By Steve Wilson
When Socceroos coach Bert van Marwijk read through a long list of names to announce his preliminary squad for the World Cup, he saved the most interesting until the very end.
A small touch of theatre in a humdrum public announcement. Perhaps he is not the dour pragmatist he has been cast as after all.
The name of 19-year-old uncapped Daniel Arzani was the last the Dutchman read out. But today will be the first on excited fans’ lips.
The Iranian-born teenager lit up the second half of the A-League season with some stellar performances for Melbourne City.
Melbourne City’s Daniel Arzani has been named in the Socceroos preliminary World Cup squad of 32. (AAP / SNPA: Ross Setford)
A creator, a goal scorer, with a touch of magic in his boots and fearlessness in his game.
Unproven, yes, but a genuine prospect already being touted in some quarters as the next Harry Kewell.
Whether he will survive the final cut to the squad remains uncertain, but the very prospect has injected excitement in to the build-up to Russia 2018.
Form for City caught van Marwijk’s eye
Timing is everything in sport.
Arzani missed out on the first squad named by van Marwijk, simply because he was still a bit part player at City.
Socceroos’ 32-man preliminary squad
- Brad Jones (Feyenoord), Mitch Langerak (Nagoya Grampus), Mat Ryan (Brighton), Danny Vukovic (Genk)
- Aziz Behich (Bursaspor), Milos Degenek (Yokohama F Marinos), Alex Gersbach (Lens), Matthew Jurman (Suwon Bluewings), Fran Karacic (NK Lokomotiva), James Meredith (Millwall), Josh Risdon (Western Sydney), Trent Sainsbury (Grasshoppers), Aleksandar Susnjar (FK Mlada Boleslav), Bailey Wright (Bristol City)
- Josh Brillante (Sydney FC), Jackson Irvine (Hull City), Mile Jedinak (Aston Villa), Robbie Kruse (Bochum), Massimo Luongo (QPR), Mark Milligan (Al Ahli), Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield), Dimitri Petratos (Newcastle Jets), Tom Rogic (Celtic), James Troisi (Melbourne Victory)
- Daniel Arzani (Melbourne City), Tim Cahill (Millwall), Apostolos Giannou (AEK Larnaca), Tomi Juric (FC Luzern), Matthew Leckie (Hertha Berlin), Jamie MacLaren (Hibernian), Andrew Nabbout (Urawa Red Diamonds), Nikita Rukavytsya (Maccabi Haifa)
The youngster only came to the wider public’s attention due to an explosive January in the A-League.
Two assists off the bench on debut that turned a deficit into a victory. Another pair came in his first full start a week later.
Four weeks into his City career the hero of the club’s youth grand final win a year earlier was leading the club’s charts for the season in terms of successful dribbles.
That same month saw van Marwijk named as Socceroos coach. Still bedding in and learning about his new players, he was unwilling to throw the youngster into the mix straight away.
“Playing games,” was the short answer van Marwijk used to explain what the winger, or attacking midfielder, has done to force his way in to the reckoning this time.
“We knew him before March [when the first squad was named] but he didn’t play every week, only played a few games. [At] 19 years he has to learn a lot. It was normal, I didn’t know him.
“Now I have a lot of information … I spoke to his coaches. He is playing every week.”
Not just playing. Playing to a level well beyond his years.
Arzani ended his debut A-League season named the competition’s best youngster and a member of the team of the season.
His ability to go past players is a rare commodity in Australian football, stocked as it is with well drilled, hard-working players of similar skill sets.
The side has long yearned for players with some kind of X-factor to turn matches. Arzani is callow but has that in his make-up.
Tug of war between Australia and Iran
The clamour for national recognition for Arzani has seemingly been going on longer than the length of his embryonic senior career.
Long touted as a future star, the desire to see him in national colours has been about more than just his natural skill.
Having been born in Iran he is qualified to play for both Australia and the country of his birth.
He moved to Australia as a child and has grown up through the Australian structure, representing the team at the under-17, 20 and 23 levels, as well as spending time with the Australian Institute for Sport.
And yet, until he is capped at full level his international options remain open.
His performances for City have not gone unnoticed by Iran coach Carlos Quiroz.
“We follow with all the details all national team players,” Queiroz told Fox Sports last month.
“We have direct observations and analysis, and video analysis, of every single game of all national team players and he is part of our system. We’ve been watching very closely, we’ve been analysing all the games he’s been playing.”
Arzani himself has mostly refused to be drawn on his preference, though, encouragingly, most recently admitted he was “leaning a bit more towards Australia”.
The squad named on Monday was only a premilitary one. But his inclusion can only help him lean further towards the Socceroos.
Can Arzani make the final cut?
The 32 will be cut to 26 for a party who will travel to Turkey for a pre-tournament camp, then down to 23 for the final squad that must be submitted to FIFA on June 4.
With Arzani only now featuring for the first time – publicly at least – in van Marwijk’s thoughts, he is by no means assured of a ticket to Russia.
Though his prospective national coach’s words offered hope he could feature in some way in the biggest tournament in the sport before he is out of his teens.
“He is a player who can make a difference,” van Marwijk said.
“I like players who can make a difference. Maybe a world championship is too early, but I will not hesitate to nominate him if he can make a difference, in maybe the last 10-15 minutes.”
The role of coming off the bench to make an impact has in recent times been largely reserved for Tim Cahill, also named in the squad, a man exactly twice Arzani’s age and at the opposite end of his career.
Two contrasting options then, for Australia’s plan B – something they will undoubtedly be called on to use in a qualifying group that looks treacherous, containing as it does tournament favourites France, Denmark and Peru.
But options are what Australia have lacked in the past. Arzani’s point of difference is that sense of the unpredictable.
A famous football pundit once said “you’ll win nothing with kids”, before a clutch of Manchester United youth team graduates of whom he was speaking conquered Europe.
Van Marwijk, on the evidence of Monday’s announcement, clearly believes if you are good enough you are old enough.
All that is left is for the player himself to prove in the next month that this latest endorsement of his talent deserves further backing come the final squad announcement in a month’s time.