Australia’s inexperienced squad at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ was an unknown quantity for many observers. After two World Cup campaigns where the Socceroos’ line-up was filled with familiar names, new coach Ange Postecoglou elected to reinvigorate his squad just prior to Brazil 2014. Raw relatively untried names were thrown into the deep end on the biggest stage of all. It was very much a case of sink or swim.
Of all the new names, arguably the best to adapt to the white-hot heat of the World Cup stage was Mathew Leckie. His powerful and jet-heeled running style in attack proved a handful. Postecoglou is renowned for tinkering with his line-up but Leckie, now 25, has now been a regular on the teamsheet throughout the best part of three years – a period that not only included Brazil 2014, but a memorable AFC Asian Cup win on home soil.
Now further major landmarks are on the horizon, starting with next year’s FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017. And, if Australia’s World Cup qualifying campaign continues on its current course, a return to Russia 12 months later for the World Cup. Having enjoyed a taste of the big stage in Brazil, Leckie is keen to return, and he is happy to embrace the new-found expectation both on himself and the team.
“Playing in Brazil was a massive experience and a real pleasure,” Leckie told FIFA.com. “It is something you dream of as a young kid. The World Cup is all about playing alongside the best countries in the world, and certainly the group we had was really tough, but we really held our own and showed what we can do. Obviously results didn’t go our way, but it was a bit of an eye-opener to ourselves to realise we are not that far away from the best in the world.
“It was all pretty fresh (the experience in Brazil). There was no expectation on me and the team, but now expectation is a little bit higher. It was a bit of a highlight the way I played, but now the expectation is much higher to do that on a regular basis.
“We have the opportunity to qualify for another World Cup, and it is an opportunity which is in our hands. We have a lot of players that haven’t achieved that and it is the ultimate goal for any player.”
There was no expectation on me and the team, but now expectation is a little bit higher.
Having safely negotiated Asia’s second stage of qualifying, Australia began the third and final round in style. A confident 2-0 home win over Iraq was followed up by a crucial 1-0 win over the fast-developing United Arab Emirates in stifling Abu Dhabi heat. Now, Australia face two more key matches over the coming week which could potentially shape the outcome of their campaign.
Bert van Marwijk’s reinvigorated Saudi Arabia are first up on Thursday, before Australia tackle old rivals Japan in Leckie’s hometown of Melbourne. Leckie has first-hand experience of several Japanese players, having come up against them playing for Ingolstadt in Germany, and previously for FSV Frankfurt and Borussia Monchengladbach.
*A different kind of football *
Leckie hails from an Australian Rules football background and only started playing football when he turned 11, having previously been heavily involved in athletics. Such was his modest interest in football as a youngster he only has dim memories of the 2006 World Cup, when Australia enjoyed perhaps their most famous win over Japan.
Leckie had a year playing Australia’s native football game as a teenager, but says his Australian Rules background has little to do with his muscular high-powered approach to the game. “I’m known for being aggressive or for strength which really helps in Germany, being a physical league. But I don’t think playing Aussie Rules for a year was the cause, it is just the way I’m built.”
Whatever the reason, Leckie is proving a valuable part of Australia’s attacking armoury, and that is just the way he likes it.