Australia might not have reached the highs of Germany 2006 when they reached the Round of 16 for the first time, but they depart South Africa 2010 with their heads held.
Missing qualification on goal difference was not a scenario that appeared likely after the Socceroos fell to a stunning 4-0 defeat against Germany in their Group D opener in Durban. By far the heaviest loss in Pim Verbeek's 33-match reign, the manner of the defeat shocked as much as the scoreline. The Socceroos, who appeared to lack their usual gusto and fortitude against a fleet-footed young Germany team, suddenly found themselves looking down the barrel of elimination before their campaign had barely commenced.
However Australia returned to type with high-spirited performances against firstly Ghana, where they drew 1-1, and then Serbia, where the Socceroos collected just their second FIFA World Cup™ win in their tenth match. The resilient performance against the west Africans, where they could easily have collected more than a share of the points despite playing a man down for nearly 70 minutes after the dismissal of key attacker Harry Kewell, was an impressive display of mental strength following that demoralising result in Durban.
Australia then rode their luck to maintain parity in the first half against Serbia, but there followed a dynamic high-tempo second period as their cautious approach was discarded. The result was a 2-1 win for the Socceroos against the world number 15; their first success against a European nation at the FIFA World Cup.
The final two group matches suggested that Australia's lacklustre performance against Germany was an aberration rather than an accurate indication of the team's standing. Nevertheless the scoreline against the three-time champions ultimately proved the Socceroos' undoing despite their finishing level on points with Ghana, who advanced to the Round of 16 and a meeting with USA. That the Socceroos collected the same amount of points as they did when advancing from their group at Germany 2006 will be of little consolation.
"In the end the goal difference made all the difference and we can only blame ourselves for that by giving four goals away against Germany," said Australia coach Verbeek. "I think we played one very poor game [during my tenure as coach] and that was against Germany and that cost us a lot. On the other hand again we stepped up – played a great game against Ghana, played a great game against Serbia. I'm disappointed for the players because they gave everything over the last two and half years to go to the final 16 and it didn’t work out."
Australia were also hampered by the severe lack of match fitness of a number of players with the likes of Harry Kewell, Mark Bresciano, David Carney and Craig Moore all having endured long absences from their respective club line-ups. With resources already stretched, Australia were also hit hard by one-match suspensions to key players Tim Cahill, Kewell and Moore. The suspension of the talismanic Cahill for his dismissal against Germany was most sorely felt by the Socceroos in their pivotal match against Ghana, when the team missed the cutting edge in attack that could have turned the Rustenburg draw into three invaluable points.
Australia fielded the second oldest squad at South Africa 2010 and elimination from the tournament will likely draw the curtain on the international careers of a number within the group. Many of the group are veterans of the Under-23 squad which competed at the Sydney Olympic Football Tournament in 2000, branded by some commentators in Australia as the 'golden generation'. Nearly all who took the field over the three matches in South Africa were veterans of four years ago, with only one of the starting side which took the field in the group opener against Germany aged under 28.
With Verbeek departing the Socceroos will undoubtedly undergo a period of transition, with Moore, Scott Chipperfield, Mark Schwarzer and captain Lucas Neill all now aged 32 or older. Nevertheless the tournament saw the younger generation enjoy more match time – and indeed success – than appeared likely a few months back. Underrated defensive midfielder Carl Valeri proved himself a worthy successor to Vince Grella, while attacking midfielder Brett Holman won plaudits for his contribution, which included scoring two of the team's three goals. The free-spirited left-footer Carney showed glimpses of his raw talent despite a disrupted domestic campaign and central defender Michael Beauchamp turned in a stoic performance against Serbia though likewise suffering from a paucity of match time.
Having recovered admirably from the opening debacle against Germany, the Socceroos, with their narrow failure to progress from their group, have shown that the success of Germany 2006 was not an anomaly. With the younger generation starting to make their mark on the field, not to mention impressive numbers of green and gold-clad supporters in the stands, it would appear that Australia have a bright future at the world's greatest football spectacle.