Football: El Tel's way with worlds

Norman Fox discusses the moves behind Australia's signing of Venables
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The Independent Online
Reactions in Australia to the curious news that Terry Venables was to become their national coach in a game that locally ranks beneath Aussie rules, two versions of rugby, not to mention cricket and the ancient sport of pommy bashing, were predictably hostile. Meanwhile, reactions at home were so lost in astonishment that Venables was taken seriously when he said that he looked out on another gloomy English winter's morning and settled for part-time emigration. There had to be more to it.

The Australian Football Association, marketed now as Soccer Australia and led by their thrusting ex-ABC Television chief, David Hill, sold Venables a good package. In return they want more than a team capable of qualifying for the next World Cup. They want the World Cup: not yet the winning of it, but the hosting of it. Although his contract is for only 19 months, Venables' new job will include being a front man in Australia's previously ignored hope to host the World Cup of 2010.

The main mover has been the 75-year-old Charlie Dempsey, the New Zealand- based Glaswegian president of the Oceania Football Confederation and close ally of Fifa's all-powerful president, Joao Havelange. Dempsey said: "I am confident that Australia is getting its organisation in place to put up a strong World Cup bid which we support." Commercial interests got the soccer sceptics of the United States the last one, so why not Australia?

Football promoters there see the Olympic Games in Sydney as an opportunity to show the world that Australia can organise a huge international sports event. Part of Venables's task will be to ensure that within a few years Australia has a team the rest of the world takes as seriously as a World Cup bid. The immediate problem, though, is not so much team building but establishing support for himself.

Home-based Australians have been vocal in their opposition to his appointment but those players and former players based in Britain are more supportive. Indeed, South African-born but Australian-raised Craig Johnston, once of Liverpool, was positively glowing with his welcome, saying that the decision was an example of "the new wave of big thinkers in Australian football". He agrees that Venables will be seen as a banner-waving partner in the campaign to raise Australia's credibility in international football. Significantly, the new wave consists mainly of television people.

In Australia opposition goes deeper than xenophobia. Most club coaches want to see grass roots football prosper and, before 2010, produce an international team with a mix of home and foreign-based players. They doubt that Venables has that in mind. Most vociferous is the Sydney club's David Ratcliffe who reckons that any number of other Europeans or South Americans would give more time to development.

Jack Reilly, a former Australian international, said: "We want to build soccer in this country. This decision is a joke - Venables knows nothing about Australia or its players." Although Venables struggled at his press conference to come up with names, he had probably seen the majority of the better players since they either appear in Britain or on the Continent. Even so he will lean on Les Scheinflug, a German, and Raul Blanco, an Argentine, who are the permanent coaches to the Australian-based players. Reilly is not satisfied. He says that when Australia appear in World Cup qualifying games probably only one home-based player ever gets into the team.

If many Australians find Venables's appointment inexplicable, his loss to England is also strange. The decision to make him the England coach was not to everyone's taste. Taking on someone with much on his mind that had nothing to do with selecting football teams was a risk but one the FA rejected. Yet his resignation left too many loose ends. He said that the impending court cases would take up too much of his time, but he and the FA always knew that might happen. Possibly he was more concerned about what might occur if he lost in the courts. Or perhaps there was something in the suggestion that he refused to sign an extended contract because he felt that the FA were not united behind him. Either way, it now seems that he has time to spread his talents from Portsmouth out across the whole wide world. Will he be the grey-haired supremo behind World Cup Australia?