Graham Arnold was in high spirits on the eve of Australia’s World Cup showdown with Argentina (6am Sunday) but was left understandably baffled by one bizarre question asked in his official pre-match press conference.
The Socceroos coach was visibly taken aback as a Tunisian reporter — asking a question in Arabic that was translated to Arnold — mentioned ‘rumours swirling in the Arab world’ about a doping issue involving the Australian team.
Independent Arabic fact-check site Misbar reported the social media rumours were totally unfounded and “misleading”.
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“I don’t know if I should even answer that,” Arnold said.
“… I’m sorry but that’s the first time I’ve heard of anything like that. No idea what you’re talking about.”
It’s not clear if it was simply an attempt to ruffle Arnold’s feathers. Tunisia were denied a spot in the last 16 after losing to Australia 1-0, with the Socceroos’ victory over Denmark also meaning the North African’s side’s upset win of a France was not enough to go through.
Either way, the moment will be water off a duck’s back for Arnold as he prepares for one of the biggest games in Australian sporting history.
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The Socceroos avoided the ‘F word’ — France — in the lead-up to their opening World Cup clash in Qatar and it seems a ban could also be in place for the name of the living legend they’re about to face, Lionel Messi.
Socceroos players spoke freely about the Argentine legend earlier in the week but there seemed to be a deliberate effort to avoid speaking Messi’s name when centre back Harry Souttar was asked how Australia could stop the midfielder maestro.
“We know it’s going to be a difficult task, obviously we respect the player massively but I don’t think it’s just an individual thing, “ Souttar said.
“It has got to be a team collective, we have got to be on our game 100 percent, we have got to be switched on at all times and be alert to every situation because it’s going to be a team effort, I don’t think anything comes to one individual trying to stop him.”
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The Socceroos have a proud history of strong performances in a long-running rivalry with Argentina, and Arnold expects the South American heavyweights will again “bring out the best in Australia”.
Australia have lost five of the seven clashes between the nations, but never by more than two goals. The Socceroos won the first ever match, a 4-1 victory at the Gold Cup in 1988 and drew 1-1 in Sydney in the first leg of the memorable 1993 playoffs.
“Playing against that type of talent, that name resonates right across the world as a football nation,” Arnold said.
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“It’s inspiring for Australia to play against them and I believe you’re going to see the best of these guys tomorrow night, the best of every player on the pitch for Australia tomorrow night because of who we’re playing against.
“… We’ve been named the invincible underdogs around the world. Everyone is an underdog until you have success, nearly everyone in the world at some stage in their life has been an underdog. It’s until you have success that you’re seen as a success.
“Again, Australia’s the underdogs. We love that. We love our backs to the wall and no one gives us a chance, going out there and fighting the Aussie spirit way. That’s our strength.”
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Meanwhile, Arnold will again delay deciding on his starting XI until matchday, as he did before the 1-0 win over Denmark.
With just three days between games in a brutal turnaround Arnold could be forced into some changes as players manage fatigue and knocks, although the coach has strongly suggested there will be few.
“I can see it in their faces, I can see it in their eyes. It’s something I’m quite decent at – I can see it in their energy,” Arnold said of his players’ readiness.
“And there is no fatigue – they don’t have any. They’re ready. This is a moment in their life they’re all grabbing hold of. When they’re walking down the hallway you can see it in their eyes that they’re ready to go.”