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Dec 12, 2010

2011 to shape game's direction

Australian soccer promised the world and delivered a street map in 2010.

What direction it takes in 2011 will shape the code's future in Australia for a decade to come - especially an A-League at the crossroads.

World Cup failure as both a potential host in Zurich and competitor in South Africa has dashed hopes of Australia riding a wave of soccer euphoria all the way to 2022.

Instead, entering 2011 there is widespread concern over an A-League at breaking point and an administration perceived to have lost touch with the game.

Football Federation Australia, its formerly untouchable chairman Frank Lowy and chief executive Ben Buckley find themselves in the crosshairs.

It is the first time the game's administration has felt this much heat since Lowy took charge of the game in 2003 after years of mismanagement and cronyism.

That Lowy, deified for saving Australian soccer when it was on its knees and spearheading its rebuilding, is under scrutiny at all shows how much concern there is about the game's current health.

A far hotter spotlight envelops Buckley.

The former AFL No.2 has presided over the A-League's botched expansion and accusations from clubs, fans and media that the FFA badly lost focus on the domestic competition while chasing the 2022 World Cup.

Unpopularly guaranteed a new contract by Lowy once his current deal expires, Buckley is urging patience as the A-League deals with financially bleeding clubs, dwindling crowds, and fan-unfriendly scheduling.

"We are addressing the A-League at the moment. We have started a strategic process with the stakeholders, fans and clubs," Buckley said in Sydney last week.

"And we have to ensure we keep our eyes on Brazil 2014."

Qualifying for World Cups has taken on a new importance, with Australia's 2022 bid defeat in Zurich suggesting the nation has more chance of winning the tournament than ever hosting it.

FIFA's executive committee provided Australia with a humiliating lesson in where it stands in world football politics.

After three years of lobbying and schmoozing the sport's powerbrokers, just one vote, a first-round ballot box exit and a $45 million taxpayer-funded folly was the result.

Instead, Asian Football Confederation rival Qatar controversially secured 2022 hosting rights.

At the World Cup in South Africa in June, the Socceroos matched their Germany 2006 group performance with a win, a draw and a loss.

But the order of the performances and size of the defeat - a 4-0 hammering by Germany in the opening game - left them an impossible task to make it out of the group and match their 2006 round of 16 heroics.

Throw in the send-offs of star players Tim Cahill in the Germany game and Harry Kewell in the 1-1 draw with Ghana, and not even a brave 2-1 win over Serbia could cushion what was overall a disappointing tournament for the Socceroos.

Much-maligned midfielder Brett Holman was Australia's best player at the World Cup with two goals and several all-action performances.

Dutch coach Pim Verbeek, who steered Australia through World Cup qualification but was roundly criticised for his tactics in the opening match of the finals tournament, exited after South Africa.

German Holger Osieck, a former assistant to 1990 World Cup-winning coach Franz Beckenbauer, was appointed Socceroos coach in August.

His first taste of serious competition comes in January's Asian Cup in Qatar.

Osieck has the job of navigating the Socceroos through a rebuilding process towards the 2014 World Cup - and the size of that mission will become much clearer in Qatar.

He has already signalled he will pick his best possible squad, with Cahill, Kewell, Mark Schwarzer and skipper Lucas Neill set to provide a familiar backbone.

Holman's emergence is a rare 20-something stamping his importance, but beyond that are opportunities for a new generation of Socceroos to emerge ahead of World Cup qualifying which starts in 2012.

There was some Australian soccer success in Asia - thanks to the Matildas winning the women's Asian Cup in a penalty shootout over North Korea and Asian Champions League glory for ex-Adelaide and Brisbane Roar centre-back Sasa Ognenovski with Korean club Seongnam Ilhwa.

Ognenovski was also named Asian footballer of the year, with Matildas striker Katie Gill the Asian women's player of the year.

And Sydney FC joined Melbourne Victory as two-time A-League champions, beating their arch-rivals on penalties in a classic grand final at Melbourne's Etihad Stadium.

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