Australia’s thrilling 2-2 draw with Croatia in Stuttgart this morning to move into the second round of the World Cup finals for the first time ever is a giant achievement for the game in this country.

A Craig Moore penalty and then a brilliant Harry Kewell finish (above) late in the match saved the Socceroos twice from being a goal down.

With Brazil safely beating Japan 4-1 in the other game to decide Group F, Australia’s draw was enough to see us through to a do-or-die game against Italy at 1 am on Tuesday, Australian Eastern Standard Time.

Today’s game was exhausting and draining, and not just because it started at 5am. Anybody who thinks the world’s favourite brand of football is boring should check out a replay. Even better was to be among thousands, pre-dawn, in front of a giant screen like the ones beside the Yarra in Melbourne. The large crowd moved from anguish to elation to mass confusion
and back again – sometimes in about the time it took you to read that.

Even at the final whistle, nobody knew what was happening. Croatia’s Josip Simunic had just received his third – yes, third – yellow card from English referee Graham Poll, and I think
his second red card, but still hadn’t felt moved to leave the field. Both sides had already been reduced to ten men before this, and at least two penalties had not been awarded; one for a blatant Croatian handball in the box.

Then again, there’s a good chance both Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka were off-side when the ball was nodded forward for Our Harry to boot the equaliser, so maybe it does all even
out in the end.

One thing’s for sure, the most relieved man in the world today is Australian goalkeeper Zeljko Kalac, who was mysteriously chosen by coach Guus Hiddink ahead of Mark Schwarzer and proceeded to have what is technically known in soccer as an absolute shocker. Kalac watched the ball hit the back of the net after only two minutes, fumbled a routine corner cross in the 39th minute, to the extent that the other Australian defenders suffered near-heart failure, and finally, horribly mishandled a long-range shot by Croatian skipper Niko Kovac that rolled into the net for 2-1 Croatia.

That could have been it for Australia’s World Cup dreams but Kewell’s opportunistic 79th
minute goal, at the end of a brilliant match for our biggest star, saved Kalac from a lynch mob.

Kewell was officially named as man of the match, with one of the FIFA judges, Alvin Corneal, saying: “He (Kewell) was the inspiration for his team, and he showed a real stomach for the fight. He was excellent not just going forward, but also tracking back. He scored the decisive goal that took his team through to the second round.”

Peter Fray

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