UAE v Australia: veteran managers set for another high-stakes battle in World Cup play-off

Socceroos boss Graham Arnold and his counterpart Rodolfo Arruabarrena have experienced many nerve-shredding contests

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The pressure of a World Cup play-off can turn the calmest of coaches snappy. Graham Arnold, charged with taking the tough decisions for Australia on Tuesday against UAE, recalls the moment when, as deputy to Guus Hiddink the last time the Socceroos took the indirect route to football’s greatest showpiece, he was told to mind his image.

It was during a nail-biting second leg in which the Australians were battling with Uruguay for a spot at the 2006 World Cup. The Socceroos had lost 1-0 in Montevideo; Australia clawed back an equaliser in Sydney. All of a sudden, tension mounting, Hiddink caught sight of live, big-screen pictures of the home team’s bench.

They showed the worldly Dutch manager on his feet, pensive but unruffled. Seated behind him was Arnold, chewing furiously, eyes cast skywards. Hiddink turned to Arnold and gave him a simple instruction: “Spit out the chewing gum, Arnie!”

Arnold tells the story with a smile, because that evening, settled on penalties, ended well. Hiddink’s point was that those in charge of a nerve-shredding contest should exude a cool confidence. The gum-chewing gave away Arnold’s intense anxiety - not a good look to transmit to players who, at that stage, had inherited 32 years of Australian near-misses when it came to reaching World Cups.

Arnold, 58, may want to reach for the chewing gum in Doha this evening. No Australian has known more intimately the saga that is the country’s agonising relationship with World Cup play-offs. He made his Socceroos debut, as a combative centre-forward, the month before his country fell short in the play-offs for the 1986 tournament, defeated by Scotland.

UAE and Australia prepare for World Cup qualifier in Qatar

UAE and Australia prepare for World Cup qualifier in Qatar

He was still being entrusted with finding the missing killer instinct in the opposition penalty area when Australia, then affiliated to Fifa’s Oceania Confederation rather than Asia’s, lost to Diego Maradona’s Argentina in a two-legged play-off for the 1994 finals. Arnold came off the bench four years later when the Socceroos, leading 3-1 on aggregate in the second, home leg against Iran, conceded twice in the last 15 minutes to be denied a place at France 1998 on away goals.

Quite the catalogue of bitter experience, then. And that’s before you take in Arnold’s long service as an assistant coach: He was on the staff when the Socceroos lost an ill-tempered World Cup play-off to Uruguay in 2001.

His opposite number, Rodolfo Arruabarrena, is, by contrast, a novice to international management. But the UAE’s head coach, appointed less than four months ago, has more than earned his stripes in tight knockout scenarios. As a teenager, he watched that Argentina-Australia play-off in 1993 with keen interest: he was to win his first cap for Argentina, as a dynamic left-back, within a year of it; Maradona would soon be his team-mate at Boca Juniors.

The winner of Tuesday's one-legged joust earns the right to play Peru for the last spot at Qatar 2022, a prospect that haunts Australians of Arnold’s generation because so many World Cup journeys reached their penultimate step against savvy, ruthless South Americans.

Arruabarrena can trump any archived Australian tales of Uruguayan aggression or Argentinian guile with stories of his own. Twice as a coach, he guided Boca into continental knockouts featuring the biggest club rivalry in South America - the Buenos Aires enmity with River Plate. Those ties would leave scars.

There was the 2014 semi-final of the Copa Sudamericana, when River scored the only goal across 210 minutes of attrition - 19 yellow cards were shown - and Arruabarrena would learn the hard way that chances in these circumstances are to be seized, Boca having missed a penalty after four minutes of the first leg.

The following season he was on the touchline for one of the most notorious of all Copa Libertadores clashes, his Boca thrown out of the tournament after incidents at half-time in the second leg in which fans aimed pepper spray at some River players as they came through the tunnel.

Arruabarrena, who guided Shabab Al-Ahli to the UAE League Cup in 2019, has weathered nervy, late-stage knockouts in four different continents. As a player, he was within touching distance of a European Champions League final with Villarreal, his compatriot Juan Roman Riquelme’s fluffed penalty the reason the Spanish underdogs did not take their 2006 semi-final against Arsenal into extra-time.

His spell as head coach of Egypt’s Pyramids came to an end last June after a suspenseful semi-final in the CAF Confederation Cup, edged, after two goalless legs, by Raja Casablanca deep into sudden-death of a penalty shoot-out. A year on, he is entitled to feel he is due any sliver of luck, any fine margin, that would put him on the right side of this winner-takes-all confrontation.

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Updated: June 07, 2022, 4:48 AM