November 16, 2005 is a famous day in Australian sporting lore. More than 82,000 people packed into Telstra Stadium in Sydney to watch Australia play Uruguay for a spot in the World Cup in Germany.
Our nation was known as an ‘almost’ country. We’d lost to the same opponent four years earlier, and the 1997 heartbreak against Iran is still a tender subject for many football fans.
I remember my mother kicking me and my father out of the lounge room so she could watch some kind of reality TV show, so my dad and I watched on a tiny TV in the other lounge room.
I was only 13 at the time, so I was too young to remember the heartbreak of previous campaigns, but my dad was riding a wave of emotion with every kick.
Of course, the rest is history. Marco Bresciano scored in the 35th minute to send the game to a penalty shootout, and Mark Schwarzer made two key saves to lead to John Aloisi’s famous moment.
Fast-forward 12 years, and we played a similar game against Honduras at the same venue. It was a little easier this time, but the end result was the same.
Australia is heading to its fourth straight World Cup, and their fifth overall. It was our longest qualification campaign to date, having to play 22 games and travel more than 175,000 kilometres over the two-year period.
Which brings me to my question: Have we gotten too complacent with qualification?
After automatic qualification from the group stage in both 2010 and 2014, the fact that we had to go through the playoff system for this campaign brought out the naysayers.
Apparently Australian football was at an all-time low, and the nation didn’t deserve qualification if it couldn’t get over the likes of Japan and Saudi Arabia in a group format.
Firstly, if you qualify for a World Cup, you deserve it. It doesn’t matter if you qualify as the host, or qualify as the 32nd team in the inter-continental playoff, you’ve earned your spot at the tournament. Just ask Italy, Chile or the Netherlands.
Secondly, the Asian qualification route is tough. There are a number of very strong sides that we have to get through, and the added travel that comes with being geographically removed from the Asian landmass also doesn’t help.
It’s no coincidence that Australia struggled to win games away from home. I think after 8,000+ kilometres on a plane I’d be feeling pretty fatigued as well.
Having said that, we’ll need a massive improvement to make any kind of impact in Russia next year. And we may have to do that with a new coach, as Ange Postecoglou’s status at the head of the team is up in the air.
Our goal-scoring ability has come into question a number of times throughout the qualifying campaign. The fact that 37-year-old Tim Cahill is our biggest threat up front is more negative than positive.
However, there are some very good players in the fold as well. Aaron Mooy is a genuine star, Matthew Leckie is having his best domestic season to date, and Mile Jedinak will ably captain the Aussies with his calming presence through the midfield.
In spite of the struggles of the team, we’re still going to the World Cup for the fourth time in a row. Rather than questioning our worth, let’s savour the opportunity.