By Joey Lynch
After being absent for wins over China and Vietnam, Fran Karačić and Chris Ikonomidis are set to reinforce the Socceroos for coming World Cup qualifiers against Oman and Japan, as Football Australia seeks to reach an agreement with the Victorian Government that will open the door for further callups from its Melburnian talent pool.
Initially set to be named on Friday afternoon, the announcement of coach Graham Arnold’s full squad is now likely to be delayed to Saturday — with the finalisation of some-last minute arrangements forcing the slight re-shuffle. Nonetheless, it is understood that the duo has been tapped to make their return to the Green and Gold for the crucial fixtures.
Players will begin to arrive in Qatar on Sunday, before utilising one of the upcoming World Cup training sites’ for sessions on Monday and Tuesday and subsequently enjoy a run at the upcoming match venue the Khalifa International Stadium. They will then face off with Oman in the early hours of Friday morning Australian time, before jetting out East to take on Japan on Tuesday evening.
Unable to secure an agreement to stage the fixture with Oman on home soil, Football Australia did make preliminary inquiries around staging that clash in Japan to reduce the travel load on the squad, only to be unable to secure an agreement.
However, after formalising strict biosecurity procedures with the Federal and New South Wales governments and New South Wales’ health authorities that will allow the Matildas to stage a two-game friendly series with Brazil the federation is confident that they will be able to welcome its senior men’s side to Sydney for November’s home World Cup qualifier against Asian powers Saudi Arabia.
After making his Socceroos debut during June qualifiers — three years after he first pledged his allegiance to Australia during the build-up to the 2018 World Cup — Karačić missed the wins over China and Vietnam with a minor injury — a malady that has also forced him to the sidelines and bench with his club side, Serie B outfit Brescia.
Starting and playing 90 minutes of two of his three appearances, the 25-year-old netted his maiden international goal in that phase’s penultimate game when he made it 2-0 against Nepal.
Restricted to two substitute appearances during that same June window as he continued to recover from an ACL injury, Ikonomidis was absent from the September qualifiers, with AAP reporting that he was unable to secure an agreement with new club Melbourne Victory that would have allowed him to leave the club and remain overseas in a similar manner to Sydney FC defender Rhyan Grant.
The 26-year-old, though, is now set to make his return for the games against Oman and Japan; he and Grant — who has been training with Martin Boyle and Scottish Premiership side Hibernian between windows — the two A-League representatives Arnold’s unit.
But with the A-League Men Season set to commence on November 19, just two days after the closure of that month’s international window, Football Australia is seeking to secure an agreement with the Victorian state government to secure a home quarantine arrangement for Ikonomidis upon his return to Australia on October 13 as well as for other players from Victoria that may be involved in future international fixtures.
Socceroos captain Mat Leckie and striker Jamie Maclaren, both with Melbourne City, are players that would nominally be a lock to figure for the national side but existing 14-day hotel quarantine procedures have resulted in them ruling themselves out. It is understood that home rather than hotel isolation would likely render the former available again.
“We are speaking with the Victorian Government about a selected Melbourne-based Socceroo who will be away with the national team for two international matches against Oman on 7 October in Qatar, followed by Japan on 12 October,” Football Australia CEO James Johnson said.
“We are hoping that when this player returns to Australia, he is able to self-isolate at home for the required quarantine period so that he is in a better environment which supports his physical and mental wellbeing, and his preparation for the A-League Men’s 2021/22 season, which commences on 19 November.
“Beyond October’s matches we are also seeking the support of the Victorian Government on its quarantine rules for fully vaccinated locally based Socceroos players, and prospective Socceroos, to participate in our remaining FIFA World Cup qualification matches, which includes games in November 2021.
“These players, who sacrifice so much for their country, would be returning to Australia from overseas as the nation reaches 80 per cent double vaccination rates. New protocols, such as home isolation instead of hotel quarantine, would help to ensure that these players can continue to live out their dreams of representing their country and inspire millions of Australians. It would also provide crucial support for the players, and their families, as they transition back to their professional A-League Men’s club environments, minimising disruption to the professional domestic football season.”
The Socceroos enter the coming international window atop their qualifying group — their comfortable 3-0 win over China and a battling 1-0 win over a spirited Vietnam meaning that they and the Saudis, also on two wins, occupy the two automatic qualification slots in the group.
Ranked 78 in the world, Oman grabbed a late, smash-and-grab winner on the road to shock Japan in their opening game of the second phase of qualification, before going down 1-0 against the Saudis six days later. As part of their preparations for the Socceroos, coach Branko Ivanković’s side downed Nepal 7-2 on Monday.
Stunned by Al-Ahmar, 26-in-the-world ranked Japan got their campaign to secure a seventh-straight trip to the World Cup back on track with a 1-0 win over China — although coach Hajime Moriyasu’s Samurai Blue didn’t make the most convincing of victors.
Joey Lynch is a freelance sports journalist whose work has appeared in ESPN, The Guardian, Optus Sport, AAP and more. You can buy him a coffee here.