Australians are known the world over for our love of beer and barbies, our irreverence towards authority, and our fear of refugees and international agreements to reverse the effects of climate change.
Fortunately, we are also known for our sporting prowess.
We regularly drink from the Keg of Glory in cricket, rugby league, rugby union, netball, lawn bowls, leaf-peeping, croc-wrestling, scissors/paper/rock not to mention anything involving water. (In fact, so dominant are we in the pool that reports have started coming in of nippers being born in certain Australian hospitals with flippers instead of feet.) One suspects that the reason no other country plays AFL is because they realise it would be pointless and visiting Melbourne in winter is bad for one’s happiness.
But there has always been one sport where we have been rubbish soccer.
Australia and soccer, or ‘football’ (as we can now call it), have always been like America and multilateralism we just didn’t get it!
On Monday night that all changed when we came up against the Japanese football team, known for their speed, lack of height, and hatred of whales.
Japan were ranked above us 18th as against 42nd. They are the current Asian Champions. They qualified for the last World Cup and made it to the semis we didn’t qualify and most of our boys watched from home, on the settee with their mums. The international community would have expected Japan to win. Indeed much of the crowd in the stadium expected it too.
It didn’t happen.
A small Dutchman with poor English and a tactical mind as sharp as a good cheddar changed the script forever. That man was Guus Hiddink.
Guus has taught the Socceroos that they can match it with the giants of the game like Uruguay, Holland, Liechtenstein (hmmm ) and now Japan.
On Monday night, Australia were the better team from the first whistle (except for that bit when the Japanese had a free kick from just outside the penalty area). We had most of the possession, several chances on goal and we were playing like we believed we could win. But the football gods weren’t going to make it easy. They turned on the heat (it hit 37 degrees) and they intermittently turned off the brains of the match officials, especially referee Essam Abd ‘The Sphinx’ El Fatah (let’s call him ‘Steve’).
During one of Steve’s lapses in consciousness, Japan scored the opener. It came in the 26th minute when Japanese midfielder Shunsuke ‘The Naughty Chef’ Nakamura floated a gentle ball into the kitchen from the right-hand side. The Australian keeper and hero of November’s qualifier in Sydney, Mark ‘The Wall’ Schwarzer, came out to smash the ball and was axed by Atsushi ‘Chainsaw’ Yanagisawa and Naohiro ‘Mad Dog’ Takahara.
The referee, who was busy wondering who just got evicted from Big Brother, awarded a goal. Schwarzer’s head sank, along with the hopes of many Australian fans.
If it had been the pre-Guus Socceroos no one would have been surprised if they made like a Frenchman and surrendered immediately, especially given the proximity of the often-misunderstood Maginot Line.
But these boys are the New Socceroos. They are Guus’s Sooceroos. They didn’t give up.
In a bold tactical move reminiscent of Hannibal at the Battle of Lake Trasimene, Guus made several replacements bringing on Tim ‘The Falcon’ Cahill for the dangerous Marco ‘Socks’ Bresciano, as well as the attacking pair of Josh ‘Centrepoint’ Kennedy and John ‘Tops off’ Aloisi.
Unlike the Aussies of old, the boys did not panic. They had more faith than the US Republican Party.
Mark ‘Dukes’ Viduka was strong up front, although he remains strangely allergic to the net. Encouragingly, Harry ‘Hazem’ Kewell played out the full 90 minutes after coming back from injury, producing several moments of brilliance including one missile which grazed the top of the crossbar and is being investigated by Hans Blix as a possible WMD.
But it was the inspired introduction of Cahill that won the game. Off a long throw-in, with only six minutes of normal time left, and with the Japanese keeper wondering where his next whale-kebab might come from, Cahill managed to find space through a forest of flailing legs.
Gooooooooooooal!!!! 1-1. Australia draws level. The nation breaths a sigh of relief.
At this point the pre-Hiddinks would have shut up shop and played for the draw.
But post-Hiddinks don’t just dislike draws. They hate them. (Perhaps this comes from our convict days, and from the age-old Croatian tradition of challenging crocodiles to old fashioned death-matches where there’s no such thing as a draw.)
Two minutes after his first net-finder, ‘The Falcon’ once more found himself directly in front of the goal on the edge of the box with just the ball and his right foot. Timmy cocked that right foot, and pulled the trigger. Schmack! Ball boomed in off the left post.
2-1 to Australia. Crowd goes insane (but in a good way). Cahill goes to the top of goal scoring leader-board, thanks to alphabetical order.
But the Australians weren’t finished. In the 92nd minute, making virtually the first straight run of the game, Aloisi dribbled past several Japanese defenders, shedding them like autumn leaves off a mighty oak in the Black Forest. ‘Tops off’ then put the pill on his left foot and slotted it past the dispirited Japanese gloveman who by now was clearly rueing his decision to turn down this week’s guest spot on Iron Chef.
3-1. Australia breaks its World Cup duck in style.
The Man of Match was clearly Tim Cahill. Not just for his two goals but for his energy and ability to keep his shirt on, even after scoring. In a clever move, NSW Premier and soccer tragic, Morris ‘Slow hand’ Iemma, has now publicly confirmed that the word ‘Tim’ will officially be added to all references to Sydney’s Cahill Expressway.
This Socceroo victory will create reverberations felt beyond the world of football. This Friday at the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) Japan had been expected to push for changes that would remove the special status that currently protects whales.
Now, after the embarrassing loss by the Japanese, it seems that many of the newly-joined Pacific nations (and Liechtenstein) are reconsidering their previous support for the global market in whale-kebabs.
Australian Environment Minister Ian Campbell had this to say: ‘We ardently hope that Japan has finally realised that whale-kebabs don’t lead to World Cup Glory.’ When pressed to clarify what he meant by this comment Mr Campbell said, ‘Kyoto sucks!’ before running out of the room.
The Socceroos now have a real chance of making it through to the second round of the World Cup. On Sunday, they face current World Champions Brazil, and after that, the Croatian Champions, Croatia.
Suit up for those games it’s going to be a blast!
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