Australian football appeared to be in the doldrums after a poor performance by the national team at the AFC Asian Cup 2007. The Socceroos could only manage one win in four games, and went out on penalties to Japan in the quarter-finals.
Yet with the arrival of much-travelled Dutchman Pim Verbeek, the fortunes of the national team have taken a sharp turn for the better. Australia are undefeated in the opening phase of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, strolling past Qatar 3-0 in their first match before securing a 0-0 draw against China in Kunming.
A hard-fought 1-0 win over Asian champions Iraq on Sunday has put the Aussies three points clear in AFC Group 1. In recent weeks, Pim Verbeek's men have also found time to defeat 14th-ranked Ghana 1-0 in a friendly match in Sydney.
The Socceroos' recent successes have been built on their excellent defensive record; under Verbeek, they are yet to concede a single goal. Middlesbrough's veteran goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer has made a sizeable contribution in this regard, saving a penalty from Shao Jiayi in the final minute of the qualifying match against China.
Against Iraq, Schwarzer was the hero again, making a number of crucial saves to maintain Australia's 1-0 lead. There have been other impressive contributions in the defensive third of the pitch, especially from Newcastle Jets stopper Jade North, a standout performer against both China and Ghana.
The efforts of Schwarzer, North and others have seen Australia gain 74 points and rise eight places to 35th in the June FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
The heat is on
In the forthcoming weeks, Australia face Iraq and Qatar again in their AFC World Cup qualifying series - but this time, there's a twist. The Socceroos will be playing in the Middle East, in desert conditions which many of them will be unused to.
Verbeek has admitted that the next stage of the qualifying campaign will be his toughest test so far. "It will be two very tough weeks. We came here to Brisbane, because of the weather and climate, to make it easier to acclimatize to go to the 40 degree heat in Dubai. But that didn't work out."
"But we have the three points. We don't know exactly what to expect in Dubai; we will find out in the coming days."