Australia's late surge to grab a FIFA World Cup™ last-16 spot came up agonisingly short and left the Socceroos with mixed emotions on Wednesday. The Australians produced their best performance of the tournament to down Serbia 2-1 at the Mbombela Stadium, yet it wasn't enough as Germany and Ghana went through to the knockout phase.
Australia's campaign looked irreparably damaged after their opening 4-0 rout by Germany, but a hard-fought 1-1 draw with 10 men against Ghana and their win over the Serbs restored their reputation.
"I have mixed feelings now," said coach Pim Verbeek, who finished his 30-month tenure with the Socceroos on a high note. "It was a great result and a great performance, but we are not in the final 16. That was the plan when we came to South Africa, but it didn't work out that way and I cannot blame any one of the players, who worked very hard last week when everybody else thought it was over."
In the end Australia finished on four points with Ghana, but the Africans progressed on a superior three-goal difference and will play the United States in the round of 16 at Rustenburg on Saturday. It was Australia's horror opening loss to the Germans in Durban which ultimately proved insurmountable for the Socceroos.
It was a great result and a great performance, but we are not in the final 16.
"It's not the first day I have been thinking about that result," Verbeek said. "Losing 4-0 was not in the planning. In the end the goal difference made the difference and we can blame that on giving those goals away against Germany. That can happen in football. We played one very poor game and that cost us a lot. We played a great game against Ghana and tonight against Serbia.
"I have spoken to my players on what I thought about that game, the reality was that it was 4-0 . . . we were not good enough on the night. We should not underestimate Germany because they played a fantastic game against us. We haven't made the same mistakes again after that game."
Australia were bidding to repeat their feat under Guus Hiddink of reaching the second round at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, where they lost on a last-minute penalty to eventual champions Italy. "Four points was enough for Australia four years ago, but this time we needed five points to go through," he said.
Everton midfielder Tim Cahill, whose magnificent header put Australia in front in the 69th minute, said it was one of the proudest nights of his football career. "I am very proud to get the opportunity to play tonight. I am proud to be part of this team," said Cahill, who returned after a one-match suspension for his red card against Germany.
"Against Ghana and again tonight against such a strong team like Serbia. Four points is exceptional, we were unlucky not to go through."