Australia came back twice from being a goal down to earn a draw with Croatia, which was enough to take us through to the round of sixteen. It was one of the hairiest ninety minutes of football I’ve ever sat through, and one of the weirdest as well. The referee again had an absolute shocker, failing to send one of the Croatians (Simunic) from the field after he’d received two yellow cards. The same player was later shown another yellow card and then a red card after the full-time whistle was blown. The ref also missed a clear handball and an obvious foul on Viduka, thereby denying Australia two cut-and-dry penalties. Finally, he appeared to blow the final whistle just as Tim Cahill stuck what would have been a winning goal in the back of the net! I won’t say anything about Zeljko Kalac except that he shouldn’t play another game for Australia at the World Cup. I shrieked with horror when I saw him in the starting lineup when the national anthem was played. My hotel room TV was lucky to survive after he made that absolute howler. Anyway, the 2-2 draw was enough to take us through, and that’s all that matters. Kewell’s goal was magic. He’s finally showing glimpses of the way he played for Leeds United when he was at the peak of his powers. He deserved a goal for the way he played, and I’m glad he got it. Lucas Neill has been absolutely top class for all three matches so far. He ought to be playing for a better team than Blackburn, and it wouldn’t surprise me if bigger clubs were interested in buying him. He’s composed under pressure and plays the ball intelligently out of defence instead of just whacking it upfield. For me he’s been the best performer for Australia at this World Cup.
On Wednesday I was told that I’d have to fly to Sydney on Friday to attend a couple of seminars on behalf of NICTA Queensland. If I’d flown down on Friday morning, I’d have missed the TV coverage of the game because I’d have been in a taxi at the time. So I decided, screw it, I’m going a day early so I could watch the coverage. There was no way in the wide world I was going to miss that match. It turns out that if I’d flown down on Friday morning my plane would have been diverted due to fog anyway, and I wouldn’t have been able to attend the seminars anyway. The second seminar was cancelled because the Boeing guy who was giving the seminar got diverted to Melbourne because of the fog. So all-in-all it worked out really well.
The way football has suddenly captured the imagination of this country is absolutely unbelievable. The flight attendants were saying they couldn’t wait for the match against Italy on Tuesday morning. The major free to air channels have had extended coverage of the Australian team. A Current Affair is doing interviews with footballers’ wives. Ken Sutcliffe has said that the Australia v Croatia game was the best moment of his career as a sports presenter. The country has gone football crazy. It feels kind of weird that everyone is suddenly embracing the sport, but I guess that’s what we always wanted. I also get the feeling that this support won’t be fickle. I think the A-League can expect a very good season in terms of attendances. Qualifying for the round of sixteen means that the FFA receives more money than they expected to get from this World Cup. So the game is finally on a strong financial footing in this country. What’s scary is that Australia hasn’t yet won the World Cup, but the celebrations sparked by qualifying for the next round are bigger than anything this country has seen in sport. It’s wonderful!