Australia are rejoicing after securing qualification for successive FIFA World Cups™ for the first time, even if the response is far more muted than that which greeted the heart-stopping triumph against Uruguay four years ago. A scoreless draw with Qatar in Doha secured the point the Socceroos required for a berth at South Africa 2010, and earned their third appearance on the world stage since an unheralded debut in 1974.
Tim Cahill came closest to winning all three points for the Aussies but the post denied the Everton midfielder, whose stunning bicycle kick would have been a spectacular and apt way to seal a place in South Africa. Nevertheless, had it not been for Japan's win in Uzbekistan a few hours earlier, Australia would have been the first team to qualify for South Africa, a far cry from their drama-charged last-day triumph last time around.
As was the case last cycle, a Dutchman stood at the helm of the Socceroos when qualification was secured, with Pim Verbeek emulating the achievements of his feted countryman Guus Hiddink. Australia now return home to take on firstly Bahrain next Wednesday, and then Japan the following week, in what should be a celebratory party for both teams. Yet unlike in 2005, qualification wasn't quite greeted with scenes of supporters dancing in the streets, partly because the match was played in the middle of the night in Australia.
While the manner of qualification may have been less spectacular this time around, the players and coaching staff are aware of the significance in the context of Australia's history of underachievement on the world stage, with Verbeek naming qualification as the greatest moment of his coaching career. Long-serving goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer was similarly affected by the moment, describing the experience as "very emotional" and "unbelievable."
Over a career long intertwined with Australia's modern FIFA World Cup experiences, the veteran custodian was invariably at the forefront of this campaign achieving a remarkable sixth straight FIFA World Cup clean sheet to extend his own national record. Indeed Australia's current qualifying tilt was built on pragmatism and defensive capabilities, with the team conceding just three goals over 12 matches. "We worked very hard for it over a long campaign, and we deserved it," stated a glassy-eyed Schwarzer minutes after full time.
Captain Lucas Neill described the achievement as a "boyhood dream", with the central defender leading by example throughout. "It's amazing, it hasn't sunk in yet," said Neill. "It's an unbelievable achievement. I'm so proud we have created some history for the country."
Praise and congratulations
Despite the disappointment of failing to score in the decisive match, Australian media have greeted the historic achievement in glowing terms. Sydney's Sunday Telegraph wrote: "It wasn't pretty at times, but who cares. The objective was to reach South Africa 2010 and this proved that the 2006 qualification was no fluke."
Verbeek was also praised for his no-nonsense and successful approach, "Take a bow Pim Verbeek. You have done your job - to get Australia to the World Cup. Verbeek is an Asian expert, with qualification the ultimate justification for the appointment of the previously unheralded Dutchman in the aftermath of the 2007 Asian Cup."
Australia will now compete in South Africa 2010 with a vastly experienced and cohesive line-up, many of whom featured at Germany 2006 when the Socceroos surprised many onlookers by progressing to the knockout stage only to narrowly fall at the hands of eventual champions Italy. Verbeek, meanwhile, who has experienced the last two FIFA World Cups as an assistant with Korea Republic, will be eagerly anticipating experiencing football's greatest show as a head coach. As he said yesterday: "The World Cup is a great, great event and I'm already looking forward to going there."