Socceroos can add to England’s history of misery
We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. There is a long way to go but, just for a moment, lie down, close your eyes, and think of England.
In the same way that Aussies will be fantasising about the prospect of playing England in the second stage at the World Cup, the Poms will be having quiet nightmares about being knocked off by their nemesis in the one sport where we have never bettered the beloved Mother Country, aside from a meaningless 3-1 win in a friendly match in 2003.
England has every right to be unnerved by the prospect, for a number of reasons. The first is that it is in no way a remote fantasy.The way our two groups fall, there is a very real chance that it could happen.
In our Group, Group D, it’s Germany and daylight for the top spot. But second place is looking more and more like a coin toss.
The Socceroos, under the dour command of Pim Verbeek, are unlikely to release a commemorative highlights reel from their friendly matches this past week, but who cares. They came from behind to beat the Kiwis 2-1 and dispatched Denmark 1-0 in a match which stood as a testament to our defensive depth. Our group D rivals have had a shocking run – Ghana has come off a 4-1 thumping by the Netherlands in Amsterdam, while unpredictable Serbia lost 0-1 to New Zealand’s All Whites and drew 0-0 with the unfancied Poland. Friendlies don’t count for much but they do point to cohesion and momentum and of the three teams in Group D you would currently be just as happy, and marginally happier, wearing the Green and Gold than going for the Ghanians or the Serbs.
England, in contrast, have no real worries in terms of qualification. Pitted against the USA, Algeria and Slovenia, the Poms should be able to top the group while standing on their hanky-hatted heads. It will be deeply surprising if they lose a single first stage game.
It’s here where the fun will begin. The winner of Group D plays the runner up from Group B.
From a psychological point of view, I know which team I would prefer to be on. Australia will have absolutely nothing to lose. No sane punter will be putting serious money on us. Given our forward structure there will be no weight of expectation that we will win; given our defensive strength, there will be no real fear that we will be smashed or humbled. Having gone as close as we did to knocking Italy out of the tournament in 2006, cruelled in the final minute by Lucas Neill’s minor tangle with the leaping Grosso, the Socceroos will approach the game aiming to go one better as a rank New World outsider taking on another giant of the game.
England, conversely, will be a bundle of nerves. Aside from having a strange natural disposition towards heroic defeat in the sporting arena – Tim Henman being the epitome of the gallant Englishman who has mastered the art of almost making the semis at every Wimbledon – there are two deeply unnerving historical facts that will gnaw at the English team, its feral media and its zealous fans.
The first is the fact that Australia has consistently grown an extra yard for any sporting contest with the Brits. Like some murderous Oedipal complex, winning seems to mean more to us than it does to them.
While the past couple of Ashes series do not warrant lengthy mention – except to poke fun at the English for knighting its entire team, such was their surprise at having finally won a series after an almost 20-year drought – the historical ledger falls massively in our favour. It was for this reason that the Beijing Olympics were such an aberration, where the English, having embraced a Soviet-era sports funding model, managed to pip us in the medal tally - a result which will hopefully never be repeated, now that our own government has made the welcome decision to channel obscene amounts of cash back into elite sport rather than wasting extra money on luxuries such as hospitals or schools.
The second is that, aside from our own history of beating the Poms at games that they themselves invented, the English football team has an unfortunate tradition of finding heart-breakingly creative ways to exit the World Cup.
In 1986 they were trundled out by two goals from Diego Maradona, the first with his hand – he later explained that it seemed fair revenge for the War in the Falklands – the second from a pirouetting solo miracle run which made the English defence look like fools and was so mind-blowingly good that it almost erased the controversy surrounding the Hand of God outrage.
In 1990 they almost lost to Cameroon, led by an aged pensioner called Roger Milla, only to lose on penalties to Germany in the semis. In 2002 they lost to Brazil when goalkeeper David Seaman was standing off his line and watched a cheeky lob from Ronaldinho float gently over his head.
In 2006 Wayne Rooney stomped on Ricardo Carvalho’s wedding tackle and was red-carded, with the 10-man side going out to Portugal. Again, this supposedly cruel exit gave the Brits plenty of excellent material for a lengthy period of maudlin national introspection, and ruminations as to what might have been. The Sun labelled Cristiano Ronaldo a “slippery Portuguese winker” after he playfully winked at the referee as if to say thank you for buying Carvalho’s testicle-grabbing theatrics and sending Rooney to the bench. The newspaper even went to the trouble of providing pull-out Ronaldo dartboards so that the fans could vent their anger before getting back to watching Coronation Street and eating hot chips.
Losing to the likes of Argentina, Germany and Portugal is one thing. At least they’re proper footballing nations. This is only our third World Cup. We spent much of the last one celebrating the fact that, unlike in 1974, we had actually managed to score a goal.
It’s for that reason that we won’t fear the English. And given their track record, losing to Australia in South Africa seems an almost predictable next chapter in the very British tale of continuous sporting heartbreak.
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