Friday, 23 April 2010

Aussies may find it tough on the rebound

The upcoming World Cup finals in June will be the tenth such instalment that I've actively followed. Each tournament marks for me another adorned figure passing in life's rich pageant.

Sadly for me, for nearly all I've witnessed over the years I have been more a bystander than active participant, for my country Australia has walked a dusty World Cup trail for much of that time. After the fairytale of qualification by our distinctly amateur representatives in 1974, the next 32 years saw a parade of under-achievement, near-misses, bad planning, bad luck and ever-present frustration.

The sense of release and relief was palpable when Australia edged Uruguay in 2005, and those feelings gave way to unbridled joy when Japan and Croatia were overcome in Germany, only to be toppled in dubious circumstance by Italy and denied a place in the quarter finals.

With appetites well and truly whetted by the 2006 experience, Australia threw itself into 2010 qualification, this time via the refreshing challenge of Asia - an alluring prospect after the years of tedious boredom in Oceania - and safely negotiated passage to South Africa with only the occasional blip.

So what of the chances for the green and gold in June? Well, the natural pessimist in me thinks that this time the mountain will be harder to climb. Consider

  • We're not as good this time around. While Tim Cahill and Mark Schwarzer are at the height of their powers, Australia is struggling for quality. Up front, the ebullient Mark Viduka has disappeared into the ether and his principal replacement Josh Kennedy may have impressive stature, but lacks the guile and touch of the V-bomber. Kewell may be one of Oz's all-time great exports, but sadly is well past his best and can't be expected to provide the moments of impact seen in Germany. Stalwarts Emerton, Bresciano and Grella are all retained from 2006, but the 2010 versions are all of diminished quality and/or fitness. And Australia has problems directly in front of Schwarzer. Lucas Neill and Craig Moore are still around but have had scant exposure at the highest level in recent times.
  • Our group is tougher this time . In 2006, Brazil was untouchable but Croatia and Japan fair game. As it turned out, we broke even (W1 D1 L1) and progressed. This time around there is another untouchable (Germany), but Serbia and Ghana will prove tough to take points off. Essien's likely absence may slightly ease the spectre of the Ghanaians but only marginally so.
  • The element of surprise will be missing. In several quarters, Australia was deemed to be deserving of only minnow status in 2006. The US coach damned Australia with faint praise leading up to the tournament, and Croatia heaped scorn on the Aussie's third-world football status before their critical group encounter. Australia benefited significantly from such underestimation, and following the unlucky exit against Italy had garnered a modicum of respect. It's difficult to see its upcoming opponents acting with similar naivety.
  • Pim is no Guus. Pim Verbeek may have satisfactorily extended Australia's love affair with Dutch managers, but in the face of Guus Hiddink, Verbeek is a mere journeyman. Pim has proved to be reliable, likeable and adroit throughout the qualifying campaign, but will lack the ability to sufficiently raise Australia's performance in the highest company.
Australia's showing in 2006 greatly enhanced football's standing and credibility down under, no mean feat in a country traditionally dominated by two other competing codes. For the first time in a generation, the populace at large gained insight into why the rest of the world is besotted with the round ball game.

This time around, Australia expects. Having had a taste four years ago, the punters are hungrier for more. This makes the stakes rather more compelling. With the opponents tougher but the talent weaker, this will be a task comprising a much higher degree of difficulty. Perceived failure could prove difficult for the nation to swallow.