Aussie hopes in safe hands
© AFP

Australia are well on track in their qualifying tilt for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, leading the pack without having conceded a goal in their four Group A matches to date. This solid defensive base is the platform on which Pim Verbeek's side are built, with long-serving goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer a key reason for the Socceroos' thriftiness.

Schwarzer's form and his unyielding hold on the national team jersey in recent years has ensured that the Fulham shotstopper is already considered a Socceroo legend, and he has the statistics to prove it. Now in his fourth FIFA World Cup cycle, Schwarzer would have chalked up a record five had Mark Bosnich not held onto the role during the ill-fated 1997 campaign.

Having accrued 64 caps, the 36-year-old is Australia's most-capped goalkeeper of all time. Furthermore, he will soon break the record for longest period spent in the national team, with 15 years having passed since his international debut. That baptism came as a substitute in a FIFA World Cup qualifier against Canada, with the then 20-year-old thrust unexpectedly into the action following a red card to incumbent Robert Zabica.

In the return leg in Sydney, the youngster covered himself in glory by saving two penalties and kicked off in earnest an international career that has since been wedded to FIFA World Cup glory. At domestic level, meanwhile, 11 years of distinguished service at Middlesbrough ensured Schwarzer claimed the record for most Premier League appearances by a foreign player at a single club.

A dream reprised
Australian supporters have invariably suffered the agony of being forced to wait until the last day of qualifying across the globe to learn their FIFA World Cup fate. Such was the case in 2005 when, in arguably the most famous Australian sporting moment of all, the Socceroos saw off 2001 nemesis Uruguay to reach the world stage for the first time in 32 years with Schwarzer producing the heroics to make two fine stops in a heart-stopping penalty shootout.

This time around, by contrast, Australia could even find themselves the first team to book their spot at South Africa 2010, should they overcome Uzbekistan on 1 April and other Group A results fall in their favour. Along with central defensive pairing Craig Moore and skipper Lucas Neill, Schwarzer has been in inspired form, helping to ensure Australia's goal has yet to be breached in four FIFA World Cup matches this year, and that only three goals were conceded in 2008's six qualifiers.

Indeed, Australia have not conceded a goal for 439 minutes of qualifying action, and should the defence remain watertight for 71 further minutes against the Uzbeks, they will create a new national team record, surpassing the current benchmark of 509 minutes set in 2001. Given such figures, it is no surprise that Australia coach Pim Verbeek is an unabashed fan of his 194cm-tall No1: "Mark has many qualities and has unbelievable experience in the game," says the Dutch mentor. "Having a player like Mark in goal makes the defenders feel comfortable and I think that has been shown on the park."

Pretenders to the crown
Australia has a long history of producing quality goalkeepers and Bosnich, Zeljko Kalac and Schwarzer have between them monopolised the Socceroo No1 shirt since the mid-90s. Indeed, while Schwarzer has a seemingly vice-like grip on the national team role for now, some challengers are slowly coming into view, allowing Verbeek a level of comfort should his goalkeeping mainstay be unavailable.

"We have many good goalkeepers in Australia but of course Schwarzer has shown that he is the best," says Verbeek. "Of course others players will not have the same experience but they are very talented," the Dutchman added, naming the likes of Sivasspor's Jason Petkovic, Reading's Adam Federici, Middlesbrough's Brad Jones, Jess van Stratten formerly on the books of Juventus and Verona, plus Central Coast Mariners youngster Danny Vukovic.

For the moment, however, this younger brigade must bide their time as the Schwarzer appears to be in no hurry to hang up the gloves. "I don't see why with the aid of sports science a keeper can't play to 40 and beyond," he has said. "I plan to be around for the next World Cup and after that, who knows?"