When Australia officially became part of the Asian Football Confederation on 1 January 2006, few fans down under knew what to expect. The Asian football environment was vastly different to what it was like in the seventies, the last time Australia competed regularly against Asian opposition.
The first test came with an AFC Asian Cup qualifier away to Bahrain on 22 February of that year. The confederation's new boys, fielding a makeshift eleven, made a timid start, going in at half-time 1-0 down at the National Stadium in Riffa. But a revival in the second half, led by substitute Brett Holman, saw Guus Hiddink's side cruise to a 3-1 win. Australia had arrived.
Now, nearly three years later, the Socceroos will revisit the country where they made their Asian bow. Much water has passed under the bridge since that night in Riffa, of course: Australia duly qualified for the Asian Cup, reaching the quarter-finals, and they have made a strong start in the fourth round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
Bahrain, their opponents on 19 November in Manama, were defeated twice on the way to the 2007 Asian Cup, and their Gulf neighbours Qatar have been harshly dealt with by Pim Verbeek's Socceroos during the current campaign, suffering three heavy defeats. Are Australia, then, becoming a feared opponent in that part of the world? "Everybody knows how good we can be, and if you look at the result in the last game [against Qatar], I can understand other teams might be impressed," observes Verbeek. "On the other hand, they have nothing to lose. And we don't look at other teams, we just look at ourselves."
The Dutchman has proved a hit down under, dealing skilfully with a spate of injuries in the previous round, and the demands of a squad largely based in Europe. The unfamiliar conditions in Asia, too, have not proved as great a handicap as some feared. "Away games, you know how it is," Verbeek says. ". It's always difficult, but so far, we've done well."
Every game is different, every opponent is different. It's a different style, a different world
One player that Verbeek will be particularly delighted to welcome back into his squad is Harry Kewell. After a frustrating spell at Liverpool, the veteran of three FIFA World Cup campaigns is back in form with a vengeance at Turkish club Galatasaray. Having missed the Qatar game, Kewell will be keen to make his mark against Bahrain. Returning to the squad along with Kewell is Palermo's Mark Bresciano, another player who has been central to Australia's recent success.
"They [Kewell and Bresciano] are both fantastic players, and they can both play on the left," observed the Dutchman, referring to the absence of Australia's most experienced left-sided player Scott Chipperfield, absent from the squad for medical reasons. "If they're all fit, I'm very happy with my 21 [outfield] players."
Bahrain, for their part, badly need a win to remain in contention after an indifferent start to the fourth qualifying round. To add to coach Milan Macala's difficulties, they will be without four first-team regulars, including key midfield schemer Mohamed Salmeen, for the match against Australia. "Australia are favourites to win this game, but we will fight for the three points because with a draw, we're finished," said Macala in a recent interview.
In passing, he paid tribute to the new-found confidence of his upcoming opponents under their Dutch mentor. "The Socceroos were like a machine [against Qatar], they only relaxed in the last few minutes," said Macala. "What impressed me most was their teamwork, organisation, patience and discipline. This is all credit to my friend Verbeek, who has blended a group of high-profile players from Europe into a team. And that is not easy."
One thing is for certain: the Australians will have much more of an idea of what to expect than they did when they faced their first-ever battle on Asian soil against the same opposition in early 2006.