The Socceroos will participate at next year's World Cup finals for the first time in eight attempts. And what's more they thoroughly deserve to. Marc Fox reports.
Football Federation Australia will be feeling rightly proud of themselves this week after witnessing Australia's greatest international triumph since Jimmy Mackay volleyed home a spectacular winner to ensure the Socceroos' progression to Germany 1974. 32 years on, the similarities between the current crop of internationals and Mackay's are eerie.
Back in '73, Australia drew the home-and-away playoff series against South Korea before squeezing home in the deciding third fixture in neutral Hong Kong. The latest group to attempt what coach Guus Hiddink described as "making the impossible possible" four short months ago advanced in similar circumstances. Scores level on aggregate after 180, then 210 minutes, before penalties decided the outcome. The destination for its second-ever finals appearance: Germany.
Despite entering next year's showpiece tournament as the second lowest rankest nation after Angola, with Hiddink at the helm today's Australia will have the conviction to improve on the solitary point its predecessors managed in '74. Back then, the Socceroos were mocked on their arrival in Europe having been cruelly drawn alongside East and West Germany as well as Chile in Group 1. How times change. If, as expected, the side is handed the unenviable label of bottom seeds when the World Cup draw is made on December 9, plenty will be keen to avoid the competitive Antipodeans.
For football officials in Australia, qualifying for Germany 2006 is the icing on an already delicious cake. After decades of disillusionment, what a way to bid farewell to its love-hate relationship with the Oceania confederation. To all intents and purposes, the Socceroos are now Asian. They leave the derisory half-place FIFA deems Oceania deserves to nestle in with the AFC and its four-and-a-half World Cup berths. After watching Australia outclass Uruguay over two legs while Bahrain stumbled to little Trinidad and Tobago, heaven knows what fellow AFC nations are thinking.
Australia dismissed Uruguay's claims of a divine right to be in the World Cup with a gutsy - and tactically astute - second leg display in Sydney's throbbing Telstra Stadium. Having negotiated a nervy opening - when an away goal would surely have ended the tie as a contest - Hiddink's side pressed and harried their weary opponents. Harry Kewell's introduction after a half-hour only served to increase the tempo. It was Kewell's sliced attempt following neat build-up play involving fellow Premier League stars Mark Viduka and Tim Cahill which lead to the opener. Parma's Marco Bresciano pounced on the misdirected shot to slam home his seventh international goal past Uruguayan 'keeper Fabian Carini.
The fact that neither Cahill nor Bresciano started in Montevideo highlights Australia's strength in depth. That is not to say Hiddink opted to bolster his defence for the away leg. The Dutch coach sprang a surprise by including Kewell from the start despite managing only a handful of appearances for Liverpool since his groin surgery in the summer. The A-League's Archie Thompson was also handed a start alongside Viduka upfront.
Again it is testament to the Socceroos' progress under the leadership of Hiddink that he was dissatisfied by a narrow 1-0 reverse. Despite Uruguay's scoring potential through Richard Morales, Marcelo Zayaleta and Alvaro Recoba, the hosts were restricted to a series of half-chances by Australia. Their goal came from Dario Rodriguez eight minutes before the break. Scott Chipperfield barged Carlos Diogo in full view of the assistant referee and Rodriguez headed home Recoba's whipped free-kick.
After Bresciano's aggregate leveller in the second leg, only one side showed the desire to win the game in regulation time. How no further goals were scored in the ensuing 85 minutes nobody could say but the lottery of a penalty shootout was called on to separate the sides. Mark Schwarzer saved from Rodriguez and Zayaleta with Viduka's miss for the Socceroos sandwiched between. Needing just one more conversion - following Kewell, Lucas Neill and Tony Vidmar's successes - John Aloisi completed the job. They say fortune favours the brave and for the first time in a generation of doomed attempts, lady luck shone on the Socceroos. They deserved every bit of it.
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