by Jeff Fleischer(Chicagoland Soccer News, June 27, 2006)
Good on ya, mates.
It might take Australian soccer fans some time to get over Monday’s controversial 1-0 loss to Italy in the round of 16. But this World Cup was a clear success for a Socceroos side that entered the tournament as a mammoth underdog and leaves as a serious international force.
This was a team that hadn’t qualified for the World Cup since 1974, and hadn’t scored a goal in its limited Cup history. The green and gold came in ranked 42nd in the world, needing a shootout playoff victory against Uruguay just to qualify last November. When listening to broadcasts during the Cup, “underdog Australia” was heard so often it could have been part of the official team name.
In May, the BBC predicted the Uruguay match would prove the Roos’ World Cup highlight. And while it might be the world’s best news channel, this was one story it definitely got wrong.
The Aussies proved they belonged right away against Japan, with one of the great come-from-behind victories in Cup history. Shunsuke Nakamura gave Japan a 1-0 lead in the 26th minute of play on a questionable play. One of his teammates collided with and impeded goalie Mark Schwarzer, no penalty was called, and Nakamura nailed an open shot. But the Roos shook it off and settled in, winning time of possession and outshooting the Japanese 22-9.
In the final minutes, midfielder Tim Cahill added his name to the pantheon of Australian sports legends. Sent in as a sub 56 minutes into play, he tied the game in the 84th minute and then gave the Aussies their first-ever World Cup lead five minutes later. Fellow sub John Aloisi added an insurance goal, and the Socceroos had earned the nation’s biggest footy victory of all time.
They weren’t through yet.
Against Brazil, the Aussies held arguably the world’s best team scoreless in the first half, before ultimately falling 2-0. Needing a win or draw to advance against Croatia, the Roos again proved resilient. They twice overcame one-goal deficits. They survived a crucial Mark Viduka penalty that led to the first goal just three minutes in, and poor goalie play by inexplicable starter Zeljko Kalac that led to the second. And they again got a key late goal. This time it was young star Harry Kewell’s turn to shine, as he tied the game in the 79th minute and gave Australia’s fans a reason to hang around Germany for a few more days.
Sadly, the Roos’ improbable run came to a stop in the final minute of stoppage time against Italy, and in a heartbreaking manner. The Australian defense had held the high-powered Azzurri attack scoreless all night. But while driving deep in Australian territory, Italy’s Fabio Grosso drew a penalty against Lucas Neill.
Replays showed Grosso initiating contact and tripping over Neill after the defender had already slid, but referee Luis Medina Cantalego called a foul anyway, and Francesco Totti nailed the penalty kick with no time left on the clock.
The end result notwithstanding, this Cup was filled with heroes for Australia. Cahill converted his first two shots for those historic goals. Kewell, though he missed the Italy match with gout, showed why he’s a young star to count on. Viduka captained a side that fought hard throughout the tournament, while his Middlesbrough teammate Schwarzer included some spectacular stops among his 16 saves. Defenders Neill and Craig Moore delivered strong backline play. Perhaps most importantly, Guus Hiddink, who took over the team last July, coached a disciplined style that made opponents work for every score.
Following Monday’s match, Hiddink directed his players to a corner of the field, where they received a rousing ovation from the green-and-gold-draped faithful. More than 2 million Australians watched the contest on television despite its 1 a.m. local start time, and that doesn’t count the thousands watching on giant outdoor screens in Sydney and other major cities. That’s an impressive accomplishment in a country where other sports dominate. And with a Socceroos side loaded with young talent, there’s a good chance Australian soccer fans will have more to cheer about in the coming years.
Well done, mates. Well done.
Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based journalist who has written regularly for publications including the Sydney Morning Herald, Mother Jones, the Chicago Daily Herald and Mental Floss. He is one of approximately six Americans who actually like Vegemite.