Friday 19 June ~
When Australia qualified for the 2006 World Cup it was unexpected, dramatic and at home in front of 80,000 people. When they qualified for 2010 two weeks ago it was low-key, taken for granted and sealed with a 0-0 draw in Qatar watched by 3,000. Needless to say, this represents progress. Another way to look at it is that last time out Australia were the last country to qualify; this time they were almost the first. Under their stubborn coach, Pim Verbeek, they have become consistent and solid. Or, if you prefer, predictable and boring. Qualification has been greeted with ambivalence, not all of which can be blamed on the spiky Dutchman.
When Australia achieved their long-standing goal of entry into the Asian confederation, the idea was to play more games, against better teams, and have a fairer chance of qualification. That much has certainly been achieved. But there was also an unspoken anticipation of more thrillers like the final World Cup qualifiers against Iran in 1997 and Uruguay in 2005 – huge, nail-biting games that mattered in front of packed houses. It hasn't quite worked out that way.
The first group stage in the 2010 qualifiers was set up for a finale against notionally the second strongest team, China, in Sydney. Yet the Chinese proved so feeble they were already eliminated, allowing Verbeek to field a third-string team that went down to a woeful 1-0 defeat. The draw for the final stage landed Australia in by far the easier of the two groups with only one juicy opponent, Japan. Again all was decided by the time they arrived in Melbourne this week. Australia's 2-1 win was a satisfying, but still tame, way to finish.
There are two main reasons for the flat feel to the campaign. One is the way Verbeek's team plays, which is effective but turgid – not until that Japan game did they concede a goal in eight second-stage matches. The second is that after the east Asian giants – Japan, Korea and, potentially, China – most of the middle-ranking Asian powers are in the Gulf. It is hard for even the best marketing brains to whip up excitement over Bahrain, Qatar or UAE.
Only Iran and Iraq bring more to the table, while the south-east Asian nations, who could draw on huge migrant communities for support if they played in Australia, are languishing. Only Thailand, who impressed at the last Asian Cup, suggest better things ahead.
For Australia, qualifying is no longer an end in itself. Fans and media expect them to do at least as well in South Africa as last time, and Verbeek's style will quickly come under attack if they don't. He hasn't helped himself by making it look all too easy in qualifying. Mike Ticher