On the 12 February 2003 the Australian national football team played their first international fixture of the year against England at the Boleyn Ground in London. England manager Sven-Göran Eriksson gave a run out to 22 of his players over the course of the match in preparation for their imminent Euro 2004 qualifiers. Among these players was young Everton forward Wayne Rooney, at 17 years and 111 days the youngest ever England player to receive an international cap.
Frank Farina’s Socceroos dominated the match with a special performance by then 24-year-old Leeds United forward Harry Kewell. Australia won by a score of 3-1 (England’s goal came not from the burgeoning superstar Rooney but Francis Jeffers. Ring any bells? No, me neither. That was his only international cap and he was last heard of playing for fourth division club Accrington Stanley).
What was going on? Football was the one sport we could be certain of beating the Aussies. Australia were reigning Rugby champions of the world and the previous month had held the Ashes for the eighth series in a row. And now football, in a match the English were expected to win comfortably.
The explanation? This was Australia’s Golden Generation of soccer stars, who in the next five years would win a fourth OFC Nations Cup, beat Uruguay on penalties one memorable night at Sydney Stadium, and grace the FIFA World Cup for the first time in 32 years.
If this year’s World Cup has showed us anything, it is that this particular Golden Generation is over, even with a few old faces remaining from the Farina years.
But overall, Ange Postecoglou’s transitional squad on display in Brazil shows us that once more Australian football is on the brink of something special.
Australia were fantastic. In particular in their 3-2 loss against the Netherlands they played the most exciting football and made the semi-finalists look faceless. The three Dutch goals were exceptions to proceedings, Arjen Robben slicing through the high Aussie backline for their first. Two moments of no nonsense finishing from Robin van Persie and Memphis Depay settled it for the Netherlands late on. But overall Australia were the most impressive, managing to embody the country’s passion and pride through pace, tenacity and teamwork.
And Cahill’s goal…oh my word.
This is what the World Cup is all about…the kind of goals you can’t stop thinking about days after, at work, on the train, that twilight moment before you fall asleep each night; replayed in your mind over again. How did Cahill have such superhuman strength in his leg to send the ball blazing at 61 miles per hour with the precision not to goofily spoon it into the crowd? There is also something so satisfying about the ball hitting the crossbar before it goes in- not only does it tell us how close it was, the physicality of thermally bonded polyurethane panels hitting metal gets the adrenaline racing. Cahill one again proved his class by making a sturdy frame of metal wobble as if it were in a cartoon.Sixty seconds after Robben’s opener, Aussie defender Ryan McGowan latched on to a loose ball to provide the perfect cross from nearly 35 yards away. Tim Cahill, watching it all the way over his own shoulder with the blazing Porto Alegre sunshine obscuring his vision, rifled it past the flailing Dutch keeper and in off the crossbar. “AAARRROOOOO!” I exclaimed as I watched this in my bed at 2:30 in the morning, my girlfriend deeply unimpressed at being woken. But she was lucky I didn’t soil myself with excitement right there. This was an instant response in true Aussie style.
Australia impressed the football world with their confident attacking display despite bowing out of the tournament with zero points. The history books will never do justice to the their performance this year and football fans years from now could be severely misled to think that a lack of points equated to a lack of quality football from the Aussies.
With the Socceroos having returned home their future success lies with a new generation of players who are making their mark. Youngsters such as Tommy Oar and Mathew Leckie have recently impressed and 22-year-old goalkeeper Mathew Ryan was last season voted Belgian Pro League goalkeeper of the year for Club Brugge, his stand out performances reportedly garnering interest from Real Madrid. Additionally, forward Adam Taggart joined recently relegated English club Fulham as they chase promotion back into the Premier League.
And Penrith born Brad Smith made his first appearance for Liverpool last season, his English parents making him eligible for both national sides. A recent Fox Sports interview displays a scouse accent that I’m told is very much affected, suggesting he could be vying for a place in the English set up. But if Smith doesn’t make it in the footballing world I’m sure he’d make a great voiceover artist if they ever remake Yellow Submarine.
Postecoglou was quoted saying on the ABC: “In four years’ time, the ideal for me is to obviously qualify for the World Cup in Russia, but not be ranked 60 in the world, and to have half-a-dozen players playing in the top leagues around the world.”
Looking at the starting 11 for Australia’s win against England in 2003, most of the players played for English Premier League clubs, Brett Emerton also signing for Blackburn Rovers a few months later. The starting line-up against the Netherlands last month featured players from clubs in China, South Korea, Qatar and the German 2nd division- hardly the cream of the crop as far as football leagues go. Ryan McGowan, 24, who provided such a delectable assist for Cahill’s goal earns his bucks for Shandong Luneng Taishan in the Chinese Super League, a league known less for its footballing quality and more for the insane amounts of money and corporate sponsorships surrounding it.
This is a squad with an average age of 26, usually the height of one’s playing career. Hopefully scouts of some of the top European clubs will take notice of these players – such is the beauty of the World Cup.
Postecoglou also noted: “We’re not a top 15 football nation at the moment and that’s what we’ve got to work on in the next couple of years.” Captain Mile Jedinak agrees: “It’s all about taking these positive games into results.” With the AFC Nation Cup being hosted in Australia next year the Socceroos have the perfect opportunity to prove themselves top dogs of their own confederation in the run-up to the next World Cup.
And in the longer term I have my fingers crossed that FIFA will stage a revote for the hosts of the 2022 World Cup after allegations of corruption. Australia really deserves to host the event. Aside from being economically sound with most needed facilities already in existence, for once Australians deserve not to have to get up at 4am to watch a football match.
So bring it on the Socceroos! Your future is bright. The next objective is winning next year’s Asian Cup. And after that I sincerely hope a new generation of players can go really far. As long as it doesn’t mean getting the better of England ever again.