Playoff success proof of how vital the World Cup is for Australian football
A 1008-day journey ended two weeks ago, as the Socceroos secured a fifth consecutive World Cup birth in their intercontinental playoff match against South America’s Peru.
In a tight affair where both sides had their opportunities to take the lead, it was ultimately up to penalties to split the sides. Super-sub Andrew Redmayne proved the difference by saving Alex Valera’s attempt, following some goal-line antics that would confuse the best of players.
The Socceroos celebrate their penalty shootout victory over Peru. (Sydney Morning Herald)
Whilst qualifying for the World Cup has become “the norm” in Australia in recent years, it’s still always a momentous occasion when the national team seals its place. The scenes on display in Federation Square, Melbourne, perfectly encapsulated what it means for Socceroos fans to be at the tournament.
Although it has become a regular occurrence, for some an expectation even, to head to the World Cup, this qualifying campaign was a reminder of how difficult it is to get there. The result should not be taken for granted.
Football fans in Australia have been spoiled with multiple World Cup appearances recently; the importance of qualifying may have become lost on fans in the country. Making the tournament is an honour for any country, regardless of their football status. The precariousness of qualification can be seen in nations such as the Netherlands, USA, Colombia, and Italy, all missing recent editions. Italy, a nation that has won the World Cup on four occasions, have missed the last two tournaments, proving no country has a God-given right to be there.
So, for a country whose stature in world football isn’t the best, continued qualification for the World Cup is a tremendous achievement that can’t be overlooked.
And this qualifying campaign tested the Socceroos in a way they’ve never been pushed before. The effects of the COVID pandemic massively restricted their ability to play on home soil. They often saw players having to pull out of camps due to quarantine, infection, or even not meeting vaccination requirements.
Travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Socceroos to play home qualifying matches in Kuwait and Qatar. (Sky News)
On top of COVID, the Socceroos are somewhat transitioning; as the last remnants of the golden generation, Tim Cahill, Mark Milligan, and Mile Jedinak, all retired from international football in 2018.
With a lack of household names in the squad and COVID forcing the team to play the majority of games overseas, interest in the national team and football quickly diminished.
The shrinking supporter base and underlying issues in Graham Arnold's tactics rose to the surface, and it felt at times that the Socceroos were almost destined for failure. Some even suggested that missing out on the World Cup would benefit the long-term. They argued that it would force Football Australia to take action and fast-track changes such as promotion and relegation in the A-League Men.
Even in the leadup to the Socceroos' biggest match since 2018, there was very little promotion of the game outside the traditional football media. At least not the publicity you would expect for a game of this magnitude. One prominent news outlet even published a clickbait article poking fun at the perceived unknowns in the squad, with some rather odd comparisons.
Let's compare this coverage to Peru's. They had a strong media presence in Qatar for the match. Back in their home country, it was on the minds of the entire population. Their government declared a national holiday to ensure everyone could watch the game.
Attention to the world game in Australia is always at its most prominent during a World Cup. All eyes of the media, even those who talk down football when given a chance, turn to the Socceroos and the world's biggest sporting event.
And with eyes on the domestic game falling continuously, the Socceroos missing out on World Cup qualification could have unthinkable consequences for the future of the sport. In a way, this qualifying campaign was the country's most important since 2005.
Football in Australia was at its lowest point in recent memory, and there was little faith in the Socceroos succeeding in their quest for qualification. The victory over Peru has reignited the interest in the sport once again. Fans temporarily put their concerns for the game aside as they revelled in the success of qualifying against all odds.
Kye Rowles (left) and Jackson Irvine (right) were among the top performers in the playoff matches against UAE and Peru, and were praised by fans and pundits alike. (Sporting News)
And it’s this media attention that proves just how vital it is for Australia to be at the World Cup. The eyes of the country are back on the Socceroos for all the right reasons. Although it was a treacherous road to get there, how they qualified created another feel-good moment for the mainstream media to gobble up.
Andrew Redmayne is now a national hero, and his substitution into the match is being hailed as a masterstroke by Graham Arnold. It’s a scenario no Socceroos fan would have imagined in the lead-up to the game. The fallout has seen media outlets across the country clamour to get a sit down with either of them. They either want to talk about Redmayne’s wiggle dance or Arnold's confidence to make such a decision with so much on the line.
Despite only playing three games for the Socceroos, Andrew Redmayne has etched his name into the side's history and has become a cult hero. (ABC)
This turn of events has proved most of all, however, that the argument that missing out on a World Cup could be good for football in Australia is now obsolete. Those already invested in Australian football know the issues that need addressing. A failed World Cup qualifying campaign would take eyes away from the sport. Thus, seeking the investment required to make the changes fans so desperately want is harder.
The last two years of domestic football in this country have been a struggle, with Football Australia and the APL navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. But these past two weeks have proven an appetite for football in Australia remains.
Graham Arnold got to chat with the Wide World of Sports team, including former Socceroo Mark Bosnich, on Channel 9. (Twitter @Socceroos)
It may take big moments such as this one to ignite it, but that proves the importance of World Cup qualification in Australia. A hope for failure to fuel growth is not what was needed for Australian football. The country is moving forward from the pandemic. It now has a World Cup and Asian Cup to look forward to for the Socceroos and the Women’s World Cup happening in its backyard. The next twelve months could be the biggest in Australia's footballing history.
The Socceroos will now face Tunisia, Denmark, and reigning champions France at the World Cup. While success will be hard to come by, the engagement and attention in the sport throughout November and December will further prove the importance of qualifying for the World Cup.
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