Asia's three leading players have accused Australia of arrogance in its first foray into regional competition this year.
Nashat Akram and Younis Mahmoud, part of the Iraq team which beat Australia in the quarterfinals en route to winning the Asian Cup in July, and Saudi Arabia captain Yasser Al Qahtani agreed that the star-studded Socceroos were under prepared and over confident. The three were in Sydney as nominees for the Asian Football Confederation's player of the year award, to be presented Wednesday night.
The focus turned quickly to World Cup qualifying at the pre-awards news conference on Tuesday.
Iraq and Australia were grouped together in the next stage of Asian qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in a draw at Durban, South Africa on Sunday night.
Mahmoud said he hoped Australia had the same attitude in the World Cup qualifying as it had for the 16-nation Asian Cup, because it would give Iraq a better chance of advancing to the next stage from a tough group also containing China and Qatar. Al Qahtani kicked off the criticism of Australia's Asian Cup campaign in comments translated from Arabic.
"Australia went into the Asian Cup with the perception that Asian teams were easy to beat," the Saudi striker said. "They discovered for themselves that Asian teams can be very difficult." An Australian team containing English Premier League stars like Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill and Mark Viduka was impressive at the 2006 World Cup, reaching the second round before exiting on a contentious last-minute penalty to eventual champion Italy.
Australia switched from Oceania to the Asian confederation after that and went into the Asian Cup as favourite, but struggled in steamy conditions in Thailand.
Graham Arnold, who was coach of the Socceroos after Guus Hiddink's post-World Cup departure, previewed the tournament by saying anything less than a title would be a disappointment. His temporary assignment as head coach was terminated after the quarterfinal exit.
Akram said the Socceroos simply underestimated the challenge of Asia and "didn't prepare well, thinking they'd get away easily." "I don't understand Australia's performance _ they have got players who play in the top European league, so I can't work out whey they didn't perform."
Mahmoud said Australia suffered because of all the hype surrounding the team.
"Australia probably had the best players in the competition _ so many from European clubs _ they were over confident," Mahmoud said. "Most of the teams playing Australia were really determined to play their best game against them."
Mahmoud, who plays for Al Gharafa in the Qatar league, said Australia would take a big risk by fielding anything but a full-strength team against anyone in the World Cup qualifiers starting February.
Mahmoud scored the winning header in the 1-0 Asian Cup final win over Saudi Arabia in Jakarta.
But he was unable to return to war-torn Iraq to celebrate because of visa issues and club commitments.
The problems at home, he says, give him more incentive to perform on the big stage and upset teams like Australia.
"As Iraqis, we do these things to make our people happy."