To be honest with you, Holger Osieck’s Socceroos of Australia, the Dad Army as this side is known, didn’t have to make it this difficult.
They had shot themselves in the foot one too many times with their inability to finish and secure important victories and it seemed like everything would weigh on the Jordan-Oman game later in the day on the other side of the world.
But one has to give credit to Osieck. He’s a gambler, a high-risk, high-reward type of manager who is capable of helpimg teams overcome the hurdles that opponents dish to them. That’s his job, that’s his calling, and it was evident at a rainy Stadium Australia on Tuesday night.
It was the culmination of a long process that started over two years ago, on Sept. 2, 2011. The first goalscorer for Australia World Cup Qualifying campaign was Josh Kennedy in the 58th minute against Thailand, and I want you readers to hold on to that thought for a bit.
Kennedy and Alex Brosque took down Thailand and it sparked a series of big wins (3-1 over Saudi Arabia, 3-0 over Oman, 1-0 over Thailand, 4-2 over Saudi Arabia) against one disappointing defeat, a 1-0 shutout loss to Oman in Muscat. Despite the result, Australia topped Group D of the Third Round, and advanced to the Fourth Round, where they were placed in Group B.
And so, the drama began. The Socceroos didn’t get off on the right foot with a scoreless draw against Oman in Muscat on June 8, 2012. They followed that up with a 1-1 draw against Japan on June 12, 2012 with Luke Wilkshire bailing the hosts out in the 70th minute.
To make matters worse, they suffered their only defeat of the campaign, a 2-1 loss to Jordan in Amman on Sept. 11, 2012, and one would think that Osieck’s situation looked pretty dire at that point. On October 16, Australia finally got on the win column with a 2-1 victory over Iraq on Oct. 16, 2012, with Tim Cahill (80′) and Archie Thompson (84′) sparking the rally.
Things still looked bleak. They had to rally from two goals down to draw 2-2 with Oman at Stadium Australia on Mar. 26 and were unfortunate to give up a goal in stoppage time to Japan on Jun. 4. But the breakthrough result came on Jun. 11, when goals from Mark Bresciano (15′), Cahill (61′), Robbie Kruse (76′) and Lucas Neill (84′) gave the Socceroos some payback: 4-0 over Jordan.
Fast forward to Tuesday night against Iraq in the rain at Stadium Australia. Iraq had nothing to lose. They were already down and out, out of luck, and out of qualifying. Essentially, this was their Under-20 team mixed in with a few veterans. And they put the Roos on their heels. Their speed, their defense and their tenacity really puts the hosts on the make.
Cahill had to wonder why he was being subbed out for Kennedy. Here’s the thing: in the past, Josh Kennedy grew his hair long that he resembled Jesus Christ, and he was known for being clutch with his scoring. Osieck was riding on Kennedy to be the Alpha and the Omega, and he did just that in the 83rd minute.
Eight: the number of infinity. Three: the number of the trinity. 8 + 3 = 11, the number of players on the pitch. 1 + 1 = 2, take away that number from 11 and you get Kennedy’s number, No. 9. Number mysticism aside, it was only fair that Josh Kennedy, the Jesus Christ of Australian football, saved Australia from the possiblity of clashing with Uzbekistan for a possible date with Uruguay.
After he scored, Kennedy celebrated with his arms extended, the local personification of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado mountain. And soon afterwards, his teammates flooded him, Cahill included, in celebration. A number of tense minutes of defensive sweeping later, Australia returned to football’s biggest stage.
This was not an easy 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign, especially during the fourth round in the Asian Zone. But this is an Australia team with heart, with character, and a commitment to make qualifying for the finals a tradition that they will hang their hats on.
There may be some changes in terms of management, and perhaps the A-League’s best domestic players will be given an opportunity to prove themselves donning the green and gold in one of football’s richest proving grounds. But make no mistake about it: this is Australia’s third straight appearance in the FIFA World Cup Finals, and there will be more to come.