Harry Kewell shouldered a heavy burden when Australia were eliminated from the 2007 AFC Asian Cup. The former Leeds United and Liverpool star missed the Socceroos’ first penalty in the quarter-final shoot-out defeat to Japan, which brought a sad end to their first appearance in the competition.
Further disappointment was to come for Kewell in the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. After sitting out his side’s 4-0 defeat to Germany in their opening group game, he was sent off after only 24 minutes of their second match against Ghana, which ended in a 1-1 draw. Though victory over Serbia followed, the Aussies failed to make the last 16.
Now 32, the Galatasaray man is determined to atone for those disappointments at the AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2011, and has gone some way to setting the record straight by scoring against India in the group phase and then heading home his side’s late winner in a tight quarter-final against Iraq on Saturday.
Talking exclusively to FIFA.com in the wake of his extra time heroics against the title holders, the experienced forward spoke about the lessons he has learned over the last four years and his delight at aiding the Aussie cause.
“It’s always great to score,” he begins, “but when you do it in a competition like this you feel on top of the world. This isn’t about me or anyone else, though. It’s about the team. If Matt (McKay) hadn’t played the ball to me, then I wouldn’t have scored. It takes a team to score a goal.”
Major hurdle cleared
Kewell’s satisfaction at setting up a semi-final date against Uzbekistan has been heightened by the fact that victory did not come easy against the Iraqis, who mounted a tenacious defence of the title they won four years ago.
“It feels great, especially when you remember that we came so close to the semis in 2007,” he says. “We played a really solid game against the champions. They pressed us hard and used the flanks very well. Our defence and our keeper stood up though, and we stopped them from scoring, which was great. It would have been hard to take if we’d lost after two hours of football. It would have been painful. Fortunately we pulled it off, which was a big relief for everyone because we’re desperate to play this semi-final.”
Closely shadowed by Iraq centre-half Bassim Abbas, who also plays in the Turkish league, Kewell endured a largely frustrating night until evading his opponent’s clutches to head in the winner with just two minutes of extra time remaining. “The marking was really tight,” he explains. “I could have gone looking for a penalty in the box if I’d wanted.”
Testing times ahead
The next challenge facing the Australians is Tuesday’s semi against the Uzbeks, who like the Socceroos are in the last four for the first time. With so much at stake, Kewell is expecting a stern examination of his side’s title credentials: “It’s not going to be easy, but the coach always takes a close look at our opponents and he’ll be telling us what to expect.”
And as he goes on to explain, should the Aussies fail in their bid to become Asian champions, it will not be down to the mistakes that have undermined them in the past. “In 2007 we thought we were the better team,” he admits. “We thought it would be easy, and it wasn’t. But here in Qatar we’ve learned from our errors. We haven’t underestimated anyone and we’re pleased to be playing some good football, football that does Australia justice.”