Waking up to the world game

In the bad old days, when football was being mis-managed by Soccer Australia in the late 90’s and early naughties, Patrick Smith labelled Football ‘the sick child of Australian sport’. The article below is a nice example of how far we’ve gone since those days.

THE gas fire is small but energetic and warms the room well enough. It is a game you don’t know much about — certainly not the subtleties — but it is enough to know Australia is playing it. And that it is a World Cup, which must be of some significance. You barrack.

So in the winter of 1974 we get to know Jack Reilly, Peter Wilson, Manfred Schaefer, Ray Richards, Atti Abonyi and Adrian Alston. There are other team and squad members but those are the names that have stuck in the memory bank at an age when nothing much does.

The losses back then at that level are automatically honourable: 0-3 to Germany, 0-2 to East Germany. Then what we will remember warmly, rightly or wrongly, is the goalless draw against Chile. At least it is not a defeat.

For those of us, and we are in our millions, who follow the AFL and rugby league, our interest quickly reverts to watching Richmond win its fourth premiership under Tom Hafey and Eastern Suburbs win the NSW league crown. Eastern Suburbs, rebadged as the Sydney Roosters in 2000, are the reigning NRL top dogs if that’s what roosters can ever be. Think Big wins the first of successive Melbourne Cups and Jeff Thomson is about to introduce the world to the sandshoe crusher.

From there the world game retreats from Australia’s consciousness. National leagues are set up but mostly rendered dysfunctional by ethnic tensions and lack of money. It is not until 2006 and off the back of a collection of wonderful players that Australia will again reach the World Cup finals. Interest is on the climb, too, because a new national league reinvented the sport locally. The A-League is here to stay.

Reilly, Wilson, Schaefer, Abonyi were our heroes 40 years ago. Now it is the likes of Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Mark Schwarzer, Mark Bresciano, Scott Chipperfield and Lucas Neill. Then along comes John Aloisi. And that moment. Ahh, the moment.

A win against Uruguay must be achieved if Australia is to get to Germany. The sides are locked together after the return game in Sydney in November 2005. A penalty shootout is required. Our immediate World Cup fate is on Aloisi’s boot. He shoots, the ball is in the net and Aloisi begins one of the most joyous and contagious runs in

Australian sport. Interest in World Cup football is growing into pride. Names like Kewell and Viduka ring more than bells, they excite the imagination. Schwarzer, too. We have moved on from bystanders with an interest to experts with expectations. And Guus Hiddink, the manager-coach, is considered a national treasure.

Not bad for a Dutchman.

A spot in the quarter-finals disappears in injury time when Italian Fabio Grosso takes a dive. He is downright unAustralian. Francesco Totti puts the penalty away and Australia is finished.

Four years later, another Dutchman manages Australia. Pim Verbeek takes on Germany without a striker and loses 4-0. That is effectively Australia’s campaign and all of a sudden it is Pim ­Vamoose.

Still football grows back home. The A-League is entranced by the new team out of Sydney’s west that reaches the grand final in its first two seasons. More people know more about the European leagues, too, than ever before.

Hell, even the AFL now mimics football. The build-up at the back is slow, sometimes back and wide, wide and back; possession is kept through the midfield. The defenders push up to and across the centre to form a quasi offside line. A long ball over the top has everyone dash back either to score a goal or defend one.

Then yesterday the side for next month’s cup is named. Australian Ange Postecoglu documents his initial squad. He is economical with his words but not even his deadpan delivery can dilute the excitement.

There is comfort for those of us who have not quite reached aficionado status. Cahill is there so we might score a goal. Josh Kennedy is tall and always looks threatening. Mark Bresciano, yep, we like his bald head. Mark Milligan and Luke Wilkshire we recognise. But no Neill, no Archie, no Brett Holman. Alex has gone brusquely.

Our growing interest in the A-League has been worth it. Only eight of the 30-man squad did not start off in the local league. We might not be able to name all of them but we know enough.

Eugene Galekovic and Mitchell Langerak as goalkeepers. Tick, tick. Defenders Jason David­son, Ivan Franjic (he was on tele yesterday with Ange), Matthew Spiranovic and Wilkshire. Tick, tick, tick, tick. Bailey Wright we know, too, not as a footballer but as a young man caught up in some type of betting scandal. Cross, cross, cross.

We are on a first-name basis with some of the midfielders. Tommy and Tommy. Mile, James and James. Matthew. And Mark and Mark. Then we have Tim and Josh up forward. Feel very good about that. Tim gets a couple of goals just buying the bread.

A generation literally woke to soccer in 1974. Now it is part of our lives by osmosis. The higher profile of the sport, the magic of Nov­ember 2005, the wrenching moment Grosso fell and now a new bunch of kids are going off to chance their luck in Brazil. We are not observers any more. This is part of our lives. We have our favourites, we have theories, we have our hopes and the Socceroos have our support. It’s fantastic, isn’t it?

And even better, we’ve got a new heater.


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