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‘Cahilltex’ conspiracy theories abound after Cahill’s WC nod over Maclaren

In keeping with the Socceroos oddly detached and discordant World Cup build-up, instead of a farewell game we got a Tim Cahill-themed petrol station.

The symbolism of having the team's major sponsor alter its signs to honour the veteran striker was not immediately apparent.

Did this mean the Socceroos intended to pump their opposition? That Australian football was no longer running on the smell of an oily rag? Would we get a 4 cents per-litre discount or two snack bars for $1 if Cahill hit the back of the net?

Regardless, using Cahill's name to promote this World Cup campaign created inevitable conspiracy theories due to his recent lack of game time and the hasty launch of the sponsor's activation.

Not even the swiftest ambush marketeer could have knocked up the "Cahilltex" signs or had Cahill pose in what looks like a banana skin onesie for a giveaway competition in the few hours between the squad announcement and the first sighting of the petrol-related promotional paraphernalia.

Thus the arch conclusion inevitably reached by some — that 38-year-old Cahill's place in the squad had been guaranteed by his marketing value, a theory that went viral when Jamie Maclaren, one of Cahill's rivals for a strikers berth, scored a hat-trick for Hibernian against Rangers and was overlooked.

Six months ago to suggest Cahill would be playing a fourth World Cup as a marketing ploy would have been to spit in the face of the grand legacy of Australia's greatest and most prolific international.

Jackson Irvine and Josh Brillante pose in front of Cahilltex sign

Since then Cahill had left Melbourne City for Millwall, where he spent far more time running up and down the sideline than on the pitch. Was about an hour of football in six months enough to justify his spot?

But as the old saying goes, if the choice is between a conspiracy and a stuff up, assume it was a stuff up every time.

With Cahill retaining the endorsement of most expert observers, you can assume his inclusion was for playing reasons alone.

Cahill's proven record in big games, dressing shed leadership and talisman status make him an obvious exception to any guidelines coach Bert van Marwijk might have set about recent form or match fitness.

Maclaren's hat-trick? On the back of the A-League grand final VAR debacle, just the latest example that anything that can embarrass Australian football right now probably will.

Yet beyond Cahill's enduring value, his selection is further evidence of the harsh and too often ignored reality of Australian football — the parade of stars that was supposed to be inspired by the heroics of the Golden Generation in 2006 has failed to materialise.

The odd talented youngster such as Melbourne City's Daniel Arzani has stepped up. But twelve years later, the new Tim Cahill is the old Tim Cahill.

Which in turn highlights a lesson Australian football is yet to learn. Reaching the World Cup finals is merely the chicken or the egg or whichever comes second. Not a cure-all for the game many believed it would be.

Australia's long and desperately frustrating absence from the World Cup between 1974 and 2006 entrenched the notion that a few weeks on the game's grandest international stage would be the answer to all the games domestic woes.

Jamie Maclaren celebrates a goal for Hibernian against Celtic

Only that shocking upset by the Kiwis, those awful second half goals by Iran or that sleepless night in Montevideo caused by drum-thumping Uruguayan fans had held the game back. Qualify for the World Cup and all the problems with the national league, player development and fan engagement would be fixed.

Three World Cups later, it is now obvious Australia's appearances in Germany, South Africa and Brazil provided no more than a brief sugar hit for the sport.

This time? The FFA will bank an eight figure cheque from FIFA that it uses to pay bills that weren't covered by a less-than-satisfactory A-League media rights deal. Huge audiences will watch Australia's games. Even more kids (participation is far from the game's greatest problem) will kick a ball in the playground.

And then … we return to business as usual. In this case, the squabble between the FFA and the A-League clubs for control of the domestic league.

Which is not to say the Socceroos' appearance — and, as unlikely as it seems this time — a stellar performance at the World Cup could not provide considerable momentum. But the game needs to be in a position to leverage the feel good factor into palpable gains.

The most obvious way in which Australian football can do that is to move rapidly to extend the A-League to a second tier and to find the money — the greatest challenge — to help fund the clubs beneath them.

This would require an acknowledgment that the game's prosperity should not rely solely on attempting to fill five large A-League arenas each weekend, but having vibrant crowds in 10,000 or even 5000 capacity stadiums operated by clubs with a deep connection with their local communities.

This would broaden the participation base of professional and semi-professional players and, in turn, the ranks from which the long-awaited next generation of stars could emerge.

Given its perfect prime-time kick-off, Australia's World Cup opener against France in Kazan on June 16 at 8:00pm (AEST) should be one the most watched Socceroos games in history.

Yet whether Australia's hopes are fuelled by Tim Cahill or someone else, such occasions will have no long-term impact until the game has sorted out its own backyard.

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