A vital week for Australian football begins on Thursday night in Saitama with the Socceroos taking on Japan in a fixture that could secure either side’s participation at the 2018 World Cup finals.
It will be Australia’s 17th match of an AFC odyssey that’s already taken them to the Middle East, the Silk Road and the Indian subcontinent, and the kind of night that makes football so unique among this country’s cluttered sporting landscape. Supporters glued to TV screens beaming images from East Asia, the day after scanning for updates from the United Arab Emirates where Saudi Arabia – level on points with the Socceroos – faced a near identical qualifying proposition.
The UAE’s 2-1 triumph during the early hours of Wednesday morning affords the Socceroos a broader range of qualification options. A win on Thursday and the Green and Gold Army can start booking flights to Russia. Should Australia draw or lose then next Tuesday’s clash at AAMI Park becomes a must-win affair. Fortunately it is against Thailand, the bottom team in Group B.
These final high-stakes qualifiers are the matches the Australian footballing pyramid points toward, putting recent squabbling over the game’s governance into perspective. They are opportunities for the base to celebrate its role nurturing young Australian talent and for domestic rivalries to be put to one side in acknowledgment of the importance of the national team and its success in driving interest and revenue in the sport.
So significant are the next 180 minutes of international action they could shape the tone of football debate in Australia for years. Failure would amplify calls for an overhaul of the system that has seen the talent at the head coach’s disposal diminish over the past decade. “We didn’t qualify for the World Cup because…” could become a familiar lament. By contrast, a positive result, especially one achieved in the backyard of a continental powerhouse, could be the catalyst this generation requires to emerge from the shadows of its golden predecessor.
Despite an Asian Cup triumph in 2015, a respectable Confederations Cup showing earlier this year, and World Cup qualification still in their hands, there remains an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the progress of this iteration of the national team, an attitude that has long grated with the coach.
“Language is really a powerful tool and I’ve been a little bit frustrated by our constant painting a picture of a team…