That night in September
There are challenges ahead for the Socceroos, but their most-travelled fan remains optimistic of World Cup qualification08 September 2017 | Pablo Bateson
It was a night to remember, but not one for euphoria nor celebration, rather to lament about ‘what could have been’.
On a cold and damp evening (Tuesday) in Melbourne, our Socceroos secured the three points and yet left the door wide open for their main competitor Saudi Arabia. A nervous wait until the latter played its final group game at home to Japan from 3.30am AEST, eventually culminated in dismay.
There had been hopes, confidence and even expectations from many home fans that Australia could post a resounding win by enough goals to secure direct qualification by finishing with a superior goal difference.
Despite the weather, pitch surface conditions at AAMI Park were ideal for football. The game attracted a crowd of just over 26,000 including a large Thai away fans contingent in the north-western corner of the stadium who were in fine voice for most of the evening.
Ange Postecoglou signalled his intent by starting two specialist strikers, although with Tim Cahill playing from somewhat deeper than his usual role for the national team.
The return of playmaking genius Aaron Mooy and inclusion of Alex Gersbach provided a boost in the attacking midfield and bolstered the left side of defence respectively.
From the onset the Socceroos were dominant, and yet continually failed to secure goals from numerous clear cut chances created. Desperate defending, fine goal keeping and much good fortune for the 'War Elephants' kept the game scoreless until deep into the second half.
The statistics showed that Australia had over 75 per cent of the total possession. They had 45 shots on goal (13 on target) including hitting the woodwork at least three times and blocks of numerous goal-bound strikes.
Full credit to Thailand for absorbing this pressure successfully for much of the match, as well as producing many of their own dangerous counter attacks.
Unfortunately, the Socceroos Active Support (SAS) co-ordinated visual displays in the home end were absent - a result of internal tensions within the fans' group. However, the vocal support through chants was noticeably more intense and consistent even without a traditional ‘capo’ to lead. A contributing factor may be that the culture of active support is much stronger and more developed in the Victorian capital than, say, Adelaide or Perth.
Now is is not the time for public recriminations, and yet some key people need to be reminded of the need for wise minds to prevail within fans' leadership. Optimisation of support needs a collaborative and inclusive approach. Within this context the focus on football must always be on how best to collectively and unconditionally help lift the national team(s).
When the Socceroos eventually broke the deadlock through a headed goal by number 9, Tomi Juric, on 69 minutes, there were noticeably restrained celebrations by players. On the terraces, the home crowd lifted its voice as hope once again soared that the hosts could go on to win by a crucial margin of at least three goals.
Alas, one of the Thai counters led to an equaliser on 83 minutes from a clinical finish by Pokklaw Anan. This came from a set up by substitute Nurul Sriyarngem from Chonburi FC.
Only a late reply through Matthew Leckie with seven minutes to the final whistle would be enough to at least force the Saudis to later win their match.
Full time, and Australia’s players, coach and support staff showed their disappointment and frustration about a big opportunity missed. This was mirrored by an almost eerie quietness amongst the stunned home fans as the underwhelming final score-line numbed emotions.
In this frantic game, the reality was that the Socceroos did not show the necessary poise on goal. Over the final group stage since June last year, we did not build consistency or enough momentum and were not good enough to gain direct qualification.
A consequence of the surprise result in Group A means that Australia next faces a two-legged play off with Syria, on 5 and 10 October. In a somewhat similar circumstance to Iraq’s football success and resilience, the national team of this war-torn nation have progressed in remarkable circumstances. This was confirmed with a 2-2 draw in Tehran against its close neighbour and political ally Iran and, coincidentally, the host nation of the 2018 World Cup, Russia.
At the time of writing, there was conjecture as to how far the Asian Football Confederation would investigate allegations about breaches of regulations under the “principle of political neutrality” associated with the game in Tehran.
I am now working and living in Bangkok, shared with my wonderful Thai partner. It is only a relatively short distance flight if Malaysia, where Syria has played most of its ‘home’ games on neutral territory, is confirmed for the first leg. There are also unconfirmed reports that Syria will attempt to have the fixture played in Qatar or the UAE.
We would then return to Sydney for the second leg, with an announcement yesterday that it will be held at the ANZ Stadium in Sydney.
If the Socceroos prevail it will be a final play off with the fourth placed nation from the CONCACAF group, so most likely Panama or possibly even Honduras.
The latter would be an unenviable place to visit, with one of the highest murder rates in the world involving drug gangs, kidnappings and even targeting of tourists
The post-match perspectives of Bonita Mersiades have already well captured some of the positives associated with failure for winning direct qualification.
Our passionate supporters need to all best serve the common patriotic interest for football in Australia. This means ramping up their energies in creative and proactive ways even more to help the Socceroos overcome this new challenge.
The vision needs to be for another glorious night in November, only 12 years on from another famous milestone achievement.
A self-fulfilling destiny is still within our grasp if we hold our nerve, stay optimistic and focussed.
Russia 2018 still beckons for the Socceroos, and I remain optimistic we will qualify for our fourth consecutive World Cup finals.
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