The wait is over. Not only has Australia made it to the World Cup, they’ve kicked a few goals and won a match. It’s fair to say the nation is in raptures, people who don’t usually follow sport are suddenly interested in the Socceroos’ progress, and proud footballing nations like Japan are being forced to take notice of a team from … Australia.

Fair or not, leading into last night’s game, there was a feeling that anything short of a win would have been a failure. Les Murray and his merry band of talking heads certainly expected more than a brave loss. Fans, whether long term soccer tragics or World Cup bandwagon jumpers, seemed to agree. We have Guus, Mark and Harry after all, and those guys are world class. We watched them beat Greece and hold the Dutch to a draw. The signs were good.

But the question remained: were we setting ourselves up for a fall? Were we guilty of letting sentiment get in the way of football reality? ABC commentator Gerard Whately thought so, yesterday arguing that we were losing sight of the bigger picture. Whately wasn’t convinced the evidence of an Australian victory was strong enough to support the rampant optimism surrounding our chances against Japan. Australia’s involvement in the World Cup at all is a feat worth celebrating, he said, so let’s enjoy the ride and take anything good that comes our way from here on in as a bonus.

It was a sensible suggestion, but they were the words – the wisdom – of a professional sports fan and someone used to being disappointed by their beloved team. After a controversial Japanese goal in the 25th minute, they seemed all the more prescient.

Tiny mistakes in judgement, whether by officials or players, can have enormous consequences at an event like the World Cup. When Egyptian referee Essam Abd El Fatah missed a clear foul on Australian goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer in the 25th minute, the Japanese took the lead and we wondered if our tournament was over inside half an hour. Even though the ref later admitted his error, the Socceroos had work to do – they needed goals.

Sixty long minutes later, Tim Cahill found the net once to equalise and then again to grab the lead. When John Aloisi drove home the Socceroos’ third, the game was beyond doubt.

Our faith had been repaid, and expectations, if not already too high, had just been raised another notch. At the same time, for millions of Australian soccer fans and perhaps for the Socceroos themselves, the shadows cast by Brazil and Croatia shrunk just a little.

Peter Fray

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