Having lined up against eventual champions Italy and perennial giants Brazil in only their second FIFA World Cup™ four years ago, captain Lucas Neill considers Australia’s South Africa 2010 opener in Durban to be the Socceroos’ toughest test to date on the world stage.
“Germany will be the most difficult opponent we've played in our short history at the World Cup,” said the Turkey-based defender on the eve of the Group D opener in Durban. “We had some very tough games four years ago, but this is the tournament opener and things become very difficult if you don’t get a result,” added Neill, a member of the side that began their sophomore world finals on German soil in 2006 with a 3-1 win over Japan.
“If you want to reach the second round, the quarters, or even further, you have to get past the best teams in the world, and Germany are obviously among the elite,” continued the 32-year-old Galatasaray player, speaking to FIFA.com. “It doesn’t get much bigger than the Germans, who are probably the most consistent team in World Cup history.”
A glimpse back in time confirms Neill’s thesis. While the Aussies are playing in only their third world finals (the last two were both on German soil coincidentally), the mighty Nationalmannschaft have a pedigree rivalled by few. Champions on three occasions, most recently at Italy 1990, they have reached the Final seven times, a record they share with Brazil, and have reached the semi-finals on an additional four occasions. “They’re the best tournament team,” says Neill, who captains an Aussie squad with 14 survivors of the run to the Round of 16 four years ago. “There’s no good time to meet Germany. We are the underdogs here.”
The starting XI for the clash with Germany is likely to wholly comprise players who suffered the pain of elimination at the hands of Italy in Kaiserslautern four years ago. The loss was a devastating one for Oz – then coached by Guus Hiddink – coming by way of a hotly-disputed penalty five minutes into second-half stoppage time. “We’re just glad that now we have the chance to be back in a World Cup and pick up where we left off,” Neill admitted. “The worst pain was that we weren’t able to start back up and try to get that goal back. Now we are back and we can start again.”
One thing Neill believes his men have in abundance is spirit and a never-say-die attitude. In an Australia side dominated by gritty workers, with only a few truly top-level performers like Everton’s Tim Cahill, work ethic is very much the order of the day. “We are still trying to earn the right to be spoken about in the same breath as teams like Germany,” Neill added, before firing a warning to the three-time European champions. “On the night it’s 11 men against 11 men and a lot can happen when it’s set up like that. We’ll have to go out there and do what we do best, which is fight for everything from the first minute to the last. We don’t rely on one player, we rely on all of our players playing together. This is what makes us a good team.”
The Germans will not be brimming with confidence after losing their captain Michael Ballack to injury and looking less than convincing in both qualifying and recent friendly games. However, their captain Philipp Lahm has publically called the current side “the best German team I’ve ever played in.” It is enough to have Neill and his men braced for the worst but, at the same time, hoping for the best. “The Germans have bigger names and play in bigger leagues, but we never give up and the way the last World Cup ended has kept us hungry.”