old, have faced a long and bruising battle with injury – and have won. Souttar tore his ACL while playing for the Socceroos last November, but worked tirelessly at his rehabilitation to return in time for this tournament.
Kye Rowles – one of the heroes of the World Cup qualifying playoffs earlier this year – broke his foot in August, but has battled back to fitness.
Now the pair are likely to start together against France.
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Rogic withdrew from the Socceroos squad ahead of the crunch World Cup playoff matches against the UAE and Peru without giving Arnold a reason why.
He also departed Celtic at the end of the 21/22 season to end a nine-year association with the Hoops and only found a new club as recently as mid-September, signing a one-year deal with West Bromwich Albion.
Since joining the Baggies, Rogic has made just one start and four appearances off the bench with one assist to his name.
His talent is undeniable, but with in-form Riley McGree and arguably the Socceroos most consistent performer Ajdin Hrustic in the squad – and Arnold saying he only wanted two players for each position – there was simply no room for Rogic.
Family Christmas is going to be awkward this year. Graham Arnold’s son-in-law, the most experienced Socceroos defender with over a half-century of caps dating back to 2014, won’t be in Qatar.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do,” Arnold told Fox Sports News.
Sainsbury hasn’t been in top form of late – for both Socceroos and his Qatari club Al-Wakrah, where he played just seven times since August and with no minutes since mid-September.
But he’s immensely experienced, having played every minute in the Socceroos’ 2015 Asian Cup success, and all three matches at the 2018 World Cup.
He returned down under in recent weeks to train with Melbourne City, but it appears his fitness and form weren’t good enough to convince Arnold to send him to a second World Cup.
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An omission former Socceroo Tommy Oar labelled as “an absolute wind up”, Langerak will be forced to watch the World Cup from the comfort of his couch.
This is despite the Queenslander unretiring from international football before the New Zealand friendlies and winning Nagoya Grampus’ award for player of the season.
Sure, Langerak may not have been the Socceroos starter in Qatar, with Mat Ryan the incumbent gloveman.
But to leave out perhaps the most in-form member of the Socceroos squad is one that left many, and no doubt Langerak himself, scratching their heads.
There is little more he could have done to prove his selection credentials and must now be wondering whether his retirement backflip was worth it.
Arnie explains shock Langerak snub | 01:09
Arnold’s trusted hold-up man Mitch Duke was always going to maintain his place in the squad, while Jamie Maclaren and Jason Cummings have started the new A-League season in red-hot form. That meant Taggart was the unlucky striker to lose his spot. The 29-year-old has managed just five goals in 20 league appearances with Cerezo Osaka in Japan’s top tier this season (7 in 25 in all comps), but has a reasonable record for the Socceroos with six goals in 17 appearances.
Marco Tilio and Daniel Arzani
Two wingers in strong form in the A-League, but neither made it to the World Cup squad. 21-year-old Tilio has five Socceroos caps, and was a key figure for Arnold’s Olyroos at last year’s Olympics, scoring with his second touch of the game after coming off the bench against Argentina.
Tilio has picked up two goals and an assist in five appearances for Melbourne City so far this season, linking up incredibly with Mat Leckie and Jamie Maclaren – an attacking combination that seemed likely to be used in Qatar. Daniel Arzani is also in good form after an impressive return to Australia, and was a star off the bench for the Socceroos at the 2018 World Cup. But Garang Kuol’s remarkable rise pipped them both to the squad.
Dougall’s lack of Socceroos action has been one of the most puzzling issues of Arnold’s Socceroos tenure. The scrappy 29-year-old midfielder finally got his chance in the green and gold last year after a stunning season for Blackpool, capped off by two goals at Wembley in the 2021 playoff final to get the club into the Championship for the first time in six years. But he was bounced in and out of the Socceroos squad over the last 18 months, playing just five times, and now has missed out on Qatar despite playing the most club minutes of any Socceroos midfielder this season.
His omission isn’t all that surprising, given Arnold has repeatedly chosen not to play him for the last few years, but it is rather hard to understand.
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31-year-old Davidson has been in scintillating form at KAS Eupen in Belgium’s top flight this season, racking up the most minutes of any Socceroos fullback. A brilliant 2021 season with Melbourne Victory earned him a long-awaited recall to the Socceroos in June this year against Jordan – his first international appearance since 2015. Having played every Socceroos World Cup game in 2014, and impressed in the 2015 Asian Cup success on home soil, his experience on the big stage could have been a valuable asset – as well as his versatility. Davidson has regularly featured as the left-sided man in a defensive trio this season, making him comfortable as a central defender as well as a fullback and wing-back.
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