Despite being an expat football fanatic in Sydney, my interest in the national team’s progress to the 2014 Brazil FIFA World Cup was waning. That was until things got interesting.
In the past I had never been to a Socceroos game. I had intermittently watched Sydney FC and a couple of A-League Grand Finals but the pace of the game and ultimately lack of atmosphere always left me feeling unsatisfied.
A couple of months ago one of my Australian work colleagues sent a group email to several of the lads at work. Did we want to go to a “huge” football game? It was life or death in his eyes. The prospect of one game deciding the Socceroos World Cup qualification? To compete in the country that, in my eyes, is the heartbeat of football? (England is the Brain metaphorically but now resembles the Appendix). I could not miss it. “We’re playing Iraq”, came the reply. This was a mistake, he meant Iran at least. No, he was serious. The other English recipients started a barrage of banter. I confess I chimed in with my fair share. Four years living in Australia and with a native fiancé did not dampen the banter’s force.
Despite our reservations the majority purchased tickets. It was forgotten about for weeks and then came the crucial round of qualifiers. An agonising 1-1 draw away draw with Japan, a convincing 4-0 win against Jordan a week later and then the final group game. Australia had to win to guarantee second spot and automatic qualification. Game day was upon us. We headed straight from work onto a train to Olympic Park. We are all thinking the same thing; getting to the ANZ is a pain in the arse for us city-types. Why can’t the game be at the SFS in Moore Park?
If ever I needed reminding, this is what football is all about. The build-up, the pre-game rituals, the beers with your mates, the banter on the journey. I must admit I was feeling a little bit Phil Collins (“Something in the Air Tonight”). That something would be torrential rain. Despite the weather the atmosphere was impressive with over 80,000 people crammed into the ANZ Stadium. The small section of Iraqi fans were noisy throughout, banging drums and waving flags, ignoring the drenching they were getting in their uncovered section.
Within minutes of the kick-off the game plan of Iraq was made abundantly clear. They man-handled many of the Socceroos with a clear intention of frustrating them. Despite the result having no bearing on their bottom of the group standing, they put every man behind the ball and “parked the bus” in their own half. When they won possession the ball was booted out as hard and as high as possible. The Socceroos passed the ball fairly well and piled on the pressure but once they hit the final third they hit an invisible force-field that stopped them from shooting or playing the killer ball. Too often they opted to unsuccessfully force their way into the box centrally when they had acres of space on the wings for the full-backs to penetrate.
Combined with the clouds above what overshadowed the game was some pure comedy theatrics from most members of the Iraqi team. At every opportunity players were dropping to the floor and writhing around, gripping their extremities with agony. The first couple of incidents saw the medics run on with stretchers but by the eleventh time this happened the stretcher-men were denied their moment of glory and had to run back to the sideline as the referee turned them away. Even when they rarely attacked, Iraqi players miles from the action would drop down as though taken by snipers. Across came a concerned teammate to raise their leg to ease the
imaginary cramp that had hit them. Timewasting was not confined to injuries. After their third sub we were certain this was tactical as they were choosing the furthest player away on the field to replace. The substituted player was suddenly devoid of energy and strolled across the pitch as though he was ambling along Bondi Beach.
The second half saw more urgency from Australia but once again, actual attempts on goal that tested the keeper were limited. As panic set in the Socceroos gambled more but were hit by a wall of resistance. Holger Osieck needed to shake things up and he brought off fans favourite Tim Cahill for Josh Kennedy, soon followed by Archie Thompson for Robbie Kruse. Like for like substitutions almost. By this point my Aussie mate was convinced these decisions put paid to any chance of winning the game. Cahill also threw a tantrum as he left the field and all seemed eerily quiet.
With seven minutes to play the anxiety was clear as the Socceroos played the ball out wide to Bresciano on the right wing, an area they should have exploited more effectively far earlier. He lofted in a cross to the six-yard box and the unmarked Jesus himself Josh Kennedy (sporting a shorter hairstyle these days) rose to steer a textbook header downwards back across goal into the corner of the net. The mainly hushed crowd erupted into a celebration tinged with relief.
Despite a couple of nervous and unfruitful Iraqi attacks the final whistle blew and the Socceroos had made it. Already singlets and thongs, in every meaning of the word, were being packed in anticipation for Brazil 2014. As much as the game was of amateur standard, the guys had made it and my thoughts turned to the Motherland’s final fixtures to make Brazil; Moldova, Ukraine, Montenegro and Poland. The Eastern ‘Bloc’ could prove to be just that.