Friday, October 14, 2005

Australia in the World Cup?

So, it will be Uruguay again in the World Cup qualifying playoffs for Australia. First leg away in Montevideo, Uruguay on the 12th November and the second leg at home in Sydney, Australia on the 16th November.

"Again" because this represents the same match-up as in 2001 when qualifying for the Korea/Japan 2002 World Cup Finals. Australia has only ever qualified for the World Cup once, way back in 1974 (still infinitely better than the big 0 of Singapore... *Sigh*). And over the years since then, they have gone through a whole series of heartbreaks due to these playoffs.

Australia belong to the qualifying group of Oceania. Because the group is quite small and relatively weak football-wise, they've always been awarded half a place in the World Cup by FIFA. That essentially means the winner of Oceania has to play with some other country from another qualifying group to qualify for the World Cup. And because Australia is head and shoulders above all other teams in Oceania (New Zealanders will disagree with me...), they basically get that half spot every campaign.

As mentioned, their opponent in 2001 was Uruguay. In that playoff for a spot in Korea/Japan 2002, Australia had narrowly beaten them 1-0 in Melbourne in the first leg. Hopes would have been very high for qualification after that victory. But they gana whacked 3-0 in the return leg in Montevideo to lose 3-1 on aggregate.

But perhaps the most heartbreaking of all the qualifying failures was the 1997 playoff for a place in France 1998. For that campaign, they had to play a team from the Asian group. Turned out to be Iran. They drew 1-1 in the first leg away in Iran. This was not a bad score for Australia to take home, given the "away" goals rule. In the second leg at home, they were leading 2-0 after 75 minutes. Surely qualification was in the bag, one would think. But no, they shot themselves in the legs, conceded TWICE in the last 15 minutes of play to draw 2-2. Iran thus qualified on the "away" goals rule. This sad tale keeps getting retold on TV here (on football shows), so much so that I can memorise the details liao. Oh, and of special interest to Man Utd fans, the goalkeeper in those two matches for Australia was a certain Mark Bosnich.

Going a further four years back, Australia had to play Argentina to qualify for USA 1994. Quite suay lor. We're talking about Argentina of 1993, runners-up in the previous edition, Italy 1990. Argentina, with Maradona still in the team (that was just before his drugs cases came out I believe, and he didn't play in the Finals itself), not to mention Batistuta. I don't think many people, except the Aussies I suppose, gave the Australian team any chance of qualifying. They didn't. But at least they made a fight of it. A 1-1 draw at home followed by a 1-0 loss away for an aggregate score of 2-1.

I actually feel that this campaign will represent Australia's best chance of qualifying thus far, though Uruguay is still a very tough team to beat.

For one, the Australian squad is more balanced now and not so skewed towards one or two individuals which they were so dependent on in the past. Notable names in the current squad include, at the goalkeeping position Mark Schwarzer (Middlesbrough) and Zeljko Kalac (AC Milan) as his deputy, defenders Craig Moore (Newcastle), Tony Popovic (Crystal Palace) and Kevin Muscat (now playing in the A-league but had formerly played for various English and Scottish clubs), midfielders Tim Cahill (Everton), Brett Emerton (Blackburn), Lucas Neill (Blackburn) and the recent discovery Marco Bresciano (Parma), and forwards, Mark Viduka (Middlesbrough), Harry Kewell (Liverpool) and John Aloisi (Alaves). Their defence, I suspect will be their main weakness but they do boast of a decent attack. Assuming no injury worries (e.g. Kewell seems to be always injured these days).

And I believe they have a trump card in Guus Hiddink. His taking over from Frank Farina as the national team coach was widely hailed across the nation as a master stroke. I won't exactly go to that extreme but I do feel the Dutch system of "total football" will suit the Australian physique.

The whole nation will be holding its collective breath until those two November dates come around. I thought briefly about getting tickets and watching it at the Telstra stadium but changed my mind. My work takes precedence, sadly, and more importantly, like how Dan puts it succinctly, we are not talking about the Chinese (in my case, Singaporean lah) national team here. :P

Nonetheless, I will still get to watch it "live" on TV here. I can imagine all the pubs and bars here will be packed to the seams here on the night of 16th November and celebrations will last the whole night should they qualify.

When will us Singaporeans get to feel such excitement? *Sigh*

Akan Datang: Foreign movies

168 days to go.


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