When people asked me earlier this year could the Socceroos do it, I used to try to cheer them up by saying, ‘We always qualify for the World Cup in Germany’.
At the time it was whistling for a wind and a statistical generalisation based on a single example, now we have doubled the sample size, and the claim remains true.
No Australian football (soccer) team ever makes it easy for the fans.
On Wednesday night in Sydney the boys in green and gold flirted with defeat on several occasions as the Uruguayans created several openings in and around the Australian penalty area.
As long as inspirational midfielder and playmaker Alvaro Recoba was on the field Australia was always just a goal away from catastrophe as the chances of scoring three against a mean defence was very remote.
Yet Dutch master coach Guus Hiddink pulled another rabbit from his magician’s hat.
In Montevideo he started suprisingly with a very attacking formation, including three out-and-out strikers, Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka and the only A-League player, Melbourne Victory’s Archie Thompson.
Now he began more cautiously with a midfield strengthened by the inclusion of Tim Cahill and Marco Bresciano, both of whom went into the two-leg tie with one caution to their name.
Had either been booked in the Centenario they could have played no part in the critical second leg.
Australia stuttered in the opening fifteen minutes as if the weight of history were too much, and big defender Tony Popovic got himself a yellow card after 28 minutes for holding off his opponent with a flying elbow.
Then came Hiddink’s master stroke.
Realising that Australia had an extra defensive player, he removed Popovic and replaced him with the talismanic Kewell.
Kewell immediately unhinged Uruguay by scampering down the left, wriggling past a couple of defenders and seemed to be lining up for a shot which he shanked only for the ball to squeeze into the path of Bresciano, and the Parma opportunist blasted it through the upraised arms of keeper Carini.
There was bedlam in Sydney, and around Australia, as Australia at last had a level playing field and the tie was locked at one-all on aggregate.
Kewell was to make several other critical contributions, none more so than when wing-back Scott Chipperfield got himself stranded upfield and Kewell sprinted back to prevent a Uruguayan cross into the box where there were unmarked players.
Despite a lack of match fitness, Kewell was continually influential as his team went after a second and decisive goal.
Late in the game Hiddink replaced Brett Emerton with Geelong’s Josip Skoko, who had time to set up Viduka with one chance and fire a long shot narrowly wide of the post, before the referee blew for the end of extra-time and we had the penalty shoot-out.
Keeper Mark Schwarzer, as he had done previously against Canada in a similar situation, pulled off two brilliant saves and John Aloisi matched Jimmy MacKay in 1974 with the goal which takes Australia to the World Cup.
What does this mean for football in Australia?
Apart from the $8 million to be shared between the players and the Football Federation of Australia, there is the chance for a new generation of heroes to take part on the world stage next June.
Guaranteed media exposure and the rise in the profile of the game down under, at home and abroad, are certain.
But the World Cup qualification is underpinned by more significant changes which have taken place in the game recently.
Soccer is already the most popular participatory code of football among the young, boys and girls, and they now have something extra to aim for.
The domestic A-League has already drawn crowds above the expectations of the new regime at the Football Federation of Australia under Frank Lowy and John O’Neill, and the standard is higher than that of the old National Soccer League.
Above all, there is pleasant atmosphere in which to watch games and the young are responding magnificently.
Entry to the Asian Confederation of FIFA means no more sudden-death qualification against a South American country, but a broad competition for one of at least four places at future World Cups.
The national team and club sides will participate in lucrative and highly popular competitions which will reinforce the country’s growing economic, political and social involvement in Asia.
Sponsors like Qantas, Hyundai and Samsung are already on board and will, possibly for the first time, have a chance to act as a bridge to the greater integration of Australia into the geographic region of which it is increasingly a part.
So though the game in Sydney was wonderful, it is only a part of the march of the world game in Australia.
Edited versions of this article appeared on the Football Federation of Victoria website at <http://www.footballfedvic.com.au/> on 18 November 2005 and in the Geelong Advertiser, Saturday 19 November 2005, pp. 100-01.