Thursday, May 11, 2006

#28: Socceroos


Where? Big ass island or continent in the southern hemisphere.

How big? Size wise, very big. Only the US and Brazil are larger in the tournament. Population wise, not that big, when you consider the space. Has about the same number of people as Texas in over 10 times the space.

Something interesting about Australia I learned from the CIA Factbook? It's a country we probably know a lot more about than most, so there wasn't that much new. I thought there were more Aborigines down there than the less than 1% number they've given us. Also, I had no idea that Tasmania was one of the world's largest providers (40%) of legal opiates - goes into making morphine and such. That's interesting.

Geopolitical import? Well, the news here follows Australian politics somewhat because of their involvement as part of the Coalition forces in Iraq. One thing of great import to me personally is that there currently is no American Ambassador to Australia. Can we not find anyone to take the job? Hell, I'll do it. Australia seems like a nice enough place to go.

Non-nerd fun? Eat lamb on Australia Day or Sam Kekovich will kick your ass. And here too.

And... Soccer.

Historically, Australia has one of the most interesting backgrounds for a team without a great tradition. This is their second finals appearance, with the other one being in 1974, also in Germany. Their stories about failing to qualify are consistently odd, however. Their first try was in 1966, where FIFA forced the Aussies to play North Korea (not recognized by the host nation or many other nations at the time) in a one game playoff in Cambodia, which they lost. The Socceroos also, at one time or another, had to play such strange opponents as Israel (before they were a part of UEFA and isolated from their neighbors politically), Taiwan (whom China prevented from taking part in Asian group qualifications, and revolution-era Iran (prior to recognition by the rest of the world) in order to qualify. In 1994 the Aussies won the Oceania region, won an initial playoff against Canada, but then fell to Argentina in a second round of playoffs (and it's kind of BS that they had to play a team as strong as Argentina in a playoff). 1998's qualifying had to have been an even bigger heartbreak. After drawing on the road with a goal against Iran, Australia took a 2-0 lead (3-1 aggregate) into the second half of the return leg. Iran scored twice in the second half to book a place in France. In 2002, Australia again won the Oceania region, only to fall to Uruguay in a playoff.

Qualification this year followed a similar pattern to 2002. The Aussies won the Oceania region again, this time over Solomon Islands instead of New Zealand as usual. Australia then faced a rematch with Uruguay. Uruguay won the first leg in Montevideo 1-0. Australia matched that result in the return, and after extra time, Australia won a penalty shootout 4-2.

Australia's roster is loaded with English professionals, many of whom have significant experience in continental tournaments. It's a little harder to figure out who is actually going to play on this team, because Australia has trouble fielding full squads for southern hemisphere friendlies, considering many of the players have club commitments in Europe. Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill and Mark Viduka all get plenty of press in England, and for good reason, sort of. They all can find the net. When focused, they're all solid. Mark Schwartzer, yesterday's UEFA Cup final aside, is good enough.

The one to watch, though, is Mark Bresciano. He's a goal-hungry midfielder. He's had great success in Italy, where the soccer is almost as tough as it'll be this summer.

As far as predictions go, I actually thought Group F (after Brazil) was pretty hard to predict. I could see Australia surprising teams, but I think the safer bet is for them to suffer due to a lack of experience in a World Cup final, and the problem they always have about continuity on the field because of frequent turnover in the roster for friendlies.

I think Australia gives Japan a scare, scoring first in Kaiserslautern. Japan comes back using speed on the outside. Australia's goal-seeking midfield gives the ball away too much and Japan's technique wins out over the full 90.

That Japan match takes more out of the Aussies than they originally thought. The Japanese are quicker than one might think. It catches up to them in the Brazil match, where Brazil wants to assure advancement so they can rest players in the third match. Ronaldinho nets a hat trick and Ronaldo scores one too. 4-0 Brazil.

But Australia doesn't go home completely empty handed. Kewell scores early in the match against Croatia. The Croats push everyone forward, as advancing depended on it. The end up equalizing late. 1-1 is the final.

So the Aussies finish their first World Cup final in three decades with a draw and two losses. I could see them picking up a win, but advancing will be very difficult without any experience. This team is probably better than many USA teams in the 1990s, but cup experience does matter. It'll hurt Australia.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Australia would be... I'm thinking a team that is not normally known as a basketball program, but has a great season in a major conference and has some NBA talent on the roster, but the experience hurts them and they flash out early. Like Georgia with those Tubby Smith teams in the '90s.

Do not stand between Mark Viduka and a pitcher of Toohey's.

And this is probably the best photo I'll have the whole time, so enjoy it.