Sydney, May 29 (DPA) Australia were one of the surprises of the 2006 World Cup in nearly reaching the quarter-finals. But fast forward to South Africa 2010 and the Aussies are only a shadow of their previous selves.
The Socceroos had a legendary coach at the helm in Dutchman Guus Hiddink and the Australian supporters were wildly excited about being back at the World Cup for the first time in 32 years.
The Australians opened their Germany 2006 campaign with a 3-1 victory over Japan before losing to Brazil 2-0. And then they drew 2- 2 against Croatia to seal their place in the Round of 16.
But in the last 16, Australians had their hearts ripped out by Italy, who were awarded a late, controversial penalty, which was converted by Francesco Totti five minutes into injury time for a 1-0 defeat and excruciating exit from the World Cup.
Four years on, Australia had a much easier time of reaching the finals.
After being part of the Oceania football confederation and always facing a two-legged final playoff against the fifth placed team from South America for a World Cup spot, the Australians talked their way into inclusion in the Asian Football Federation and comfortably gained a South Africa 2010 berth.
Pim Verbeek’s men entered the Asian qualifying campaign in the third round and suffered two losses – against Iraq in Dubai and at home against China – on their way to first place in the group. Things settled down in the fourth and final group stage, going unbeaten with six victories in eight matches and conceding just one goal.
All told, Verbeek’s team played strong defence with just four goals conceded in 14 matches.
Things will be very difficult for the Socceroos in South Africa, where they have been drawn into Group D with three-time world champions Germany as well as Serbia and Ghana.
‘It’s going to be very difficult. When I was sitting there watching the draw I thought: ‘Oh, here we go.’ We were in Germany for the last World Cup so it did bring back some memories,’ midfielder Tim Cahill told the FIFA website recently.
‘The most special thing about the group matches in the World Cup is that they are down to just 90 minutes, or 93 minutes, of football.’
Cahill will be a critical player for Verbeek’s battle-hardened side with his uncanny sense of positioning. Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton man the wings while Vince Grella and Jason Culina are under-rated in midfield while the attack will missed retired captain Mark Viduka.
Leeds defender Patrick Kisnorbo is out with an Achilles injury while central defender Lucas Neill of Galatasaray and Fulham’s successful keeper Mark Schwarzer will lead a tough Aussie defence, which did not concede a goal in seven straight qualifiers.
A defensive showing like that could just bring the Socceroos back to the Round of 16 and possibly an inspirational step further.
The coach: Dutchman Pim Verbeek took over as coach of Australia at the end of 2007 and has steered the team to its third World Cup appearance-after which he will step down.
The 54-year-old ended his playing career in 1980 and has since job-hopped around the world. His last post was as coach of South Korea, where he had been assistant to Guus Hiddink when they were World Cup semi-finalists in 2002. Verbeek has coached two Rotterdam teams, Feyenoord and Sparta.
The star: There was once midfield giant Mark Viduka, then the mercurial Harry Kewell, but the undisputed ace in the Socceroos pack is now midfielder Tim Cahill.
The diminutive Everton captain fans like to call Tiny Tim came into the side in 2004 when he was with English side Millwall, moving to the Liverpool club the same year after helping Millwall to an FA Cup final appearance.
The Sydney-born 30-year-old, who as a teenager played for Western Samoa, holds the record for most headed goals in the English Premier League (20) despite his 1.78-metre height. Cahill scored the first goal by an Australian at a World Cup and hold the national record for goals by an Australian at the World Cup.