Tuesday, June 27, 2006

For Australian soccer, it’s the end of the beginning …

Australia is out of the World Cup competition – for now.

After 93 minutes of being the better team playing clearly a better game, the Socceroos were victim to what was clearly a questionable decision by the referee. Star player Lucas Neill was the victim of a questionable tackle decision which led to the Italians being granted a penalty kick at close range.

Totti took the kick, and even the legendary Australian goalkeeper Schwartzer couldn’t stop the ball from crashing into the net.

The Italians move into the next round. But the Australians are by no means out of international football. For the Socceroos, this is the end of the beginning of their rise onto the world football stage.

In the race for football supremacy in Australia, soccer has always had to play fourth fiddle to the more popular codes of AFL, NRL and Rugby. Despite being the pre-eminent world game, soccer rarely gained more than a cult following in Australia.

When the late Socceroos captain and SBS commentator Johnny Warren wrote the definitive story of Australian soccer, he chose to name it after the numerous insults he would have experienced at school playing the game.

Back in the mid-1980’s, those of us keen on playing “wog-ball” on the rooftop playground at St Andrews Cathedral School were the butt of more jokes concerning our sexuality than even the choristers. Despite being played mostly with feet, soccer wasn’t considered real football.

At club level, Aussie soccer was regarded as a game for Central and Eastern European migrants who insisted on keeping irrelevant forms of ethnic chauvinism alive. Soccer clubs were named after foreign cities and countries, and games were characterised by ethnic feuds and violence between players and supporters alike.

That was then. But now, Australian soccer’s true believers have been exonerated. In particular, the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) has enjoyed record ratings and a financial windfall from the success of Australia at the World Game.

The Socceroos played superbly throughout the tournament. In their first game against Japan, they came from behind to win the match in a blitz of goals from Cahill. Against Croatia, they performed brilliantly to keep one of the game’s veterans drawn at 2-all.

Against the Italians, the Socceroos looked like winning the game. They had possession of the ball for well over 50% of the time. Their defence work was superb, and on numerous occasions did Mark Schwartzer stop a sure Italian goal.

In fact, Schwartzer rarely had much work to do in this game. The Socceroo forwards more often than not found themselves breathing down the necks of the world’s most expensive goalkeeper, testing the Italian goalie’s skills on numerous occasions with plenty of strikes.

As the game moved into extra time in the second and final half, the Aussies looked set to join the top 8 soccer teams in the world. However, in a piece of questionable refereeing, Lucas Neill was found to have tackled an Italian striker. 20 million Australians were punished as a result.

The Socceroos’ progress would never have been possible had it not been for the ongoing support of SBS. Monoculturalists who keep attacking the multicultural and multilingual broadcaster should keep this in mind before they pen their next column for a News Limited broadsheet.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006