Eight years ago this month Australia began their qualification campaign for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ in very different circumstances to those which exist now. Australia, then part of the Oceania Football Confederation, hosted a six-nation qualifying stage to little fanfare with their expectations tinged by caution.
The tournament saw the Socceroos play in front of as little as 1,200 fans in a match against Tahiti, future star Tim Cahill score his first goals on home soil in front of a similarly modest crowd - boosted only by bussed-in school children on a Wednesday afternoon in suburban Adelaide - with the home team concluding the tournament by drawing ignominiously against Solomon Islands.
The most telling fact of all, however, was that Australia were still anxiously seeking to break a 32-year drought from the world stage. Fast forward just 18 months from those humble beginnings in Adelaide and the scenario could scarcely be different. Australia finally ended their FIFA World Cup agony by winning a heart-stopping penalty shoot-out against two-time world champions Uruguay, in front of more than 80,000 spectators.
Less than a decade later and the landscape for Australia is, based in part on that single winning penalty from John Aloisi, almost unrecognisable. Far from being anxious about another failed campaign, Australia will enter Asia’s fourth and final stage of qualifying as the continent’s top-ranked nation. Qualification for Brazil 2014 will mean a third straight appearance on the world stage and consign the dark days experienced by previous generations to mere memory.
After successfully negotiating Asia's third stage of qualifying, Australia will begin their final push for Brazil against Oman on 8 June, with the 12-month campaign also pitting the Socceroos against Japan, Jordan and Iraq. The top two teams qualify for Brazil, with a third to face a play-off against a Group A opponent, before a intercontinental match-up decides another possible Asian representative.
Australia of course, having experienced the anxiety of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup on penalties, will be aiming to avoid the sudden-death nature of the play-offs. In 2009, Australia qualified in very different circumstances from that of four years earlier, playing out a scoreless draw in Qatar to reach South Africa 2010 with two matches to spare.
Not that Australia’s task is an easy one having lost in recent years to each of their group opponents, Jordan aside, who they have yet to meet in a full international. Indeed, the opening match against Oman looms as a potential banana skin, with the Socceroos suffering a surprise defeat on their visit to Muscat last year.
Four days later will be a potentially pivotal home meeting with Japan. The two nations are developing a keen rivalry that cultivates further with each passing year. Although their shared history dates back to the 1956 Olympic Games, the last few years have witnessed the most intense and critical matches played between the pair. Famously, Australia scored a comeback win in their 2006 FIFA World Cup opener, while Japan gained a measure of revenge with an extra-time victory in last year’s AFC Asian Cup final.
Unlike the previous two FIFA World Cups, which featured a similar group of players, often referred to by local media as the ‘golden generation’, Australia’s line-up is rapidly changing. South Africa 2010 saw the Socceroos field the second-oldest squad at the tournament, with many of that group having now concluded their international careers.
Some familiar names remain though, most notably Cahill, Harry Kewell, Lucas Neill and, most intriguingly, Mark Schwarzer, who will break Dino Zoff’s record as the FIFA World Cup’s oldest goalkeeper should he take to the field in Brazil.
Many of Australia’s talented youngsters are struggling for regular game-time at their respective clubs, but nevertheless coach Holger Osieck remains content with his rebuilding program since South Africa. A core of the same 16-18 players routinely receive national call-ups, suggesting Osieck is satisfied with the majority of his squad.
“We have many promising players coming up but of course they need to gain experience and playing time,” Osieck told FIFA.com last year. “We cannot have too many new faces for every game and now that we are heading for a World Cup campaign there is not so much room for experimentation. I am fortunate to be able to call on many experienced players who are still performing, so I feel we have a good mix at the moment.”