Day of reckoning arrives for Socceroos in Honduras World Cup play-off
Day of reckoning arrives for Socceroos in Honduras World Cup play-off:-As the qualification process for Russia 2018 has amply demonstrated, no nation has a divine right to be at the World Cup. Not Italy, four-time world champions, nor the United States – who will be absent for the first time in three decades. Not Holland, inventors of total football with the illustrious Johan Cruyff, and certainly not Australia.
With 90 minutes standing between the Socceroos and a ticket to Russia, there is a strong feeling of déjà vu: Australian football has been here before. These qualifiers of consequence are alternatively nightmarish or euphoric for supporters. Few will forget Khodadad Azizi’s late equaliser in 1997, silencing a packed Melbourne Cricket Ground and sending Iran to the World Cup at Australia’s expense, or the Socceroos’ heavy 2001 defeat by Uruguay in Montevideo.
Four years later those wounds were salved in the most memorable manner possible, when John Aloisi fired past Uruguay goalkeeper Fabián Carini to secure qualification for Australia’s first World Cup since 1974. Replays of that penalty still induce shivers in most Socceroos fans. Will ANZ Stadium witness a repeat of such heroics on Wednesday evening, or are Honduras destined to join Iran and Uruguay in the pantheon of Australia’s sporting foes?
It is difficult to overstate the domestic importance of this encounter, the penultimate game of Fifa’s global qualification process that began in March 2015 (New Zealand face Peru on Thursday AEDT to determine the final World Cup participant). Australian football is in crisis, with a destructive governance feud threatening the game’s stability. The A-League, while quietly prosperous during season 13, feels only ever an incident or two away from calamity. Although the Socceroos have long united Australian football’s warring tribes, debate over coach Ange Postecoglou and his underperforming squad has been deeply polarising.
A goalless draw in San Pedro Sula last week did little to alleviate the nerves of anxious fans, concerned both about the immediate result and the longer term future. While the Socceroos were the better side in challenging Honduran conditions, striker Tomi Juric again fluffed his lines to leave Australia scoreless. The calculation for Postecoglou’s team is therefore simple: they must win in Sydney; a score draw of any kind will send Honduras to Russia courtesy of the away goal rule.
Three factors should give Australia the necessary edge. Honduras were inept in their home environs, and will need a qualitative improvement in form to have any hope of matching the Socceroos over another 90 minutes. Australia should also be in superior physical condition, after Football Federation Australia chartered a flight home while the Hondurans endured a draining transit on commercial airlines via Houston and Dallas. The futuristic jet-lag reducing glasses may have drawn derision in some quarters, but FFA’s no-expense-spared approach could have real benefits if the match is finely poised late in the second half.
The additions of Robbie Kruse, Mathew Leckie and Mark Milligan – who all remained in Australia due to injury or suspension – will also be a significant boost. Mercurial playmaker Tom Rogic only played the final quarter of the first leg while veteran striker Tim Cahill remained on the bench, such that Australia’s attacking resources are collectively well-rested.
Diamond works for Luongo and Socceroos as Honduras decider looms
This is not to dismiss the Central Americans – who surged to the intercontinental play-off spot with four unbeaten performances – but the advantage is firmly with Australia. It may sound trite, yet it bears repeating that if the Socceroos cannot beat Honduras, the team truly does not deserve to be among the world’s best in Russia. For now at least, the World Cup remains a meritocracy.
Wednesday’s game feels like an inflection point for the Socceroos. Qualification for Russia 2018 would close the door on a turbulent two years for the game in Australia, giving the financial and status-based stability that may facilitate much-needed broader reform. Non-qualification will be disastrous – not existential, but certainly capable of negatively impacting the prosperity of Australian football for a generation.
Australian football stakeholders are presently divided, over Postecoglou’s tenure, a second-tier national league, the optimal governance structure and a thousand other issues. On Wednesday they will momentarily unite in the cauldron of ANZ Stadium, for the most important national team game in 12 years. After a torturous qualification journey with stops across the globe, the Socceroos’ day of reckoning has arrived.