It’s a Wednesday night in Sydney. The Socceroos are playing that footballing powerhouse Bahrain (and yes, that is meant to be sarcastic) in an Asian Cup qualifying match, where the Australians have already made it through to the finals.
Bahrain has already conceded the match to such an extent that it left most of its best players behind so they could prepare for their “decider” against Kuwait, instead sending a team comprised mostly of their Olympic youngsters.
So what happens? Around 37,000 fans file in to Aussie Stadium to see a largely lacklustre performance from the locals, who still do enough to win 2-0.
It was the same on Saturday night, when more than 47,000 packed Suncorp Stadium in Queensland to watch the Socceroos take on Paraguay in a friendly.
A few years ago, Australia v Bahrain would have been lucky to draw a crowd outside of immediate family and friends – and even some of those might have had to be cajoled into going. In the most direct comparison available, a series of Australia-Paraguay games back in 2000 drew crowds of 5000-8000.
Such has been the power of the Socceroos’ World Cup showing in Germany. On SBS last night, Craig Foster claimed the Socceroos could lay claim right now to being the most popular team in Australian sport.
The Bahrain game capped off a big week for the Australians, with emotional farewells to four of its retiring stars, the Craig Moore controversy and full-on celebrity treatment wherever they went, as well as a couple of matches (one good performance, one average).
The bods at Football Federation Australia must be beaming. They have achieved everything they could have hoped for out of Germany, and the game is at unprecedented levels of popularity in this country.
But this is the last time we’ll see the Socceroos here for this year. The challenge for the FFA now is to make sure they can maintain the sport’s momentum despite the national team playing here so infrequently. If they can, soccer may well grab the permanent foothold it has craved for so long.