After years of heroic failure and near-misses, Australia are now just one point away from qualifying for consecutive FIFA World Cups™ for the first time. A draw tomorrow in Qatar is all that Australia require to reach South Africa 2010 and, should Japan fail to claim maximum points in Uzbekistan earlier in the evening, the Socceroos will become the first nation to qualify.
It is all a far cry from four years ago, when Australian fans sat through an excruciating two-legged play-off against Uruguay, culminating in the drama of a penalty shoot-out to reach Germany 2006, their first FIFA World Cup since 1974. Indeed, since their maiden attempt to reach the world's greatest football stage in 1965, Australia have been one match away from FIFA World Cup qualification on six occasions only to fall at the last hurdle.
This time around, coach Pim Verbeek has guided the team to a considerably more comfortable position, one which could see the Socceroos qualify with two matches in hand. The basis of their success has been at the back, where goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer has yet to see his goal penetrated in the five group matches to date, setting a national FIFA World Cup record in the process.
The match between Australia and Qatar in Doha seems a lopsided contest on paper, with the Socceroos at near-full strength and the hosts missing a number of influential players. The Socceroos have spent the past week in Dubai preparing and trying to acclimatise to the heat and humidity in the Gulf. The only major names missing from the Australian squad are long-term absentees Mark Viduka and Brett Emerton, while defender Luke Wilkshire is unavailable due to suspension.
The two sides have already met on three occasions in the past 18 months, with Australia winning all three, scoring ten goals and conceding just one in the process. Yet despite the expectations, the Socceroos are taking nothing for granted, with Qatar in desperate need of points to stay in touch with Bahrain, who currently lie third, holding down the play-off position.
"Everyone is talking about 'We're there, we're there, it's only one point'," says Australian midfielder Harry Kewell. "It's going to be very difficult against Qatar - we are looking forward to it, we are going for the three points, nothing less." The Galatasaray star, whom Verbeek has described as "never looking better" is now in his fourth FIFA World Cup campaign and knows only too well the pain of failure. "If we go out and play a solid defence and get that scrappy goal we will take that."
Qatar will be on the cusp of elimination if they lose and Uzbekistan overcome Japan in Tashkent. However, despite the desperate need for points, Bruno Metsu has a squad featuring a host of fresh faces, contrasting markedly with Australia's experienced squad, many of whom are veterans of Germany 2006. Former AFC Player of the Year Khalfan Ibrahim, Abdullah Kone and Mustafa Abdi are all on the injured list, while the Frenchman has overlooked Hussein Yasser and captain Saad Al Shammari.
The Qataris will also take heart in their solid 1-0 win over regional champions and FIFA Confederations Cup contestants Iraq last week, with the lone goal scored by one of the young recruits in teenage defender Ibrahim Majid. Inevitably, much of the burden in attack will fall on the shoulders of tall Uruguayan-born striker Sebastian Soria, who has accrued an impressive goal ratio in his three years at international level.
Australia will be hoping to quash local dreams as they attempt to create history in the unusual environs of Doha. In 2005, John Aloisi stroked home the winning penalty to etch his name into Australian sporting folklore, and now that opportunity exists again for one the current squad, albeit in starkly different circumstances. Securing passage, however that is achieved, would nevertheless come as a cause for joyous celebration for Australian football fans.