Getting to the World Cup was hard enough, but now Australia faces the current and five times world champion, Brazil, European powerhouse Croatia and Asian champion Japan in one of the toughest groups at Germany 2006. Yet coach Guus Hiddink and his squad will not approach these games next June with an inferiority complex.
The record against Brazil includes one victory and one draw in recent competitive encounters, while that against Japan is very even, five wins, five losses and four draws. Croatia in the last game in the group looms as the most interesting, particularly for locals, since Geelong’s Socceroo midfielder Josip Skoko could find himself trying to score past Croatian keeper Joey Didulica, who grew up with him in the North Geelong juniors.
Didulica is number three on the Croatian keeping list at the moment, while Skoko has just played his first full league game for his English Premier League club Wigan Athletic since his transfer from Turkish club Genclerbirligi.
Should Australia qualify from its Group F as runner-up it is likely to face Italy as potential winner of Group E at the quarter-final knock-out stage.
Between now and June Australia has a series of qualifying matches in the Asian Confederation competition which it will join on 1 January 2006 thanks to the Frank Lowy/John O’Neill inspired move from Oceania.
In addition it will have a couple of friendly matches including one against Greece before leaving for Kaiserslautern, Munich and Stuttgart.
All these cities lie in the south of Germany which should make for easy travelling for team and fans, who will be desperately trying to obtain tickets in the next couple of weeks.
When Australia last played in the World Cup in Germany in 1974 it faced the might of East and West Germany and Chile, coming away with one draw and two narrow losses and winning lots of friends and appreciation for its efforts.
This time the target will be qualification from the group stage knowing that once it gets to sudden death knock-out matches anything is possible for a squad of players nearly all of whom are performing in some of the best leagues in Europe.
Look out for starring performances by Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Marco Bresciano and Jason Culina, and perhaps a cameo from Melbourne Victory’s Archie Thompson, the only A-League player in the recent qualifiers.
If Sydney FC can do well in the FIFA World Club Cup which is about to start in Japan, then players like Saso Petrovski, Jacob Timpano and David Zdrilic might force their way into contention as well.
(An edited version of this article appeared in the Geelong Advertiser on Monday, 12 December 2006, p. 45.)