IT will be a case of agony or ecstasy for Australian football tonight when the Socceroos and Honduras play off for a spot at the World Cup in Russia next year.
Following a 0-0 draw in San Pedro Sula on Saturday, Ange Postecoglou’s team must win in Sydney to ensure it’s one of the 32 countries on hand to fight for the sport’s most prestigious trophy in 2018.
Another 0-0 scoreline after 90 minutes will send the match into extra time, but a draw with any goals scored (1-1, 2-2 etc) will put Honduras through on away goals.
Kick-off is scheduled for 8pm AEDT.
Anthem flashpoint looms
Those who were at ANZ Stadium in 2005 when Australia last had a World Cup playoff of this magnitude against Uruguay, and those who watched on TV, will remember the cacophony of boos that drowned out the visitors’ national anthem.
Jeers rang out around the stadium to let Uruguay know Australia wasn’t going to take a backward step.
The reaction was driven primarily by the harsh treatment of the Socceroos in Montevideo ahead of the first leg and also four years prior. Players’ bags were intentionally held at the airport and locals were paid to spit in the visitors’ faces and hurl abuse at them.
Speaking to broadcaster Mark Howard in an episode of his latest podcast series The Moment — a six part documentary series looking at the biggest moments in Australian sport — former stars Tony Vidmar and Mark Bresciano said hearing those boos was music to the Socceroos’ ears.
“That definitely I won’t forget. As soon as the national anthem from Uruguay was on just the 80,000 boos and jeers and whistles,” Vidmar said. “I was like, ‘Holy f***, this is good.’
“People can say it’s un-Australian but for me it was Australian because we know what happened to us, the treatment that we got, and now it was time for us to pay them back in that regard.”
Bresciano said the bad blood between the countries meant he had no sympathy for the Uruguayans.
“That was the best moment of my footballing career,” he said. “And I think this was the first time where we all stood up as a nation and said, ‘No, the way you treated us over there, we’ll treat you the same down here,’ and well done to them (the fans).”
The animosity between Australia and Honduras doesn’t have the same venom — but it’s still there. The central American country was angry Australian media cracked jokes at its social problems and San Pedro Sula’s local paper led with a front page before the first leg on Saturday calling the Aussies “kangaroos” with a “simple” game plan.
Ange Postecoglou returned fire after the match, calling the sledges “disrespectful”. And just yesterday Honduras coach Luis Pinto accused Australia of “embarrassing football espionage”, believing a drone flying overhead of his side’s training session was a desperate ploy by the hosts to gain an advantage.
So will this be enough to fuel a scene reminiscent of what we saw 12 years ago? Perhaps Vidmar and Bresciano wouldn’t mind a replay of that famous night, but Tim Cahill has called for respect after the Honduran locals on Saturday were so respectful of the Australian anthem.
“Credit to the Hondurans, especially with the national anthem,” Cahill said on Monday. “It was silent. It was respectful.
“It really touched a lot of us. I was speaking to Tommy (Rogic) on the bench, saying how nice that was.
“It definitely wasn’t what it was portrayed to be. I hope they have the same experience we had there and we can repay the respects of what their country did for us.”
Cahill wants one more Socceroos push
Socceroos leaders Tim Cahill and Mile Jedinak say giving the next generation of Australian footballers the chance to play against football’s very best is inspiring them to reach the World Cup.
Cahill, 37, and Jedinak, 33, are no strangers to the biggest sporting show on Earth — bar maybe the Olympics.
The Socceroos’ all-time leading scorer has been to — and scored at — the last three World Cups. Australia’s skipper was at the last two.
But they want the chance to play alongside the likes of Trent Sainsbury, Robbie Kruse, Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic in Russia.
Cahill hopes those yet to reach the tournament are driven to play with them, and fellow three-tournament veteran Mark Milligan.
“That’s got to be their motivation, for them and the next group of lads coming through,” he said. “They’ve got to understand how big it is.
“Having Mile in camp and now Millsy back, we can drive in-house messages to the lads about preparation.
“Those little things that make a difference on the night.
“The most telling thing on Wednesday night will be composure.”
Kruse and Sainsbury missed out on the 2014 tournament in Brazil through injury. Rogic couldn’t break out of his own injury run to make a case for selection, while Aaron Mooy was yet to show the form that would take him to the English Premier League.
Others, like Tomi Juric, Aziz Behich and Jackson Irvine are looking to make their debut on the world stage.
Jedinak said the chance to represent Australia in front of the world has been present through the marathon 22-match, 29-month qualifying campaign.
“This whole campaign, we’ve touched on what it means,” he said. “It was instilled in us a long, long time ago.
“We talked about the impact we wanted to make and what we wanted to do and achieve and the importance of that by everyone in our squad.
“Its now making sure we’re tuned in and we’re 100 per cent prepared to execute what we want to do on that pitch on Wednesday night.”
Of that, Cahill is confident.
“We’re ready. I like what I see,” he said.
“I’m buzzing with a group of players. It feels like this is our time.
“On the night it will come down to someone taking their chance, the defining moment that separates men from boys.”
— Ben McKay, AAP
$12.5 million on the line
A nation’s reputation. $12.5 million in cash. Priceless publicity.
That’s what’s at stake should the Socceroos fail to qualify for a fourth consecutive World Cup.
Lose to Honduras, or draw with any other scoreline than 0-0 at ANZ Stadium on Wednesday night, and the ramifications will reverberate far wider than the 11 men on the field in green and gold.
Immediately, the focus will centre around the future of coach Ange Postecoglou following a month of intense speculation he will walk either way it goes. In the longer term, the fallout will bite Football Federation Australia’s fiscal bottom line at a time it can least afford it.
Just for qualifying, Australia would receive a major cash windfall. All teams that make Russia 2018 are provided US$1.5 million (A$2 million) by FIFA to cover preparation costs, along with a further US$8 million (A$10.5 million) for contesting the group phase — minus player payments and significant logistical costs.
Advance further, as Guus Hiddink’s golden generation did in Germany 2006, and the figure rises exponentially.
US$12 million (A$15.7 million) to make the round of 16 and US$16 million (A$21 million) for a quarter-finals berth.
This is one element — and a big one at that given FFA’s financial struggles that have contributed to the local game’s state of flux.
But the governing body will also be banking on the international exposure that comes with participating in the world’s showpiece tournament, the best kind for marketing the game in Australia.
On the flip side, coming up short won’t just mean a lack of eyeballs but also a hit to the reputation of a national team that has qualified for three consecutive campaigns.
That wouldn’t be pretty for FFA, which is already fighting fires on multiple fronts and under siege from furious A-League clubs over the drawn-out congress spat set to boil over in the coming weeks.
Of course, the game is thriving in other areas — the Matildas have deservedly leapt into the limelight and brought the W-League with them. Whether that would be enough to offset Australia’s absence from a World Cup gets a different answer depending who’s asked.
Postecoglou, for one, was adamant the sport would survive.
“For the game, it’s always important that you’re there when the World Cup is played,” Postecoglou said.
“You saw Italy miss out this morning and you realise the impact that has.
“But not qualifying doesn’t mean the game ceases to exist.
“It’s more about our continued growth, and as I’ve said all along, we’ve got to be really ambitious in the way we approach international football and wanting to qualify and wanting do well at a World Cup.”
— Emma Kemp, AAP