It comes around every four years to tease and torment. The bitter-sweet play-off for a berth in the World Cup that, as ever, has Australian soccer holding its breath. And yet again Uruguay stands in the way.
Too many fans of the round-ball game have been here before. The opposition was Scotland in 1985, Israel in 1989, and Argentina in 1993. Few matches can provide the heartbreak of 29 November, 1997, when Australia went down to a resurgent Iran at the MCG. Then it was Montevideo in 2001 where Uruguay exposed defensive deficiencies and poor preparation.
So what’s different this time round? Three months ago even the most ardent fan would have admitted another painful defeat was inevitable. In the last days of Frank Farina Australia looked clumsy, unimaginative and tired. A poor Confederations Cup confirmed the worst. But the introduction of Dutch master Guus Hiddink, who led South Korea to an unprecedented World Cup semi-final in 2002, has lifted spirits and expectations.
The Socceroos are nowhere to be found, but the Australian football team is proving to be more than capable of giving the dreaded play-off a real shake. Hiddink has brought discipline and accountability to a team that needed to be whipped into shape. In a short time he’s introduced a new style of play, and some new faces.
The comprehensive 5-0 defeat of Jamaica last month showed a compact and adaptable Australia, an indication of what they have already learned under the tutelage of an experienced tactician.
Hiddink has revealed a preliminary 24-man squad for the play-off against Uruguay on 12 and 16 November that contained few surprises. It nonetheless offers more than a glimpse of the changes this team has undergone in a short time. Captain and stalwart Craig Moore is missing due to injury, as are former mainstays Josip Skoko, Stan Lazaridis and Tony Popovic while in the squad are likely to play bit parts.
While there are questions over a new defence including Lucas Neil and newcomer Michael Thwaite, Hiddink will be happy with his options in midfield and attack, that include talents such as Tim Cahill, Marco Bresciano, Jason Culina, Brett Emerton, Scott Chipperfield, Mark Viduka and Archie Thompson. Injury-prone Harry Kewell could yet play an important role in the tie after some good performances for Liverpool.
Australia is giving itself every chance of qualifying for the World Cup – even Mark Viduka has declared that he’s quietly confident. With qualifying through Asia for the next campaign, this is the last time fans will have to endure a play-off against South American opposition. It would be nice to end what has been a harrowing experience on a positive note.