Stunned, shocked, amazed, dumbfounded. Add any other adjectives you like. Australia’s qualification to the round of 16 at the World Cup, following back-to-back victories over Tunisia and Denmark, has captured the imagination of a nation and surprised a planet.
Not since that emotional trip to Germany 16 years ago, when Guus Hiddink and the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ propelled Italy all the way to Kaiserslautern, that football was no longer relevant in Australia. It’s fitting that this current group is led by Hiddink’s assistant during that World Cup campaign, Graham Arnold.
Related: Australia and Argentina criticize Fifa for scheduling the World Cup
It’s also fitting that this current Socceroos squad was just a kid when the story was written in 2006, and has been particularly inspired to follow in the footsteps of its famous forefathers nearly two decades later. It should also be noted that it happened at the 2022 tournament, one for which Australia bid but lost to hosts Qatar, a decision which caused huge havoc at home and continued to cause a stir in Worldwide.
Going back to 2006 is relevant as that was a time when football, or soccer as it was more commonly called in that era, reinvented itself in Australia. The A-League had launched, the Socceroos had qualified for a World Cup for the first time in 32 years, Australia had dropped out of the Oceania Football Confederation and moved to Asia, and Soccer Australia had been dumped, replaced by a new governing body in the Football Association of Australia.
It was a time of optimism, joy and hope. The ‘sick’ of Australian sport had finally woken up. The other codes have been reported.
This is a World Cup like no other. For the past 12 years the Guardian has reported on Qatar 2022 issues, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football homepage for those who want to delve into issues beyond the pitch.
The Guardian’s report goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.
But the next 16 years continued the cycle of boom and bust that football has long been known for. The Socceroos disappointed at the 2007 Asian Cup, managed to qualify for the 2010, 2014 and 2018 World Cups but recorded only one win in nine attempts. The A-League eventually expanded, with new clubs being gradually introduced across the country.
Media coverage grew and News Corp invested in the sport. Attendance continued to flourish and football entered the mainstream. It hasn’t been without speed bumps: the controversial 2010 World Cup bid, clashes between active FFA and A-League support, and the eventual exit of Frank Lowy in 2015.
It hasn’t been without its real highlights – Ange Postecoglou’s reign at the Socceroos was a breath of fresh air which culminated in them winning the 2015 Asian Cup on home soil. The Australia Cup was introduced and the A-League peaked in 2014, when nearly two million fans attended matches, and the competition welcomed notable players such as Alessandro Del Piero, Emile Heskey and Shinji Or not.
However, the A-League has been in slow decline for the past eight years, losing viewers, supporters, famous sponsors and media interest. SBS has largely stepped away from soccer (although it has the rights to the current tournament), News Corp has withdrawn its investments and Covid-19 has hit the competition hard. Political infighting and tensions between ‘old football’ and ‘new football’ have spilled over, Postecoglou left the Socceroos in 2017 to head overseas and less than a year later Lowy’s son Steven his controversial successor, left the presidency of the FFA.
Germany’s 2006 peaks of huge TV ratings, 60,000 Sydney and 50,000 Melbourne derbies viewers and front page newspaper coverage seemed long gone. Pessimism has replaced optimism, a sentiment known all too well by true supporters of Australian football.
But this World Cup was a ray of light of what still can be. The Socceroos’ successes in the Middle East have been underpinned by generous ratings, raucous support in pubs and live sites, and international acclaim. More than anything else, there is evidence that the country still cares deeply about its national team and the beautiful game.
“I truly believe the Socceroos are the team that unites the country,” Arnold said after the 1-0 win over Denmark. “If the cricket team makes it to the World Cup Final you don’t have scenes like tonight. You don’t see the teams as they are tonight, nor with rugby union or rugby league.”
Arnold is not wrong. Success is widely expected in kangaroos, wallabies and in cricket, but football is a different beast. The Socceroos best represent the multicultural face of the nation and the personality of Australia punching above its weight on the world stage. The world cares about soccer and success in the game of round ball can give the country greater global significance than any other sport.
Related: Two minutes of chaos that projected the Socceroos into the final of the World Cup-16
The question now is how does Australian football continue this momentum, this feel-good factor and link it to the A-Leagues and the domestic game. We’ve been here before, and much of the progress has been wasted. These seedlings cannot be left to wilt once more.
There are some hopeful signs. The FFA was cancelled, replaced by Football Australia and repairing the old divisions was a priority. A second national division will be born in 2023, the same year that the Women’s World Cup will be hosted by Australia and New Zealand. The value and worth of the A-League has been boosted by the fantastic feats of the Socceroos in Qatar.
Football has gotten too big to ignore in the big brown earth, but it can’t be allowed to eat into its self-harm like it has in the past. Regardless of how the Socceroos fare against Lionel Messi and The Albiceleste, Australia seems to have fallen in love with football and the Socceroos once again. But for how long?