World Cup Part 16: Australia v Japan, 2006

PHIL WITHALL tells the tale of Australia’s historic victory over Japan in 2006, the Socceroos finally proving their World Cup worth

When Iranian referee Jafar Namdar blew the final whistle at the end of the group match between Australia and Chile at the 1974 World Cup finals, it marked the end of an underwhelming campaign. Defeats to both East and West Germany were followed by a scoreless draw in the Olympic Stadium in West Berlin as Australia’s first finals appearance ended on a whimper. It also marked the start of 32 years in the footballing wilderness for the Socceroos, where dominance in the Oceania qualifiers would be followed by play-off defeats to the likes of Argentina, Iran and even Scotland.

Finally, following a switch to the Asian qualifying group and a penalty shoot-out victory in a playoff with Uruguay, 2006 saw them return to Germany and play in the country’s second World Cup finals. The opening fixture in Kaiserslautern was against fellow Asian qualifier Japan and the expectations for Guus Hiddink’s side were high. It was the time of the “Golden Generation” with the likes of Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka and Tim Cahill plying their trade in the English Premier League, with others playing in some of Europe’s top leagues. There had been renewed interest in the fortunes of the side following the Uruguay win, a match watched by an estimated 8.5 million people or 42% of the country’s population. With matches against Brazil and Croatia to follow, a strong start against Japan was needed.

It had been 10 years since they had managed to beat the Japanese – 37 years in competitive fixtures – and after 26 minutes under the blue skies of Kaiserslautern, they were a goal down and in danger of extending that run and ending any realistic hopes they had of getting out of the group.

Celtic midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura whipped a left-footed cross into the area, regulation stuff for ‘keeper Mark Schwarzer to deal with. On this occasion, however, the Middlesbrough custodian collided with Naohiro Takahara and the ball sailed into the unguarded goal. Nine times out of ten the referee would have blown for a foul but the goal was allowed to stand. Later the referee, allegedly, apologised to Schwarzer but at the time the incensed Australian’s were a goal down and struggling to make an impact on the game.

One of the marketing slogans used in the run-up the tournament was “No Guus, No Glory” and after 53 minutes Hiddink had seen enough, bringing on Tim Cahill to replace ineffectual Mark Bresciano. Two further changes would follow, with Josh Kennedy and John Aloisi entering the fray by the 75th minute. Although the Australian’s were now pushing the Japanese back, attacking with pace and dominating the ball, they couldn’t find a way past Yoshi Kawaguchi as full-time drew ever closer.

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Sometimes a thing that looks ugly is truly beautiful and with just six minutes remaining a long throw from Lucas Neill got past Kawaguchi’s poor attempt to punch it clear and dropped near the penalty spot. As players from both sides swarmed around it in a desperate attempt to reach it first, the ball found its way to Cahill, who slammed it low and hard into the net. Thirty-two years after their first attempt Australia finally had a World Cup goal.

Relief would turn to unrestrained jubilation four minutes later as Cahill added his second, a powerful drive from the edge of the area. With the Japanese defence exhausted and spent from their efforts in the 38-degree heat John Aloisi added a third in added time to secure the win.

It was a stunning comeback. One based on perseverance, desire and belief. Back in Australia, the exploits of the national team were finally something to be proud of. People that just nine months earlier wouldn’t recognise a Socceroos player if they were stuck in a lift with them were sitting up and taking notice. It was a defining moment in the forging of a bond between team and country. A golden moment of redemption and hope.

Following a 2-0 defeat to Brazil and a 2-2 draw with Croatia, a match dominated by Graham Poll’s refereeing incompetence – and the one-off introduction of the three-yellow card = red system he had devised – Australia would eventually exit at the hands of Italy following another contentious decision and a last-minute penalty. However, the victory over Japan, the spirit showed by the team, and the legacy it left are still spoken of. Ten minutes of football that set a marker for the national team one that they have struggled to reach in ensuing World Cups. But there is always the next one…

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