Few would have faulted pessimistic Australian team administrators for looking into the best deals on flights back Down Under after their opening-day drubbing at the hands of fancied Germany. Not only did the Nationalmannschaft give the Aussies a lesson in finishing, winning out 4-0, but a reckless tackle early in the second half left their biggest star, striker Tim Cahill, missing the next game.
But whatever doom and gloom may have surrounded the Socceroos, it failed to seep into the 23-man squad. “Sure it’s going to be tough to get goals without him [Cahill],” captain Lucas Neil told FIFA.com, with the air of a determined man after the loss to the Germans. “But one man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity. We’ve got the lads to step in and give everything to do a job and take the chance with both hands.”
With those simple words, the Turkey-based skipper added prophet to his CV. In their second Group D match on 19 June, the contribution of Cahill’s replacement – little-known 26-year-old attacking midfielder Brett Holman – proved decisive, opening the scoring after a fumble from Ghana goalkeeper Richard Kingson. “We’re a side with 23 hard-working players, and that’s what gives us our strength,” said Neill, who put in a determined shift in the gripping contest.
The Galatasaray man’s theories on his side’s strength in depth will be put to the test once again in their final game in the section, against Serbia on 23 June, when they will once again be forced to bring in a deputy for a red-carded player. Harry Kewell was adjudged to have stopped the ball from crossing the goalline with his arm in the 24th minute, receiving his marching orders and gifting Ghana an equaliser from the spot in the bargain.
“We have to remain positive, this is another of our strengths as a team,” said Neill, who was a hero for the ten-man Aussies against the west Africans. “Without a belief that we can really win our games here, then there’s not much point.” The Australians are still propping up Group D, but would have a real chance of moving on to the knockout rounds with a win in their final match.
The hard work and enthusiasm of AZ Alkmaar ace Holman will leave coach Pim Verbeek with some big questions to ask himself on the eve of the crucial game against Serbia, who have won one and lost one at these finals. Cahill is again eligible to play after serving his one-match ban, but the man with the hot hand and scorer of Australia’s only goal at these finals might well fill the vacancy left by another suspended star in the team, Kewell. Holman could have been parrotting his captain when he spoke of his big chance on the biggest stage of them all: “You just try and do your best and give everything, like every other Australian has been brought up to do.”