The excitement of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has subsided; Mathew Leckie's twisting and turning strike against Denmark, Harry Souttar's desperate sliding challenge against Tunisia, and Federation Square being bathed in an ethereal glow of flares and uninhibited celebration, are all consigned to the realm of memory and folklore. Now, the 2026 World Cup cycle begins, as do preparations for a return to Qatar for the relocated and rescheduled Asian Cup.
Socceroos boss Graham Arnold will name his squad for this month's two-game series against Ecuador on Tuesday and while it's always fun to speculate about these sorts of things, the coach has somewhat limited the scope for wild pontifications by already declaring that these friendlies will serve as a welcome home and celebration for the members of his squad at the World Cup. That means that, outside of the injured absentees -- Ajdin Hrustic, Martin Boyle, Leckie and possibly Jamie Maclaren -- and the retired Danny Vukovic, most members of the squad are obvious. Even the ones whose sputtering form since the World Cup would otherwise rule them out of contention are likely going to get a moment in the sun.
Nonetheless, in keeping with his long-standing approach of fostering loyalty and rewarding those that have performed for him in the past, Arnold has indicated that the coming games will also provide the Qatar squad with a "first crack" at establishing themselves in the pecking order for the coming 2026 cycle. It's an Animal Farm-like approach to the new epoch: all eligible players are to be considered equal on the blank slate that is the coming three-and-a-half years, but the players from Qatar are just a bit more equal than others.
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In a way, this is appropriate, as in returning Arnold to his role, locking the 59-year-old into a new deal in January that takes him through the end of the 2026 cycle, Football Australia has opted for continuity heading into this cycle, as well as a display of faith in the concept of linear progression. After catching lightning in a bottle and reaching the Round of 16 in Qatar, the expectation is now that Arnold will be able to take his group, which is rich in young talents such as Souttar, Riley McGree and Connor Metcalfe, and produce better football and better results.
This, perhaps, is one of the most obvious contrasts from the start of the previous cycle from a perceptual perspective. Progression into the knockout stages means there is now an expectation that this team is good enough to achieve greater things. Accusations that Australian football doesn't respect Asian competition have been repeated by enough pundits to leave a permanent indentation in supporters' brains at this point, but there is still a belief that, in contrast to Arnold's previous cycle, this Australian team should be able to progress beyond the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup or defeat the likes of China or Oman in must-win qualifiers.
It's not exactly an unfair supposition, either; the young core of talent entering their primes, supplemented by a group of veteran contributors, is more than good enough to shake off any lazy declarations that this team doesn't have the "cattle" to play good football.
Earlier this month Arnold observed that his declaration four years prior that his side would be the nation's "greatest ever" had been met with humorous derision. Inevitably, the coach is making that the goal this time around as well only this time, he's got the double-edged sword of a decent chunk of people believing that he can.
Alongside this level of heightened expectation, however, Arnold will also need to deal with the challenges of squad rejuvenation that accompanies every new World Cup cycle. Already, Vukovic has announced his retirement from international football, while the likes of Aaron Mooy, Aziz Behich and Leckie are all on the wrong side of 30. In addition, there is a host of young talent either already in the squad or knocking on the door that, eventually, are going to move to supplant established members of the starting XI or squad.
One of these players, Nestory Irankunda is an interesting example. His form for Adelaide United and the rising public sentiment around a call-up carries all the hallmarks of Garang Kuol's short time with the Central Coast Mariners; an exciting teenager that shows no fear as he goes about consistently changing games off the bench. The Newcastle Jets likely knew what was coming when he took the field at half-time of their meeting on Saturday evening, but forewarning obviously wasn't forearming given that the 17-year-old rifled the ball into the net to seal his side's 4-2 win anyway.
Nestory Irankunda back at it again 😎🤸♂️🔥— Adelaide United (@AdelaideUnited) March 11, 2023
However, the role of an off-the-pine destroyer is one that's seemingly already been filled at the national team level by Kuol, who is now also benefiting from the incumbency bonus that has been shown to exist within the current setup. Is there a place for two such players in the squad at this point? Especially given the form and skillsets of other options available to Arnold that also likely merit a place? Is it worth having them both in there for the experience? Or is it, at least in March 2023, a case of one or the other, but not both?
"Irankunda is doing fantastic, he's obviously got that quality," said Arnold at the announcement of the Ecuador series. "Everyone's talking about him at the moment. The kid needs to keep performing and doing well and thankfully he's eligible for all those junior national teams that have a very busy program this year."
The importance that Arnold places on Olympic qualification was made obvious by his move to take charge of the Olyroos and lead them to Tokyo 2020 and, while he's since handed the reigns of the under-23s to Tony Vidmar, he remains a firm believer in fostering a pathway from the Olympic team to the seniors. It's why any pontifications on potential call-ups for the Socceroos need to account for history with the Olyroos: he has consistently demonstrated that experience in the latter is a factor in call-ups. It's also why breakout A-League Men talents such as Irankunda, as well as Melbourne City's Jordan Bos and Western Sydney Wanderers' Calem Nieuwenhof, may find their path to consistent senior football first taking a detour through Paris 2024.
"There are two ways of doing this and thinking about it," said Arnold. "Do I bring them in straight away and they don't have any time with Tony Vidmar and the under-23s? I just believe it's so crucial that we qualify for the Olympics.
"Yes, young Bos is doing extremely well, and Newiwenhof. And they can do something different. But if they're going to players that are on the bench or players that might not come in the two games, or might just get ten 10 or 15 minutes, what's better for them?
"That they do that or they go with the 23s, they start there, they play games and they get to know the players around them and get to know what Tony Vidmar wants them to do."
The testimonial-like nature of the Ecuador series enables the thorny questions of integration of youth talent, as well as the moves to put some more veteran talent -- as one journalist bluntly put to Arnold "out to pasture" -- into the background. But while the incumbents will hold sway this time around, here's a look at how things may stand in the Socceroos' pecking order heading into the months and years ahead.
Socceroos Depth Chart to begin road to World Cup 2026
First choice: Mathew Ryan
Next in line: Paul Izzo, Joe Gauci, Lawrence Thomas, Andrew Redmayne, Ashley Maynard-Brewer, Tom Glover
As Socceroos captain, Ryan's status as Australia's No. 1 is crystal-clear and, thankfully, he finally seems to have found a club where he's happy, not being undermined by teammates, and, most importantly, playing regularly at Dutch side AZ Alkmaar.
Redmayne's contribution to getting the Socceroos to Qatar means he will almost certainly be a part of the Ecuador squad but his middling form in the A-League Men and Vukovic's retirement from interncational football opens the door for Izzo and Gauci -- two keepers name-dropped by Arnold at the announcement of the Ecuador series -- to press their cases heading into the Asian Cup.
Leading the ALM in clean sheets and amongst its leaders in save percentage, Thomas is just 30 years old and remains in the hunt, while Maynard-Brewer and Glover are playing regular minutes with Charlton Athletic and Melbourne City respectively and have both been called into Olyroos teams by Arnold.
First choice: Aziz Behich
Next in line: Jordan Bos, Callum Elder, Joel King
Behich's standout World Cup campaign, with the veteran even sneaking into some international press' team of the tournament lists, means that he's still the number one left-back despite his season to forget in the Scottish Premiership with Dundee United.
Bos is more of a polished product going forward than defensively, but his barnstorming start to the ALM can't be ignored; it's just a matter of time until he gets that first call-up. Elder's continued battles with injury, meanwhile, have frustrated his international aspirations but he's back playing with Hull City now and is still only 28 years old.
King went to Qatar and appeared to be being groomed as Behich's heir apparent, but has been hardly featuring at club level for approaching six months now. Getting his first start with Sydney FC since returning on loan from Odense Boldklub in January, he needs to start playing, and playing well, to maintain his place in the pecking order.
First choice: Harry Souttar, Kye Rowles, Milos Degenek
Next in line: Thomas Deng, Bailey Wright, Trent Sainsbury, Gianni Stensness, Harrison Delbridge, Jay Rich-Baghuelou, Alessandro Circati
Souttar and Rowles started every game together in Qatar and with both just 24 years old there's no reason not to believe that Arnold doesn't envision them as his starters in North America in four years. Souttar is also almost certainly his next long-term captain. Degenek, meanwhile, was entrusted by Arnold to start at right-back in the World Cup, is a mentality and fitness monster, and is the obvious next-man-up in the centre of the defence.
Deng didn't see the field at the World Cup but now playing J1 League football with Albirex Niigata and able to fill multiple positions, he's bound to see minutes in the coming campaign. Wright and Sainsbury as long-standing veterans that can provide leadership and experience will likely be given the chance to press their cases by Arnold, while Delbridge has picked up right where he left off with Incheon United in the K League after earning a call-up late in the last cycle.
Rich-Baghuelou and Circati represent young depth that possesses intriguing potential should they earn a way in and be integrated into the squad in coming years, albeit the former will have to return from long-term injury and the latter will need to be convinced to represent Australia over Italy.
First choice: Fran Karacic
Next in line: Nathaniel Atkinson, Ryan Strain
Given that Degenek started at right-back in the Socceroos' final two games in Qatar, there's no clear number one on the flank heading into this cycle, but Karacic might get the nod thanks to his regular minutes with Serie B side Brescia -- consistency that hasn't been coming Atkinson's way with Hearts in the Scottish Premiership.
Strain, meanwhile, is seeing the field at a good clip with St Mirren, who have only conceded one goal more than Hearts this season, and is probably pretty close to pulling ahead of Atkinson based on recent form, if he hasn't already.
First choice: Aaron Mooy, Jackson Irvine
Next in line: Cameron Devlin, Keanu Baccus, Connor Metcalfe, James Jeggo, Calem Nieuwenhof, Aiden O'Neill, Denis Genreau, Tyrese Francois
Bossing it with Celtic in the Scottish Premiership, Mooy looks like he's going to be a part of Socceroos squad for a while yet -- albeit the more advanced role that he's used in by Ange Postecoglou compared to how he's been deployed by Arnold gives the latter some food for thought in the months ahead. Irvine, meanwhile, is now captaining St. Pauli in the 2. Bundesliga and played every minute of every league match since last October.
Behind them, World Cup squad members Devlin and Baccus slot in as the likely next men up, while Metcalfe's recent uptick in minutes, versatility and strong form in Germany help bolster his case. Jeggo's consistent minutes at Hibernian ensure he remains in the frame, while Nieuwenhof and O'Neill's strong ALM seasons throw them into contention.
Recently recovering from a long-term injury, Genreau is one of the most naturally talented and instinctual midfielders Australia has and has now returned to the field through sporadic minutes with Toulouse in Ligue 1 but needs to start playing consistently, be it with Les Violets or elsewhere, to retain his place in an increasingly crowded midfield pack. Former Olyroo captain Francois, likewise, has talent but needs to start getting consistent football under his belt.
First Choice: Riley McGree
Next in line: Ajdin Hrustic, Tom Rogic, Keegan Jelacic, Cameron Peupion, Reno Piscopo
Despite Hrustic's wealth of natural talent and status as the Socceroos' most important player during the last World Cup qualification cycle, injury problems have forced him behind McGree in the pecking order (for now). Performing well across a variety of roles for a Middlesbrough side making a push for promotion to the Premier League, though, it can't be said that McGree hasn't done enough to earn this opportunity.
After missing out on Qatar, Rogic has at least looked to have settled at West Bromwich Albion and has the skills to contribute -- especially if Hrustic is out -- but his relegation to the Baggies bench amidst increased competition for places at a national team level could signal that his Socceroos career is winding down.
Recently called up to the Olyroos after previously representing New Zealand, Jelacic's strong start to the ALM season puts him into the frame for the coming cycle, as does Piscopo's Olyroos' tenure and natural talent. Peupion is a regular for Brighton's academy side and it wouldn't be surprising if at some point this season Seagulls coach Roberto De Zerbi tapped him to become Australia's next Premier League representative.
First choice: Mathew Leckie, Craig Goodwin
Next in line: Awer Mabil, Marco Tilio, Martin Boyle, Garang Kuol, Brandon Borrello, Lachlan Wales, Nestory Irankunda
Leckie is set to miss the Ecuador series with injury but, combining his performances in Qatar with his potentially ALM-best domestic form, he's still a first-choice Socceroo. Goodwin, likewise, continues to rack up the goals and assists at Adelaide and should be entrenched in the green-and-gold setup.
Beyond them, World Cup squad members Mabil, Tilio, Boyle, and Kuol remain, albeit Tilio's strong ALM play contrasts sharply with the form and injury travails experienced by the others at clubland. Borrello, meanwhile, has been a standout for Western Sydney and looms as the most likely replacement for Leckie against Ecuador. Wales was a part of Arnold's team in Tokyo and was close to a senior call-up during the last cycle and, at 25 years old, the years ahead are when he'll need to step up and make the jump if he wants it to happen.
Then there's Irankunda. Serving as a lethal weapon off the bench for Adelaide this season -- averaging nearly 1.5 goals+assists per 90 minutes -- the 17-year-old is this ALM season's breakout talent and has a massive groundswell behind his push for selection which, based on current trajectory, will happen at some point. Maturity concerns, combined with a desire to see him play more regular minutes, might consign him to Tony Vidmar's Olyroos for now.
First choice: Mitchell Duke
Next in line: Jamie Maclaren, Jason Cummings, Adam Taggart, Nicholas D'Agostino, Mohamed Toure, Noah Botic, Alou Kuol
After leading the line for Arnold in Qatar, Duke likely remains the Socceroos' starting No. 9 heading into the 2026 cycle -- it's clear the coach values him and his work ethic highly. Maclaren and Cummings' goal-scoring exploits in the ALM, however, combined with skill sets that could prove better suited to Asian competition means they should apply significant pressure to that status.
The odd man out for Qatar, Taggart's return to Perth Glory should give him a platform to build upon, as will D'Agostino's new home at Viking in Norway. Like Wales, "Daggers" is reaching the age where he needs to step up and start demanding regular selection in the national team if it's going to happen.
Not ready for senior selection yet, or probably at least until post-Asian Cup in all honesty, Botic, Toure, and Kuol all represent the next generation.
All three have been highly touted youth prospects that have experienced ups and downs (as well as unhelpful comparisons -- next time you want to call someone the next Mark Viduka, don't) but green shoots are incredibly forthcoming. Botic is staying and scoring for Western United and receiving high praise for his work ethic, Kuol recently made his Bundesliga debut for VfB Stuttgart, and Toure recently returned to action with Stade de Reims' youth side and scored a brace against FCSR Haguenau in the French fourth tier. In the end, the next heir apparent at the No. 9 position might end up being the one that impresses Arnold and Vidmar the most during the Olyroos' Paris 2024 campaign.