The Socceroos play Ecuador on Friday night at CommBank Stadium, the match billed as something of a “Thank You” to fans who so lifted the team on their memorable run to the Round of 16 in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™.
And for sure there’ll be mutual admiration from players to fans and back again. It was a brilliant journey for the nation and with a bit of luck Australia could’ve gone deeper – how we leapt in the air when Garang Kuol nearly slid one past Argentina goal-keeper Emiliano “Dibu” Martinez.
Today Kuol, 18, is but one of the storylines among those picked by Socceroos coach Graham Arnold. And while 20 of the 26-man squad were in Qatar, there’s plenty of interest in how uncapped young ones go.
Consider Alexander Robertson. The 19-year-old played junior football with Hakoah Sydney City East FC before heading to the UK to play youth team football at famous Manchester United.
He was then poached by cross-town rivals Manchester City, where he currently trains as a midfielder under Pep Guardiola and alongside superstars Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne.
Robertson also represented England at several junior levels and qualifies to represent Scotland and Peru. Yet when Arnold called ahead of the Socceroos game against Ecuador on Friday night at CommBank Stadium, Robertson was all in for Australia.
A family matter, you see. If he gets on the field, Robertson will follow in the footsteps of father Mark (who debuted for the Socceroos in 2001) and grandfather Alex Snr (1984).
“To be a third generation to pull on that Socceroos jersey would be something special,” Robertson says.
On the players he’s largely meeting for the first time this week, Robertson says he can’t wait to be a part of what appears such a strong and happy camp.
“I feel like the whole group and the camp itself, looking from the outside, looks really strong. They all look ‘together’ as a team and you saw that at the World Cup.
“Me going in there, I can’t wait to go and play with good players. I just want to add my qualities and values to the team and then hopefully we can get some more success in the future,” Robertson says.
Fans will have a first peak at that future on Friday night at CommBank Stadium when the Socceroos campaign for the FIFA World Cup 2026™ in North America and Mexico begins.
While this match is being promoted as a homecoming, it’s three years from when Arnold will have a good idea of his squad. Thus every match in the green-and-gold is a chance to impress the gaffer.
Along with established stars jetting in from leagues around the world – names like Maty Ryan, Milos Degenek, Aaron Mooy and Mitch Duke were on front and back pages last year – Arnold has picked several uncapped players along with Robertson, notably Aiden O’Neill (24, Melbourne City), Joe Gauci (22, Adelaide United) and Jordan Bos (20, Melbourne City).
The exotically-named Nestory Irankunda – a goal-scoring winger from Adelaide United who turned 17 in February – has been brought into the squad as a “train-on” player. Arnold, though, has hinted Irankunda might spend some minutes on the field.
And if that happens and the Tanzanian teengager does half of what Kuol did for the A-Leagues All Stars in last year’s match against Barcelona, Arnold will have found another hot one.
And another great story of Australia.
Arnold says Irankunda has “special qualities”.
“For a kid at the age of 17 . . . the physique on him, the speed on him – it’s exciting.
“He’s coming in for an experience but that’s not ruling out game time,” Arnold says.
While important to his forward planning for 2026, for Arnold the match is also a chance to give back to fans. The Socceroos took the country on a trip in Qatar in 2022 and the players and officials were very aware of the buzz they created back home. Indeed they thrived on it.
“We saw the scenes back home in Australia during the World Cup and it would be wonderful to recreate that buzz and excitement during this upcoming series, where football fans can thank the players for their efforts and together, we can reminisce on a special moment in Australian sporting history,” Arnold says.