At this stage of a FIFA World Cup™ qualifying cycle, Australia would expect to be steeling themselves for drama, tension and potential heartbreak in a trans-continental play-off. As it is, the Socceroos have been assured of their place at South Africa 2010 for well over a month now, having cruised through their first-ever Asian Zone preliminary campaign.
Nor has a FIFA World Cup place been their only reward. A look at the current FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking shows that Australia rose 13 places last month to an all-time high of 16th. For a nation that, as recently as March 2004, languished as low as 89th, these are heady heights.
"We are delighted at this news," was the reaction of Football Federation Australia CEO Ben Buckley. "Rankings are not the be all and end all of football but they are certainly an indicator of our progress. This is a great reward for the Socceroos' form in the qualifying rounds for the 2010 FIFA World Cup."
A solid foundation
That form, though not always spectacular by the players' own admission, has been increasingly worthy of praise as the preliminary campaign has progressed. An unconvincing performance in the third stage of Asian qualifying, during which they lost to both Iraq and China PR, had not inspired widespread confidence, but Pim Verbeek was slowly but surely moulding a side that would prove immovable in Round 4.
A dogged, battling 1-0 win away to Uzbekistan in their opening match set the tone. This was to be a success story based on a remarkable, record-breaking defensive effort, one which witnessed the Socceroos' goal survive unscathed for 748 consecutive minutes.
When Marcus Tulio Tanaka scored as Japan went down 2-1 in Melbourne on 17 June, it was the first time Verbeek's side had conceded in 360 days and registered as their only goal against in eight fourth stage preliminary matches. Inevitably, such defensive parsimony paid off handsomely. Australia advanced with two games to spare and finished the group five points clear of Japan, with six wins, two draws and no defeats. As captain Lucas Neill recently explained to FIFA.com, qualifying in this way was no accident.
He said: "From day one, Pim came in and set the benchmark, which was to secure qualification and do it in a certain way. From that very first speech, he had the boys very focused. It made us tough to beat."
Cahill's crucial contribution
In moulding an Australian side built primarily to avoid defeat, Verbeek also found himself a dependable match-winner in Tim Cahill. The Everton midfielder, whose record of 16 goals from 33 internationals would be the envy of most strikers, was on target twice in the 2-1 win over Japan that maintained his team's unbeaten run and earned them over 1,000 Ranking points in the process.
"Timmy is a great player," enthused Verbeek. "You see the work he is doing for the team, defensively, and always supporting the strikers. He is so dangerous in the penalty box. He's a great example for every Australian footballer."
The challenge now for Cahill and Co is to emulate or even eclipse their historic achievements at Germany 2006, when group-stage heroics were followed by a cruel Round of 16 defeat by eventual champions Italy. It is a tall order, but the challenge is one that Verbeek is evidently relishing.
"The World Cup the biggest sports event in the world," he said. "My players are looking forward, and that's an understatement, to that event. They will do everything to try to do better than last time. They did a great job in 2006, so it will be difficult. But that's what we want to do, try to do the same and hopefully even better. That's the target."