socceroos sweat on stroll down easy street
Once again Australian football stands at a largely self-made crossroads with Saturday’s draw for the Socceroos’ opponents in next year’s World Cup set to define the state of the game in this country for some time. While the fortunes of the game are no longer so reliant on the national team, still nothing captures the public’s (and therefore the all-important sponsors’) imagination quite like the quadrennial Greatest Show on Earth. But due to a combination of bad luck, bad management and plain old bad attitude the Socceroos’ fall from grace has been swift and spectacular, in much the same way a clown car exploding in a fireball of greasepaint is spectacular: you can’t help but watch it, but you still feel vaguely sorry for all those poor dwarves.
Skydiving from a world ranking of 14 in 2009 to a current 59 – the lowest team to qualify; yes even giants like Algeria and Costa Rica are apparently better than us – the last few years have been tough going even for the dedicated. Drab performances from ageing, entitled has-beens more interested in maintaining their media profiles and adjoining bank balances has meant a gradual erosion of much of the store of good will banked in Germany 2006, and to a lesser degree Sth Africa in 2010. Two distinctly unfriendly 6-0 thrashings at the hands of Brazil and France were the final nails in a particularly oven-ready coffin and spelt the end for manager Holger Osieck.
Exemplifying that fall has been former poster boy and current captain Lucas Neill. Once the man who could do no wrong – why, his toothsome face even adorned Weet Bix boxes and surely you can’t get any higher than that? – he is now booed from the stands in his home town. Currently without a club, the one-time golden boy of Aussie football unwisely chose to give as good as he got and let fly back with a few choice expletives of his own. Maybe they were Vita Brits fans, but in any case the relationship seems as permanently soured as milk left out in the middle eastern sun, which ironically is where Luca$, I mean Lucas, will most likely find himself again soon. Possibly in charge of Meet The Fans Day.
New boss Ange Postecoglou says he’s ready to wield the broom, so Neill’s days, like a few other lurkers, may already be numbered, but is it all too late? On a hiding to nothing, Ange having inherited the mess, can’t really lose, but a draw that pairs Australia with too many heavyweights could mean embarrassing performances and a very early exit, or worse, humiliation on a scale not seen since, oh, when we last played France and Brazil – except this is the real deal. Not something even “Mr Westfield” Frank Lowy can sell to an expectant public or sponsors these days.
While the game’s reliance on the Socceroos may have lessened as the A League grows, there is really still nothing like the whiff of “us against the world” to bring out even the most disinterested of observers – and there’s no bigger planet in sporting terms than the World Cup. A soft draw and some gutsy performances that allow us progress to the knock-out phase might see a return of some of the love the Socceroos say they’re missing, and just the idea of giving England, for example, the pasting of their lives at the other game they invented already sounds like Australia’s greatest sporting triumph. It might even go some way to repairing the damage done since the heady days of bratwurst and beer in 2006. Just pray we don’t get Italy again.