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The Silk Road to South Africa

The Socceroos final round of World Cup qualifying began on the Silk Road in Tashkent, and they never really got off it. It is not meant to be this smooth. Nigeria has fallen short again. Powerhouses like Portugal and France are still sweating. After sixteen matches, Argentina is fifth in a South American slug-fest where only the top four go through automatically. Their fans are terrified. Like we were last time. And the time before that. World Cup qualification is meant to be terrifying.

And yet this time it hasn’t been. Well that’s not exactly true. In Kunming China, the brilliant Mark Schwarzer gave away and then saved a penalty that might have represented our bacon. And the away fixture in Manama (cue Muppets song) was a ninety two minute horror show with an ending so unjust and so wonderfully unlikely that it could have barely surprised more had the camera panned back to Bresciano with a full head of hair. But we kept winning. Nine points out of a possible nine. Then that brave draw after a difficult preparation in Yokohama.  On 6th June 2009 we became the second country to earn qualification to South Africa, beaten out of first place only by the Blue Samarai enjoying an earlier kick off time.

And yet the nation barely paused to celebrate. If Aloisi’s penalty was a pyrotechnic moment in the history of Australian sport, nil-all in Doha was like a night at home cleaning the kitchen. And yet the result is the same. As Foxsports commentator Simon Hill put it when the final whistle blew, ‘It not quite the party that it was in Sydney four years ago, but it will mean just as much. The Socceroos are off to join the world’s biggest party — South Africa here they come.’

Hill has called all but one of Australia’s qualifiers in this campaign, and in his view the 2007 effort is even more meritorious than 2005. ‘People have really underestimated how difficult this qualification was because Australia made it look so easy. It’s sometimes difficult for people back home to understand how hot it is in Qatar, or how body-sapping the altitude was in China.  While it’s fair to say the Socceroos did have the more straightforward of the two Asian groups, it was a road full of potential potholes – and they managed to avoid most of them.’

In Germany, our 32 year absence from the World Cup finals meant fans couldn’t realistically expect anything. That mad quarter of an hour against Japan would alone have been enough. But then there was an even better performance against Brazil, and the unforgettable heroics against Croatia. The Socceroos didn’t just fall into the second round, they deserved to be there. And then came Kaiserslautern II and Italy and a penalty that broke our hearts, if only because it was such an imperfect end to such a near perfect tournament. We couldn’t complain (actually we could complain, and did!), but when we all cooled down, we feted Guus and the players, and dared to wonder if the Socceroos might have stuck a Blundstone into the tiny puddle containing football’s elite.

Expectations have changed this time around. Pim Verbeek has stated that his sights are set on the last eight and beyond. Lucas Neill makes similar noises, as though a failure to progress further than 2006 would constitute stagnation — an inability to atone for the pain inflicted by Italy.

And yet getting out of the group stage would still be a major achievement. This time, the Socceroos will fly under nobody’s radar. It was different in Germany. Who could forget USA coach Bruce Arena labeling the Socceroos, alongside Trinidad and Tobago, as the weakest teams at the tournament? Fans of other countries adopted us as their second team because of the way Hiddink had us playing, and because we were that beloved thing in sport — an overachieving underdog. But now the team’s stellar form has lifted our world ranking to the mid-teens. We are for the first time a genuine threat, a contender. In South Africa, the rest of the world will be ready.

Having said that, our boys should be ready too. Another great advantage of taking the high road to qualification is that Pim can now experiment with personnel and formations. Already we have seen new names like Williams, Stefanutto, Rukavytsya, Vidosic and Spriranovic. There’s also a chance for middle tier players who weren’t part of the last campaign to press their claims — players like Brett Holman, Jade North, David Carney, Scott McDonald and Nicky Carle. The FFA has already scheduled five matches between October and March. Four of these matches will be Asian Cup qualifiers and so the selectors for South Africa will scrutinise players under tournament pressure.

The core of the squad, though, will be the same as it was for Germany. For mine, our four best players are still Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell, Mark Schwarzer and Lucas Neill. The next five are more debatable, but are probably Brett Emerton, Luke Wilkshire, Vince Grella, Jason Culina and Mark Bresciano — all veterans of 2006. Josh Kennedy is still our best game breaker. Craig Moore at 33 and back from international retirement still looks the best option alongside Neil. Should we be celebrating this remarkable stability or panicking over our apparent failure to unearth the next big thing? Or doing both. Celebrating because World Cup finals experience is rare and invaluable. Panicking because old legs get tired, and because a fan’s default position for contemplating World Cup performance is panic.

Simon Hill admits to being a pessimist by nature, and says that he is worried too. ‘I know Pim is aiming for the last eight, but I reckon another second round exit would be a major success. A lot depends upon the draw. They will miss Viduka (in all likelihood), whose experience and hold-up play against strong teams would have been so useful, there are questions marks over the centre of defence, and can Pim overcome his cautious nature and really go for it if needs be?’

But as Hill is only too quick to point out himself, Australia’s recent form says there’s cause for optimism too. The first team to qualify in Europe was the Netherlands, and Pim’s men beat them 2-1 away. The other best credentialed team in Asia is Japan, and the Socceroos had their measure not just in that famous match at Kaiserslautern, but in the final qualifying fixture at the MCG. We have genuine quality. ‘Super, Super, Super Tim’ would get a game for any national team on the planet. Harry Kewell still has the pace and skill to beat defenders and manufacture miracles. Mark Schwarzer is a phenomenon, as evidenced by 670 minutes in second stage qualifying without conceding a goal. And perhaps the most important of the lot is Lucas Neill, who showed on the biggest of stages in Germany what he is worth. If any of those four get injured …

But if depth is our weakness, spirit and resilience is our great strength. In Hill’s view, it is the great strength. ‘I know it’s an old chestnut, but the spirit of this team is phenomenal.  To get some of the results they have in recent years shows just how hard they work for each other, how much pride they have in playing for their country, and how much they trust Pim Verbeek’.

I trust Verbeek too. Even in as banal a forum as a post match interview, he speaks with a measured authority, tossing around reasoned analysis with support for his boys and just enough English syntax errors to keep us all entertained. If Pim was ever stupid enough to venture online, he’d discover a blazing debate on whether we should play a single man up front, or whether this set-up is too defensive. But given his record and the fact of qualification, few could dispute that the FFA picked the right man. We love him. The Socceroos are the nation’s best performed national team this year, and he deserves much of the credit.

It will be interesting to see how many A-league players Verbeek selects in the final squad of 23. Barring injury, Culina and Moore appear to be certainties. Mile Sterjovski and Chris Coyne are well in contention. A headache for Verbeek is that these players finish their seasons as early as February 2010, leaving them short of match practice for a tournament starting in June. The solution? My solution is that the whole lot of them are loaned to Melbourne Victory for our Asian Champions’ League campaign. The FFA and the national selectors will probably settle for them being loaned anywhere.

I will now finally get to a footballing topic on which I can speak with authority. For all those undecided about whether to book their annual leave for June next year, do it! I’ve heard from the ‘it won’t be as good as Germany’ camp. I’ve heard from the ‘I might just wait for Brazil’ collective. My experience at France 1998 and Germany 2006 tells me that it is virtually impossible for a football fan to be unhappy at a World Cup. It is Disneyland for sports fans. Indeed it’s the ‘It’s a Small World’ ride played over a month — joyous, inclusive, a reason to have faith in humanity’s ability to connect across cultures and creeds. It would be great even without the Socceroos, but the fact they have qualified is such a sweetener. This golden generation of footballers remains intact for one last campaign. Get on board. South Africa 2010 will be unforgettable.