Finally, we’re through

Yesterday, I was edgy. I could barely eat dinner. I was a bundle of nerves. For last night the Socceroos faced off against Uruguay in the second leg of the World Cup Qualifier by the end of which we’d either have qualified for the World Cup in Germany next year or be condemned to another four years of footballing obscurity.

I’d arranged to have dinner at my parents house so that we could all watch the match together on the widescreen TV. I didn’t eat much. My legs were bouncing up and down with nervous energy from the kick-off. This was made worse because Australia had an inauspicious beginning to the match. They took a long time to settle into the match. Uruguay were definitely on top in the opening stages, and my heart began to sink a little. But then Australia found their feet. Hiddink replaced a defender, the excellent Tony Popovic, with an attacker, the talisman Harry Kewell. By then, things had truly started to turn around. Before long, Australia were a goal to the good. Marco Bresciano scored from close range after good work from Kewell and Viduka. Spirits were raised, but in the back of my mind was the knowledge that all it would take is one goal from Uruguay and we’d be back to where we started. Worse, in fact. We’d have had to score another two goals to go through to the World Cup. Uruguay had their chances too. There were several heart stopping moments. The second half was all Australia. The Uruguayan danger man, Recoba, was substituted. Montero pulled a hamstring and was also subbed. Extra-time. Dreaded penalties. Switched between rapid breathing and not breathing at all. Schwarzer saved a penalty. Viduka missed his penalty but Schwarzer unbelievably saved another one! Aloisi’s penalty sent us through to the World Cup.

I can’t believe we’ve finally qualified to play in the greatest sporting tournament on Earth. I still remember Australia being beaten by Scotland in 1985 in the qualifiers for Mexico ’86. Every four years since then has been heartbreak. Now, finally, Australian football will have its day in the sun. More than that, it will compete with AFL and the Rugby codes as the top sport in this country.

Guus Hiddink is a miracle worker. He’s had the job of Socceroos manager for little more than four months, and he’s been able to achieve what no other coach has since 1974. Give the man a medal. Make him an honorary Aussie. Something. Credit should also go to the new Australian football administration. Frank Lowy and John O’Neill, you’re legends. If it weren’t for them, Australia would not have a manager of the calibre of Guus Hiddink. Also thanks to the likes of Johnny Warren, Les Murray, Craig Foster and the entire Australian football fraternity who have pushed so hard for the necessary changes to be made to football in our country, and who never once let go of the dream.

There must be something about World Cups in Germany, because the only other time Australia has played in a World Cup was in 1974 in Germany. But I think it will be a more regular occurrence from now on. No longer does Australia need to face the fifth best South American team to make the World Cup. We’re now in the Asian confederation, which means we get to play group matches just like everybody else. It means we can afford to lose a game or two and still finish top of a group and qualify for the World Cup directly. It also means we’ll be playing the likes of Japan, Korea and China, who, while formidable in their own right these days, are not quite of the same quality as the South Americans.

My thoughts on the match:

  • Bloody brilliant, for starters;
  • Hiddink made an inspired team selection and then even more inspired substitutions;
  • Our defence is still looking too fragile at times. We could so easily have been punished;
  • For all our possession and pressure over the two legs, we didn’t make it count. Even in the first leg we had more of the ball than Uruguay, and it would have been nice to kill off the tie in the first leg by scoring an away goal. Not to mention my heart and those of all other football mad Australians would have been spared a substantial amount of torture;
  • Our midfield is looking really strong. Grella, Bresciano and the others were awesome;
  • Schwarzer was solid during the match and incredible during the penalty shoot-out;
  • Winning that match is the single best thing that could have happened for football in this country. It was one of Australia’s greatest sporting moments. The only thing that could top it is actually winning the World Cup itself.

Karen’s thoughts on the match:

  • Uruguay’s uniform was spiffier than Australia’s, especially their socks;
  • Harry Kewell needs a new hair dresser; he’d be quite cute if he had a different haircut.

It shouldn’t be overlooked that Dwight Yorke’s Trinidad & Tobago also qualified for their first ever World Cup overnight, by beating Bahrain 1-0 in the second leg of their playoff. Next year’s World Cup will feature several teams who have never played in a World Cup previously: Trinidad & Tobago, Ukraine, Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, Togo and Ghana. This just goes to show what a truly world game football is. Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, Togo and Ghana have qualified at the expense of the established African giants Nigeria, Cameroon and South Africa. Nigeria and Cameroon were widely considered to be likely winners of the World Cup within the next few tournaments. Ghana are very strong at youth level, and they are one of the strongest African teams, so it’s quite astonishing that Germany 2006 will be their first World Cup.

Right now, it just feels brilliant that Australia has finally qualified. Johnny Warren would be so proud. Can’t wait until June next year! Hey, I’ll be married by then. Cool.