13 June ~ The news dominating the back pages in Sydney this week is that Jarryd Hayne and Israel Folau will unexpectedly take their places in the squad at the last minute. Never heard of them? That’s probably because they have nothing to do with the World Cup, but everything to do with Wednesday’s second State of Origin rugby league match between New South Wales and Queensland. That’s not to say no one is paying attention to the Socceroos’ opening game against Germany, at the unforgiving time of 4.30am on Monday in the eastern states, but as ever it has to compete frantically with Australia’s regular winter passions: league and Australian rules.
The battle is not just for airtime and print space. The increasingly savage intercode rivalries also overshadow Australia’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup, for which its team is furiously pressing the flesh in South Africa. So Pim Verbeek’s squad carry a triple burden. They have to represent the nation, the bid and their code. How they perform may have lasting implications for all three (OK, two – the nation will survive regardless).
The same is even true for the fans’ response. A healthy forest of flags flutters from car windows, and pubs are looking forward to plenty of all-night drinking when Australia and certain others play – in my inner-city area they will be packed for England, Portugal, Greece and Italy, among others.
But a World Cup in Australia would be the opposite of Europe’s summer carnival. Even in Sydney it can be cold, dark and gloomy at this time of year. The bid team proudly boast that Sydney is one of only six cities chosen to host an official FIFA fansite. On Friday I walked past the gates in Darling Harbour – ‘‘one of the globe’s leading waterfront leisure and entertainment destinations’’ in FIFA’s words (read: tacky tourist trap). At 9am it was bright, but chilly. Hard to imagine the alleged capacity of 30,000 will be regularly tested for pre-dawn kick-offs, to give Australia the images it craves to sell its bid.
As for the team, the mood is hopeful at best, deeply pessimistic at worst, though maybe that’s just me. Scratchy performances in the three warm-up games, particularly a dire display against New Zealand and a 3-1 defeat against a much brighter US team, don’t offer much evidence of an upset pending. For long periods they looked sluggish and one-dimensional in Verbeek’s rigid 4-2-3-1. Neither Harry Kewell nor Brett Emerton – key now as four years ago – played a minute of those games as they struggled with long-term injuries.
There are straws for the optimists to hang on to. Michael Ballack and Michael Essien are out. Better to play Germany first, before they get into their habitual tournament stride. Better to be the underdogs, when team spirit and resilience are your strong points. And perhaps better to start against predictable northern European values than the speed and guile of Ghana and Serbia. Perhaps. But there will be plenty peeking apprehensively over the top of their duvets. Mike Ticher
Read the WSC World Cup preview for Australia