After decades of yearning for a change of scenery, Australia finally had their wish granted when they joined the Asian Football Confederation in 2005. This proved a win-win move for both sides; while the Socceroos have breathed fresh air into Asian football, they have made the best of their new status as an AFC member by grabbing one of the continent's four automatic qualifying spots at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
The move marked the beginning of a series of ground-breaking achievements in Australian football. In August of the same year, their first fully-professional domestic championship - the Hyundai A-League - was launched and in November they sealed their return to the FIFA World Cup finals after 32 years. Still playing under the Oceania banner, substitute John Aloisi converted the side's decisive spot-kick to send them through on penalties at the expense of Uruguay.
The resurgence of Australian football reached its culmination at Germany 2006, when the team, under Guus Hiddink, stormed into the second round from a group also featuring the likes of Brazil, Croatia and Japan, only to lose by the narrowest of margins to eventual champions Italy.
While the tremendous success was attributed to Hiddink, who had also guided Korea Republic to their milestone last-four finish at Korea/Japan 2002, credit was also due to the players who showcased their talent to the watching world.
In the opening encounter against Japan, who took the lead through Shunsuke Nakamura, Hiddink's men pulled off a classic comeback victory, with Tim Cahill scoring twice in the closing stages before Aloisi sealed the memorable 3-1 win with a last-minute strike. After a 2-0 defeat by Brazil, Australia then twice came from behind to draw against Croatia and claim a place in the second round.
The same team came close to springing a bigger surprise when they bravely kept the Italians at bay for the entire 90 minutes until Fabio Grosso earned a penalty in injury time, from which Francesco Totti grabbed the winner.
Australia were, in fact, the only Asian team to reach the knockout phase, which duly made them top seeds and gave them an automatic place in the continent's third stage qualifying competition for South Africa 2010.
Boasting a squad awash with household names, Australia are unquestionably one of the most formidable teams in Asia. They can not, however, underestimate their challengers. In the AFC Asian Cup 2007, Graham Arnold's star-studded charges were beaten 3-1 by Iraq in a group match before crashing out in the quarter-finals after penalty shootout defeat by Japan. Not surprisingly, Arnold stepped down after the disappointing run, making way for Hiddink's former assistant and ex-Korea Republic boss Pim Verbeek.
The Socceroos have thrived under the Dutchman, dominating Asian Group 1 and scoring ten points from the opening five games to book progression to the final qualifying round with a game to spare. The ensuing stage then proved a roller coaster for the side, who sealed qualification with two games remaining. Verbeek's men also completed their mission in style as they remained undefeated in the final round, with two draws and six wins, including a 2-1 home victory over Japan in the final game.
Having matched his compatriot by taking Australia to their second consecutive FIFA World Cup finals, Verbeek is well aware that only a more ambitious goal will satisfy the fans' thirst for success this time around. The new coach is determined to break new ground, vowing to take the team to the quarter-finals in South Africa.