World Cup berth a testament to code’s united vision

neill Photo: Brendon ThorneAustralians should rejoice now the Socceroos are going to Brazil next year.

How far the sport has come from the ethnic violence and dodgy management of the three missing decades after 1974.

Let’s recognise how well the team played under the immense pressure of inflated expectations after the 4-0 win over Jordan last week.

Everyone should welcome, too, the break from the racist, abusive and alcohol-fuelled behaviour of players and fans in other codes.

But while lauding the good management behind the game now known here as football, there was good luck to boot. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves: it was a close-run thing.

The Socceroos lost away-games to Iraq and Jordan in this qualifying series and needed to win on Tuesday night to secure a spot in Rio.

For 82 minutes the 80,000-strong crowd at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney saw no goals against valiant Iraq – a team that cannot even use its home ground.

For the Socceroos the dream could easily have ended like it did on November 29, 1997.

Remember that despite being the top participant sport for children, soccer had been marred by ineptitude and worse at the top echelons.

In 1994 former National Crime Authority chief Donald Stewart found a rigged player transfer system open to corruption. The code was still dominated by ethnic power groups, with games spoiled by violent outbreaks among fans. The World Cup rules were rigged against the Socceroos and parts of the global game ran on bribery.

Yet against all odds the Socceroos went through the 1997 qualifying series undefeated.

A crowd of 85,000-plus people turned up to the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The locals went two goals up before half time. France, here we come.

Then Harry Kewell fouled his opponent. Iran scored. And again. A 2-2 draw, Iran went through and no end in sight to Australian soccer’s 23 years in the wilderness.

The Herald editorial said afterwards: “If the Socceroos had made the finals, an outcome that seemed inevitable for most of the Melbourne match, this vast audience [for the World Cup] would have been introduced to our national team, and to Australia.”

The code eventually cleaned up its structures and Football Federation Australia began in 2004 with Westfield chief Frank Lowy as chairman.

The World Cup qualifying rules were fixed in 2005 but the Socceroos still had to play Uruguay to qualify for the 2006 World Cup.

Australia won in a penalty shootout to qualify for the first time in 32 years.

Notwithstanding Australia’s expensive but doomed bid to host the 2022 World Cup, the game has done well here since.

Taking a global view – more games overseas, more players in top leagues and securing World Cup entry through Asia – has worked. Through building non-ethnic support in a summer A-League, the financiers and managers behind soccer have been vindicated.

The Socceroos qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and now it’s three in a row.

The growing legion of fans – a gold and green melting pot reflecting multicultural Australia – is testament to a revitalised game.

Captain Lucas Neill was a unifying figure: “I’m proud as a team, as a nation . . . I’m proud of everybody.”

The benefits of having a foreign coach were also clear. Reputations mattered little when Holger Osieck replaced frustrated striker Tim Cahill with Josh Kennedy.

This was crazy brave. Cahill is a man who has had a Sydney expressway named after him, if only for a day or two. He was the first Australian to score in a World Cup game. He holds the record for most Cup goals.

The Osieck move could have gone horribly wrong.

It didn’t.

The success reflects a results-based, professional approach to lifting Australian soccer to world-competitive levels.

More big calls will be needed to survive in Rio in a year. Many Socceroos are relatively old. Goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer was the man who got the team to Germany in 2006. He’ll be 41 years old in Rio. Neill will be 36.

Sometimes sportsmen beat the odds. National teams do, too.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.