A mid the hype of successive World Cup campaigns (2006 and 2010) it might be easy for Australian sports fans to forget the Socceroos' sparse World Cup history. Australian mid-fielder Vince Grella was quick to make that point last year after the team qualified for just its third World Cup. "Talking 10 years ago, Australia's dream was to make the World Cup," he commented. "Now we've made two in a row and I think we shouldn't forget how important it is."
This month's soccer (football to most of the rest of the world) tournament is the 19th FIFA World Cup, after the first such global competition was held in Uruguay in 1930. Prior to its 2006 success, Australia had only one previous World Cup appearance to its name-a winless, first-round exit in the 1974 World Cup in Germany.
Of course, the World Cup is the finale of a multi-year international qualifying process, which sees the world's top 32 soccer nations competing for the sport's biggest prize. But Australia's Socceroos have had a disappointing history of missed opportunities and close calls. In a nation used to international sporting success, Australia's first World Cup match victory was only as recent as the memorable, come-from-behind 3-1 win over Japan in the first match of the 2006 tournament.
In the past two years of qualifying games and other international appearances, the Socceroos climbed to their highest-ever world ranking of 14- having won 15, drawn eight and lost just four of the past 27 international matches. Heading to South Africa for World Cup 2010, the Socceroos are currently ranked 19th, justifying their place among the world's top 32 teams at the tournament and with high hopes of going a step further than their 2006 second-round knockout.
With more Australians than ever playing professionally in clubs around the world, a revitalised national league and the success of the national teams, it seems Australian soccer is in the midst of a golden age. But many of the players credit something more than mere professionalism for the team's success. Their determined win over Japan in 2006 caught the national imagination and this same team spirit has marked their journey toward playing in South Africa.
Last year, with World Cup qualification already secured, the Socceroos' final qualifying match saw them again playing Japan, this time at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). Down a goal, two late scores from Tim Cahill again snatched victory.
"It says everything about the Socceroos doesn't it," commented Grella. "There were some similarities to what we did at the last World Cup, but we played a lot better then than we did in this game. But the Australian spirit was there again-and that is what it's all about, grinding out results.
"It says a bit about Australia's history in football," he says. "We were a bit down and not playing great in the first half and then we were able to step it up a gear and pulled the game back, and we were in control for most of the second half. So it was a great way to end off the campaign, in front of a great crowd at the MCG."
It is this kind of determination and team play that have many Australian soccer fans excited about their team's prospects in South Africa, despite being considered unlikely to seriously challenge the best footballing nations. As a team, they seem determined to work hard to overcome the odds and exceed the expectations.
Socceroos reserve striker Josh Kennedy describes the team spirit and attitude. "That's just Aussie team sports in general; that's why we're always hard to beat," he says. "There's a lot of pressure there, but a lot of the guys were there in 2006, which helps. There's nothing better than being in a sports team that can do well-that's what we've shown in the past two years. Once we're out there, it's the same every game, whether it's Oman or Germany, we're always pumped up and ready to go."
Explaining their approach to the game, he emphasises the practical: "First and foremost, we're out there to win, [focused] on how we can win the game, not just to look pretty." And for Kennedy, being a reserve is still an important role on the team. "Everyone wants to start, but we all need to be ready."
Socceroos' coach Pim Verbeek agrees. "There are no egos in my team," he says. "For many of my players this will be their final chance to play in a FIFA World Cup.
"We have to go there and do it better than last time. I think you have to make targets in life and the players are going to do that also. We want to do better than last time, and we will do everything possible to do that."
Veteran Australian goalkeeper, 37-year-old Mark Schwarzer, sees the same possibilities. "If you look at our group, it is very, very tough," he says. "The group has similarities to the one that we had in Germany. We are going in again as underdogs, but the difference now is that we are not the unknown quantity we were last time. I'm quietly confident we will go to the World Cup in the best possible shape and condition, and hopefully give it a real shake like we did last time."
The veteran of 73 matches for the Socceroos is looking forward to their opening encounter with the highlyranked German team on June 14. "Nothing beats playing in a World Cup as you are representing your country; you're playing on the biggest stage on the planet and there are hundreds of millions of people watching around the world," he explains. "To have the opportunity to play against Germany, and hopefully get a good result, would be a dream come true."
Commenting on his team's impressive defensive record, including seven qualifying games in which they held their opponents scoreless, Schwarzer is quick to point to the rest of the team. "I think we were very organised as a team and very determined," he says. "We defended from the front and I think everyone was so determined from day one to qualify.
"We definitely have more experience than four years ago and statistically experience helps you more so than anything else. This time around we also have a larger pool of players to call on. Hopefully that will keep us in very good stead throughout the World Cup."
Grella agrees that the experience of successive World Cups will be important to the chances in South Africa this month. "If you look at the first team, it's basically the same as 2006, the only difference being that the players have an extra 15 to 20 internationals," he says. "That's a lot of experience, and most of the players have already been to a World Cup. They know the expectations, they know the importance of the games and preparing well.
"That doesn't mean you're going to win the World Cup, but we are stronger for what has happened over the past three years-going through a different qualification phase has given us so much more experience. Every player is better for that.
"We have a strong team, and I think it's a better team than in Germany," Grella says.
It's this team and teamwork Australian soccer fans-and many sport fans who adopt an interest in the round-ball kind of football, at least once every four years-will be cheering for loudly over the next few weeks.