Anyone who believes that qualifying for the World Cup through Asia is a cakewalk should take a look at the Socceroos’ passport stamps from the last two years. Theirs is a journey that would make even the most dedicated traveller wince.
Starting in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan on a pitch with more bumps than a retired boxer’s nose, it continued on an artificial pitch in Tajikistan, just days aer an insurgency killed ten people, meaning heightened security for the players and staff.
Although the next excursion – to Jordan – was uneventful (save for the 2-0 loss), the trip to Dhaka for the heat and humidity of Bangladesh couldn’t have been much fun, not least because the visit echoed the trip to Dushanbe (in Tajikistan), with a wave of terrorist aacks, leading to what was labelled “unprecedented security” for the visit of Ange Postecoglou’s team.
Things haven’t got much easier in the final phase of qualifying, either. The away game in the United Arab Emirates took place in temperatures over 40 degrees, and it wasn’t much cooler in Saudi Arabia, where 50,000 hostile locals made it an uncomfortable night for the ’Roos. Think the worst was over? Not by a longshot. Next was Thailand. Le so bere by the death of its beloved King, the country had requested the game be changed to a neutral venue. Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore were options; Bangkok’s Rajamangala Stadium was the ultimate selection, with limitations placed on fan behaviour.
The next away fixture? Iraq, which can’t play home games in Baghdad due to the ongoing chaos in that part of the world. So the Socceroos will return to Iran for the first time since 1997.
The final away game will be in the relative comfort of Japan in late August – but Australia’s Asian Cup success in 2015 means this fixture brings its own problems. The regional title has earned the ’Roos a crack at the FIFA Confederations Cup, to be held in Russia. Should Australia reach the later stages of that competition, the players’ seasons will extend into early July – not much time to rest before the merry-go-round of club and international football swings into action once again.
As part of the Fox Sports team, we are privileged enough to share most of those journeys with the Socceroos, as they fly the flag in these far-flung destinations. Oen, the players (due to their club commitments) only arrive a day or two before a game. Training sessions are therefore limited, conditions oen hostile (both climatic and cultural), and for home games it’s sometimes even worse, with many European-based Socceroos having to cope with jet lag, all before they kick a ball in anger on home soil.
So it’s to its credit that this lile band of weary Aussie ambassadors is looking good to qualify for what would be their tenth major tournament since the game underwent significant reconstitution here in 2004 (two Confederations Cups, three Asian Cups – one as host – an Olympics and, with a bit of luck, a fourth consecutive World Cup.)
By my rough estimate, by the time Australia plays its last game in this final round of Asian qualifying, a European-based Socceroo will have clocked up 187,598km in an aeroplane. That is equivalent to going around the circumference of the planet four and a half times. All that just to qualify – aer which, the hard work really starts!
Easy? I’d argue they have the toughest gig of any Australian athlete, and they compete in a sport which has 200-plus competitors, most of which plough many more funds into their representative teams than here.
So, if Australia one day manages to win the World Cup, would it be the nation’s greatest sporting achievement? If not, I’d like to meet the team or individual that could point to a truer test of being a world champion.
In Saudi Arabia, 50,000 hostile locals made it an uncomfortable night for the ’Roos.
Socceroo Tomi Juric flies high against UAE in Abu Dhabi in September.