23 June ~ Things could be worse. Australia are not England, France or Italy. On the other hand, they are not exactly New Zealand either. Of all the fates that might have befallen them at this World Cup, the only one no one had anticipated was being overshadowed by our Oceania neighbours. But that’s how it looks going into the final group games, with almost unreserved and totally non-patronising admiration for the battling Kiwis among Australian fans. It’s a bit like being a Chelsea fan watching Fulham in the final of the Europa League.
Feelings towards their own team are more ambivalent, but certainly a lot better after the Ghana game than before. In the days between the humiliating defeat by Germany and the partial redemption against the Africans, Australia did their best to ape the worst of the bickering Europeans. There was much talk of splits in the camp, dissatisfaction with the coach, Pim Verbeek, and a ludicrous but hugely entertaining catfight between Harry Kewell, one of the country’s top football journalists, and Kewell’s agent, Bernie Mandic.
The performance against Ghana put a lot of that nonsense to bed. The Socceroos were typically gritty and combative, all the more so after Kewell was sent off to end a 24-minute, Marco Etcheverry-esque cameo that was poor reward for six months battling his latest injuries. They even played some proper football in a much more comfortable formation, after Verbeek’s unfathomable experiments against Germany.
Few expect them to progress further, but a win or even a battling draw against Serbia would allow an exit far more honourable than seemed likely a week ago. At least half a dozen of the team that started against Ghana are on the brink of retirement (including the suspended Kewell and Craig Moore), so tomorrow’s game may well be the last for the core group that has carried Australia since 2006.
They won’t have to wait until 2014 for renewal. By the time the Asian Cup comes around in January, this generation will surely have been swept away. Verbeek’s replacement seems likely to be Paul Le Guen, unpromisingly in charge of the first team eliminated from the World Cup, Cameroon, and a notable departure from the Dutch influence that has dominated the Australian set-up in recent years.
The old stagers will be determined to go out in style, or at least with some fight – against their detractors at home as much as against the Serbs. The backlash after the Germany game stung, and players such as Vince Grella and Scott Chipperfield have made unflattering remarks about the media response, the local football culture and their disdain for the idea of ending their careers in the A-League. There are a lot of points to prove and reputations to salvage, even if the result proves peripheral to the rest of the World Cup. Mike Ticher