Turning 38 in November, Alessandro Del Piero provided another boost for the Golden Oldies this week when he agreed to a lucrative two-year deal with Sydney FC in the A-League.
But the signing of the ageing Juventus and Italy legend merely mirrors the trend of Australia’s national team, which is filled with veteran players in the twilight of their careers.
Mark Viduka has long retired, but Mark Schwarzer – 40 next month – heads a list of Germany 2006 favourites who are hanging on for a third World Cup to farewell their careers.
Captain Lucas Neill will be 36 by the time Brazil 2014 rolls around, Tim Cahill enters his 35th year, Mark Bresciano will be 34, Brett Emerton 35 and-a-half and Harry Kewell will be three months short of his 36th birthday. Worryingly, Kewell is still looking for a club after leaving Melbourne Victory earlier this year to return to the UK for family reasons.
With Kewell in professional limbo, Australia have been forced to omit the former Liverpool and Leeds winger from recent squads. And without him, the Socceroos have struggled to score goals and create chances.
A 3-0 friendly victory over Lebanon in Thursday’s friendly in Beirut did little to paper over concerns about Australia’s unconvincing final round qualifying campaign. Ahead of Tuesday’s important match in Jordan, the Aussies are third in Group-B with only two points from their opening two games.
While there are enough remaining home matches for the Aussies to comfortably secure qualification behind Japan, it could be a nervier progression than in 2006 and 2010.
German-born coach Holger Osciek has been criticised for not bringing through enough fresh blood. Only two players under the age of 28 started a recent friendly. The reliance on familiar faces means that Busan I-Park midfielder Matt McKay – who turns 30 in January – is still considered something of a rookie.
Former Asian player of the year Sasa Ognenovski puzzlingly only made his Socceroo debut in 2010 – and yet the imposing central defender is a 33-year-old who’s been on the club scene since1997.
But too many of Australia’s former youth stars have failed to make the step up to the big-time and many are either warming benches at lesser European clubs or failing to impress back in the A-League.
|Harry Kewell was one of the most popular and gifted of last generation’s Aussie players [GALLO/GETTY]|
The truth is that the new generation lacks the quality of the 2006 brigade who were only a disputed penalty kick away from taking eventual champions Italy to extra-time in the round of 16 in Germany.
Now and then, the old guard is capable of producing the odd memorable performance, like advancing to the final of the 2011 Asian Cup or defeating Germany 2-1 on home-soil as they did in a March friendly last year. But as the clock ticks towards 2014, these kinds of results are becoming more scarce.
The lack of goals remains a serious concern after Viduka’s retirement and Kewell’s extended absence. Middlesborough and former Scottish Premier League golden boot Scott McDonald has failed to find the net in a staggering 26 internationals while Japan-based Josh Kennedy – two-time J-League top-scorer with Nagoya Grampus – has been struggling with injury.
And when Melbourne Victory’s Archie Thompson – who turns 34 next month – rounded off the scoring in the Lebanon friendly, it was his first international goal in more than six years.
Elsewhere, it’s not all doom-and-gloom with two 20-something Aussie midfielders Brett Holman and Chris Herd now featuring regularly for Aston Villa in the English Premier League. Along with Middlesbrough captain Rhys Williams and the likes of Luke Wilkshire, of Dynamo Moscow, Borussia Dortmund goalkeeper Mitch Langerak and Qatar-based defender Matthew Spiranovic, the Socceroos do have the nucleus of a solid, younger squad going forward.
Osciek has been rightfully acclaimed for playing a more attractive style than his predecessor, the overly-cautious Dutchman Pim Verbeek. But he faces a tricky balancing act in achieving the necessary results in qualifying with tried and tested personnel whilst blooding players who could blossom in Brazil in two years time.
Two years shy of his 40th birthday, Del Piero will be a major draw-card in the harbour city of Sydney, with his A-League contract due to expire just before the next World Cup. But there’s no guarantee that many of the Socceroos who faced him at the 2006 World Cup will still be around to enjoy the Samba flavour in 2014.