Australia's successful qualification campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ was built on a remarkably consistent and thrifty defensive line. Marshalling the back-four virtually throughout the 14-match campaign was captain Lucas Neill, whose consistency played a key role in helping his side achieve a national FIFA World Cup record of seven consecutive clean sheets.
Though Australia finally conceded in their last final stage fixture, a 2-1 win against Japan, the match was still a joyous occasion for Neill who won his 50th cap for his country in front of over 70,000 spectators celebrating the national team's qualification a fortnight earlier in Qatar. That Australia were the second team in the world to reach South Africa 2010 is a metaphor for the unmitigated success of the campaign.
It is all a far cry from previous campaigns which invariably saw nail-biting drama end in heroic failure for the Socceroos. That is until 2005 when Australia finally returned to the world stage after 32 years with a drama-charged penalty shoot-out win over Uruguay. If that match changed the direction of the sport in Australia, it was also a watershed for Neill's career in the green and gold shirt. A calm and assured presence throughout two frenetic matches was topped by a penalty coolly stroked home amid pandemonium and the Sydney-born and bred Neill has been an ever-present for his nation ever since.
Neill took the captain's armband following Germany 2006, and after a disappointing 2007 AFC Asian Cup, Australia's first Asian World Cup qualification proved incredibly successful. Over an elongated 18-month campaign the Socceroos first saw off the challenge of continental champions Iraq and China, before topping a group featuring Japan, Bahrain, Uzbekistan and Qatar, winning by a five point margin.
"We got a few wins on the road and started our campaign off with a win in Uzbekistan away which was a massive three points for us," says Neill. "Then also three points, which we didn't deserve away to Bahrain, so the campaign went a lot better than we expected so absolutely delighted with the way everything went.
Unheralded Dutchman Pim Verbeek assumed the reins from Graham Arnold in late 2007 and was soon in the maelstrom of a FIFA World Cup campaign, with his first match a home qualifier against Qatar. The results and relaxed air of the team since that match in Melbourne suggests that Verbeek and the Socceroos have a wonderful synergy, a view supported by Neill.
"From day one Pim came in and set the benchmark which was to secure qualification and do it in a certain way," says the 31-year-old. "From that very first speech, he had the boys very focussed and always concentrating when they came into camp. It has made us tough to beat when we go out on the park. A really good team spirit has been created, and a team that is willing and able to complete all of Pim's instructions and execute them according to his plan."
Four years on
Australia surprised many by qualifying for the round of 16 at Germany 2006 before narrowly falling to eventual champions Italy. The question remains can the Aussies go further than last time when they surprised many onlookers with their progression.
"We pretty much have the core of the team from the last World Cup," says Neill. "The only thing now is we won't be the surprise packet this time, but we do have more experience. Anything is possible if we can get through the group stage. We want to get through our group and to the excitement and dizzy heights of knockout football."
Neill might be the 50th Australian captain but he is set to be just the third Australian after Mark Viduka and Peter Wilson to lead Australia to a FIFA World Cup. "I love my role as captain," he says. "Being one of the most experienced players in the team, I realise that some of the younger players turn to me for leadership. I love that feeling and that responsibility, and because I have a good relationship with our manager I pass on his instructions to the team and influence the team in that way.