On a day of firsts for Australian football, the celebrations came thick and fast as the Socceroos thrashed Qatar 3-0 in their first game of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ campaign. The match also marked the country's first qualifier as an Asian Football Confederation (AFC) member and the first game under new coach Pim Verbeek.
Although most observers would have predicted an Australia victory, particularly at home, the pre-match atmosphere was laced with caution. Having struggled at last summer's AFC Asian Cup, before exiting at the quarter-final stage, the Aussie fans were wary of another disappointment against one of their new regional rivals.
Dutch strategist Verbeek, meanwhile, had enjoyed precious little time with his new charges, given the vast distance many had travelled to reach the team's base in Melbourne. Indeed, the former Korea Republic coach only met some of his players for the first time in the hotel on the eve of the match, and an impromptu light training session a few hours before kick-off was his first opportunity to work with a full squad.
The uncertainty did not prevent the yellow-and-green clad hordes from flooding to the Telstra Dome to cheer on their heroes. Roared on by some 70,000 voices, the Socceroos took the game to their opponents from the outset, taking the lead after only 11 minutes with a powerful header from target man Mark Kennedy.
The goal sparked frenzied celebrations from the fanatical Aussie supporters, a chorus of signature tune "Aussie 'til I die" soon ringing round the huge stadium. And the goals just kept on coming. Everton midfielder Tim Cahill headed home in the 17th minute to double his side's lead before Mark Bresciano's cool finish put the victory beyond reasonable doubt shortly after the half-hour mark.
*'The team looks very strong' * "I'm impressed," declared Jason Ballarino, one of the thousands of fans proudly wearing Australian national team shirts. "Starting a new competition is always difficult and on top of that we didn't know anything about Qatar. If we keep playing like this we'll make it to South Africa."
Singing from the same hymn sheet was Peter Thompson, watching the game with his two young children. "Performances like this are very important for football in this country. This is what's needed to make the game even more popular," he told FIFA.com. "Fortunately, us Australians are very patriotic and we've got room in our hearts for plenty of sports."
Another man to have enjoyed the Socceroos' display was coach Verbeek, who had this to say after Wednesday's encounter: "It was a pleasant surprise as we'd looked off the pace in the pre-match training session. But the atmosphere within this squad is something else, and the players were able to rise to the challenge."
At this early stage of the Aussies' Asian adventure, the Dutch tactician was quick to underline the importance of a positive start. "I wasn't with the team at the Asian Cup, so I prefer not to make any comparisons (with what happened there). That said, what I saw today puts me in a very relaxed frame of mind ahead of our forthcoming matches. The team looks very strong."
His Qatar counterpart, Uruguayan coach Jorge Fossati, agreed. "When you size up the fixtures you know that travelling to face Australia is an extremely tough proposition," said the former Charrúa supremo. "Their Asian Cup results were a consequence of coming off the back of a long season. Unfortunately, they played much better against us."
Another factor everybody present agreed on was the sensational show of support from the fans in Melbourne. "The Qatar players simply aren't used to atmospheres like that," said Mahmoud al Fadhi, a member of the Qatari press pack. "Their nerves got to them and the Australian team took full advantage. By the time they'd stopped reeling from the early blow it was already too late."