The Disavowal of Lucas Neill

Ben Queenborough/Back Page Images

To be quite honest, I’m disgusted by Australian football’s treatment of embattled Socceroos captain, Lucas Neill. If you’ve been paying close attention of late, the vitriol spread across the Murdoch press, and by the 140-character armed twitterati, has been pernicious and certifiable. Perhaps it’s part and parcel of sport, particularly the commercialised version we engage in today, that athletes should be held accountable for the shortcomings of a nation in abrupt transition. Even the broadest shoulders would struggle to carry such weight for long, before buckling.

Let’s consider Neill’s position. That’s the first hurdle to this madness: actually considering the contribution (and perspective) of the athlete to the national team. I’ll stop short of a history lesson, as Google can do that best. However, I will say that Neill has been a significant player in the Socceroos narrative.

Now, the general consensus is that he should have retired a long time ago. He’s made critical errors in defence against Brazil and France, and condemned the next generation of Socceroos for their lack of desire; essentially stating that most don’t deserve the shirt.

What’s relevant to me is the uproar following his comments; as if he were expected to simply apologise and abdicate to us all. His response was simply fight or flight – he chose to fight. When most demanded that he take off the armband, the green and gold, and hang up his boots – he fought on. Why? Because he’s no scapegoat. The downfall of the Socceroos is not his to solely own.

My central defence of Neill is that the coach decides on the squad, the first 11, and the captain. Ultimately, the governing body decides on who to employ as coach. This whole media circus, which did nothing to enhance the diminishing Socceroos brand in an over-populated football market, was aimed and fired at the wrong guy. Neill is not the cause of the problem. He’s simply hanging on to something any of us would, if we could.

If there were two or three top Australian centre-backs, playing regular football in Europe, he’d surely have been tapped on the shoulder a long time ago. There aren’t. Holger Osieck chose the better the devil you know approach in order to execute a specific objective: to qualify Australia for next year’s World Cup in Brazil. Like Neill, Osieck was not the problem. We can debate his coaching ability. However, accountability for the broader issue rests with Football Federation Australia (FFA).

What’s been absent in this debate, or at least misdirected, is where to point the finger.

FFA should have sacked Osieck a long time ago. One could suggest that this whole debacle was conjured up by FFA to paint Neill and Osieck as cancerous. The systemic mismanagement of our national teams is not the doing of players or coaches. It’s FFA’s failure. When the most popular football media should have been directing its attacks at FFA, it chose to cut down our tallest poppies instead.

There’s been little aim taken at FFA Chairman, Frank Lowy, and his disdain for transparency in football.

It’s easier to tarnish the reputation of a Socceroos captain, and sack an imported coach, than it is to question the decision-making processes of the governing body. Lowy said he wanted an Australian coach to replace Osieck. Lowy decided on Postecoglou and did whatever he needed to do in order for it to happen. Let’s not kid ourselves, either. Postecoglou’s appointment was not a recent decision. He’s the man Lowy’s wanted for some time. What Lowy says goes, and no one seems too fussed about that.

Today, Postecoglou announced his first Socceroos team for the upcoming fixture against Costa Rica on 19 November at Allianz Stadium. In that team, a certain number two. Perhaps there is some sanity in all of this after all. My respect goes to Postecoglou, who by choosing Neill, has not acted on emotion but reason.

“It’s really important that when we talk about culture and we talk about restoring pride to our national team shirt, that the champions of our game get honoured in the right way,” said Postecoglou, in his media conference.

Neill’s time is up soon. He knows it. We all know it.

He should be sent off with respect, and remembered for his unwavering commitment to our country.

Then, we move on.