Australia’s 1-0 win over a brave Iraq on Tuesday not only saw the Socceroos qualify for Brazil 2014, but ensured striker Josh Kennedy entered the annals of the nation’s often colourful FIFA World Cup™ history.
With his first touch of note, the beanpole striker headed home with seven minutes remaining in Sydney, just as Socceroo fans were preparing to brace themselves for a long night awaiting the outcome of the Oman’s visit to Jordan later in the evening.
But Kennedy’s goal ensured Australia locked up second spot to become the second team to qualify for Brazil behind Japan, as was the case for South Africa 2010.
In many ways Kennedy was the most unlikely of heroes, not least of all given the circumstances.
The Nagoya Grampus target-man came on in place of fans’ favourite Tim Cahill in a surprise move by coach Holger Osieck, with the German also replacing Robbie Kruse who had been named player of the match seven days earlier against Jordan.
Yet the German’s move proved a masterstroke with Kennedy powering home a header just minutes after entering the fray. But the tale has an even more improbable back-story, with Kennedy’s history-making goal marking his first appearance in the Green & Gold for over 18 months.
Kennedy, one of the most unassuming members of the Aussie squad, was as relaxed as ever after the match but said his headline-grabbing moment was perhaps meant to be.
“It almost seemed like destiny, or my time to shine,” Kennedy told FIFA.com. “It was frustrating watching from the bench for the last few games and hoping to get on. It all worked perfectly.
“I remember Bresch [Mark Bresciano] got his head up and saw me in the box,” Kennedy said with a smile as he recounted the crucial goal.
“I soon as I hit it I knew it was in, I didn’t hang around for too long to see it hit the net. Before I knew what was happening I was at the corner flag and everyone was on top of me,” added Kennedy with no little understatement, having literally been engulfed by his entire team and numerous players from the bench. “I don’t remember exactly what happened, it all happened extremely quickly.”
The hard road
The goal was, in a sense, recompense for what was perhaps the toughest period in Kennedy’s career. Having finished top scorer in the 2011 J.League season, Kennedy was then forced to endure a torrid time with a serious back injury, which kept him on the bench for almost half of last season undergoing intensive physio.
“It’s been a long time getting back onto the pitch for the Socceroos. It makes all the hard work and the battle to get back to fitness definitely worth it.”
Regardless of what happens in the rest of his career, the 194cm Kennedy is likely to always be remembered as the man who booked Australia’s ticket to the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Of Australia’s four appearances on the world stage, this was only the second time that the Socceroos had qualified on home turf.
Eight years ago John Aloisi netted the winning penalty in a shoot-out victory over Uruguay which saw Australia end a 32-year drought from the FIFA World Cup. That moment has since been voted Australia’s most memorable sporting moment, and Kennedy – a former team-mate of Aloisi’s – is happy to be mentioned in that context after netting in the same goal at the same Sydney venue.
“John is a fantastic guy, so I’m pretty proud to follow in his footsteps and emulate what he did.”
Veteran Australia goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, whose career has now incredibly spanned six of the nation’s 13 FIFA World Cup campaigns, heaped praise on both Osieck and the goalscorer.
“It was a very brave move to take off our top goalscorer and put out someone who hasn’t played a lot of football in the past few years,” Schwarzer told FIFA.com soon after the match.
“That is the quality of a guy like Josh. Australia should be toasting his goal today. At lot has happened in the last four years, but we will always remember Josh for his goal.”