Graham Arnold ready to begin Australia's World Cup journey

Graham Arnold on national second tier & Australia's trajectory (3:31)

Socceroos coach Graham Arnold discusses the need for connectivity between state federations and the FA, and the benefits of a national second tier. (3:31)

On Thursday, the journey begins again. The Socceroos will host Bangladesh at Melbourne's AAMI Park, the first game of Australia's AFC World Cup qualification campaign and the first step on a journey that coach Graham Arnold hopes will end at the 2026 FIFA World Cup, 950-odd days away.

Given that AAMI Park saw the final games in the legendary international careers of Megan Rapinoe, Christine Sinclair, and Marta just a few months ago, it feels only right to host the genesis of a new dream there now.

Qualification for 2026 -- to be held in the United States, Canada and Mexico -- would make it six consecutive men's World Cup appearances for Australia, a remarkable feat given they didn't qualify for a single tournament between 1974 and 2006.

- WATCH ESPN's in-depth interview with Graham Arnold on YouTube

"The first game of a new cycle, when you can play it on home soil, in your home city, it doesn't get any better," Melbourne-born Socceroos midfielder Jackson Irvine said.

For Arnold, though, Thursday isn't just special because it's the start of a new cycle, one in which he will have the chance to become the first coach in Socceroos history to lead his nation into two World Cups. He's already guaranteed to make history this week: Moving past Frank Farina into sole possession of the record for most games in charge of the national team as he coaches his 59th game.

The hair across Arnold's head has become notably whiter than the greyish colour when he was appointed to his position back in 2018, joined by a beard of the same hue. The natural process of ageing, of course, but one can't help but wonder if coaching during a period dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and marked by some very high highs and rather low lows also has something to do with it; the footballing version of the before-and-after photos of politicians after assuming office.

As he speaks to ESPN on the eve of this new chapter, though, it's clear the belief and the emphasis on setting one's own standards and expectations remain. That's who the 60-year-old is and it's what brought him this far. He's not going to change. Thus, there will be talk of great energy in coming years, of great performances and effort, and innumerous other catch-cries. Arnold without these things would be like a dog that stops eating; that's when you know something is wrong.

But simultaneously, there's also less bombasity about him these days. He comes across as more mellow, secure in his position and his legacy, with a greater emphasis on how that can be harnessed for a greater purpose.

"There have been good lessons over the last four or five years," he reflects. "Times change, and as generations go on I do believe that communication is the biggest key.

"What I've done, and what I've been trying to do over the last four years is communicate a lot with the players, whether it's picking up the telephone or texting."

Indeed, times have changed since Arnold first led the Socceroos. It's been almost 20 years since that debut, an Asian Cup qualifying win over Kuwait in which Travis Dodd and Sasho Petrovski were on the scoresheet and Arnold's future coaching rival Kevin Muscat wore the captain's armband. Back then, he was acting as a caretaker, stepping in after the departure of Guus Hiddink following the 2006 World Cup, with hopes of that stint becoming permanent dashed when the Socceroos scraped through the group stages of the 2007 Asian Cup before being eliminated by Japan in the quarterfinals.

Literally giving birth to a website called "", it wasn't the most auspicious of first impressions. But it's a period Arnold sees as simultaneously being something he wishes he hadn't done but also one of the most valuable lessons of his coaching career -- lessons he could implement when he replaced Bert van Marwijk at the Socceroos helm in 2018.

Arnold: Olympics most important program outside of Socceroos

Graham Arnold outlines how pivotal Olympics qualification is for the future success of the senior Socceroos side.

But you don't get to 59 games with any national team with just one low point. And while it's remarkable to contrast with the current mood of affection around the team, it wasn't too long ago -- just March 2022 -- that the Socceroos reached their lowest ebb of Arnold's second stint: A limp 2-0 defeat to Japan at the Sydney Football Stadium, condemning the Socceroos to a dreaded intercontinental playoff in order to qualify for the Qatar World Cup.

Several figures at Football Australia subsequently backgrounded against Arnold, leading to a report in The Age saying the axe was imminent. With the writing seemingly on the wall, voices that had previously been supportive began openly postulating about a replacement, adding further pressure on the coach. Adding insult to injury, the Socceroos boss had also come down with COVID in the lead into that game, and was fined $25,000 by Football Australia for breaching New South Wales' self-isolation protocols.

"It was probably one of the toughest periods you could go through with COVID," Arnold recalls. "The players were stressed to the eyeballs with just having to get to Australia; the travel was a nightmare.

"When we actually could come back to Australia, the pressure they were getting from their clubs not to come because if they did come and went back with COVID, basically they're out of the squad for months on end.

"When we were allowed to come back to play here back in Australia, [it was]: 'Okay, boys should come back now we were allowed to play in Australia, but you can't see your families. You can't see your friends.'

"I've learned, probably the hard way, to not listen to people's voices. I'm set in my own ways and focusing on just the players [and] what's right for the players."

Ultimately, Football Australia didn't or couldn't pull the trigger.

Then Andrew Redmayne danced a jig against Peru. Then Harry Souttar laying a last-gasp sliding challenge on Taha Yassine Khenissi. And then Mat Leckie slotted a breakaway goal against Denmark. In short, everything changed. Dramatically.

Now, the memories of that Japan loss feel very distant. The sweetest remedy for animus is success, and while it could absolutely all fall to pieces if things turn -- Arnold has been in the game long enough to joke about the negative attention he knows will come with bad results -- the World Cup has been followed by positive performances against global powers such as Argentina, Mexico, and England, as well as national team debuts for rising stars such as Alex Robertson and Samuel Silvera.

Both the commencement of World Cup qualifying, and January's Asian Cup, present a new challenge for Arnold. Lately, the Socceroos have been able to mostly operate as the reactive team: Ceding possession, maintaining a backs-to-the-wall defensive block that suits the close-knit, us-against-the-world mentality, and looking to feast in transition and on set pieces.

But against Asian opposition, outside heavyweights such as Japan and Saudi Arabia, the roles will be reversed. It will be the Socceroos who will need to be proactive and break down parked buses in hostile and challenging environments. This shouldn't be an issue against foes such as Bangladesh, when the gulf in talent is significant, but at some point they will have to demonstrate the circumstances that led to the Japan nadir have been addressed.

Would take 'something special' for Arnold to leave Socceroos

Graham Arnold tells Joey Lynch it would take "something special" to lure him away from the Socceroos coaching job.

"When you play against these types of nations, it's all down to the technical skill and that side of it," Arnold explains when asked about the challenges of this cycle.

"I call it, in a lot of ways 'Backyard football time,' because you got to show what your qualities are with the ball."

Arnold says the Socceroos get a lot more respect abroad than in Australia. And he's probably right, albeit this esteem might be boosted by said international figures not having watched the Socceroos bluntly grind to draws with the likes of Oman and China in must-win qualifiers.

But the reputation the coach has built with his undeniable success across the past 12 months, boosted by rising respect for Australian football more broadly, also brings with it other kinds of attention. Scottish Premiership side Hibernian offered Arnold the head coaching role in August, only to be rebuked, while clubs across the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia and United States have all shown an interest in the 60-year-old's signature.

So what would it take to pry Arnold away from his deal with the Socceroos that takes him to the end of the 2026 cycle?

"Something special, I'll be honest, it would have to be something special," he smiles. "This badge on my heart, the Aussie badge is always something that's very unique and special."