THE (VERY) GREEN AND GOLDS

The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - WORLD CUP - MICHAEL MCGUIRE

DON’T FIGHT IT. Ac­cept it. Even revel in it if you feel so in­clined. Af­ter all it only hap­pens once ev­ery four years and it would be a shame to let the op­por­tu­nity pass.

It is the big­gest sport­ing event on the globe. It is the foot­ball World Cup.

For his­tor­i­cal rea­sons, many Aus­tralians have been a lit­tle slow to em­brace the won­der and joy of the qua­dren­nial foot­ball fes­ti­val. The his­tor­i­cal rea­son was that for many years ... we were crap.

So the beauty of the Coupe de Monde de Foot­ball was limited to the afi­ciona­dos.

But that changed in 2005. With a swing of his sweet left foot, Ade­laide’s John Aloisi ar­rowed a de­ci­sive penalty past the Uruguayan goal­keeper and Aus­tralia was off to Ger­many in 2006. It was the first time Aus­tralia had taken its place on the world stage since 1974.

And Ger­many was fol­lowed by South Africa in 2010 and now Brazil in 2014.

Grad­u­ally, the sport gained a foothold in pop­u­lar Aus­tralian cul­ture and names fil­tered their way into the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion. Harry Kewell, Mark Sch­warzer, Tim Cahill, Mark Bres­ciano, Lu­cas Neill all be­came na­tional he­roes, they were the mem­bers of the first truly global Aus­tralian foot­ball gen­er­a­tion.

But in sport, re­gen­er­a­tion is in­evitable. New names re­place the old faces, of­ten at a star­tling rate. The ini­tial drip, drip that starts the process be­comes a flood.

Only Cahill and Bres­ciano from the golden gen­er­a­tion that es­tab­lished Aus­tralia as a reg­u­lar global com­peti­tor sur­vive for the Brazil cam­paign. Kewell has mostly spent the four years since South Africa in­jured and of­fi­cially quit this year af­ter an­other in­ter­rupted sea­son play­ing for Mel­bourne Heart.

Sch­warzer is now 41 and spent the year as back-up goal­keeper at English Pre­mier League club Chelsea. To the sur­prise of many, he an­nounced his re­tire­ment from the Soc­ceroos squad last Novem­ber.

Cap­tain Lu­cas Neill is also gone. He fought it all the way, and found his way to more clubs than Jay-Z as he tried to find reg­u­lar game time, but in the end new coach Ange Postecoglo­u pulled the pin for him.

Postecoglo­u will be the first Aus­tralian coach to lead the na­tion to the fi­nals. And the 48-year-old for­mer na­tional team player is the key to the re­gen­er­a­tion. Rale Rasic (Yu­goslavia) led the charge in 1974, be­fore Guus Hid­dink and Pim Ver­beek com­pleted a Dutch dou­ble in 2006 and 2010.

Postecoglo­u was only ap­pointed af­ter World Cup qual­i­fi­ca­tion was se­cure. Ger­man coach Hol­ger Osiek guided the team through that process, but the foot­ball was so turgid and the qual­i­fi­ca­tion so fraught that he was rightly binned be­fore the se­ri­ous stuff started.

Postecoglo­u is renowned for teams that play with flair. He was in charge of the Bris­bane side that dom­i­nated the A-League and changed the way the game was played in Aus­tralia.

The end of the old has her­alded the be­gin­ning of the new and the squad is now pop­u­lated by play­ers in their early 20s with lit­tle in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence.

Dutch-based Tommy Oar (FC Utrecht) and for­mer Ade­laide United favourite Mathew Leckie (FSV Frankfurt) lend the team a youth­ful enthusiasm that’s been lack­ing.

Be­tween the sticks will be the 22year-old Mat Ryan, who plays for Club Brugge in Bel­gium, and is so highly re­garded he has al­ready been linked with a switch to Span­ish gi­ants Real Madrid. His deputy will be Ade­laide United goal­keeper Eu­gene Galekovic, who was part of the squad in South Africa four years ago.

The squad has a South Aus­tralian flavour in at­tacker James Troisi (now with Ital­ian club Ata­lanta) and de­fender Ryan Mc Gowan (in China with Shan­dong Luneng Tais­han).

But if Aus­tralians ap­proached the 2006 World Cup with the ex­cite­ment born of nov­elty and the 2010 edi­tion with high ex­pec­ta­tions that were never ful­filled, the over­rid­ing emo­tions be­fore Brazil are down­right fear and trep­i­da­tion.

The way the World Cup works is that teams are drawn in a group of four. They all play each other, and the top two go through to the next round.

Aus­tralia’s group con­tains cur­rent world cham­pi­ons Spain; Hol­land who were run­ners-up in 2010; and Chile, who are ranked 13th in the world and seen as one of the most at­tack­ing, ex­cit­ing teams in world foot­ball. Aus­tralia, by con­trast, is ranked 59th. Spain has play­ers such as Barcelona duo Xavi and Ines­tia, Hol­land has Manch­ester United su­per­star Robin van Per­sie and Chile is blessed with Ju­ven­tus mid­fielder Ar­turo Vi­dal and an­other Barcelona prod­uct, Alexis Sanchez.

Aus­tralia’s most high-pro­file in­di­vid­ual these days is Crys­tal Palace cap­tain Mile Je­d­i­nak. A fine player, who was out­stand­ing in the English Pre­mier League this year, but one who is un­likely to cause op­po­si­tion coaches too many sleep­less nights.

For most fans the de­fence is the big­gest con­cern. With­out the old stager Neill and the ex­pe­ri­enced Saša Og­nen­ovski, Aus­tralia is re­ly­ing on rel­a­tively untested play­ers such as Matthew Špi­ra­nović, Mc Gowan, Ja­son David­son and Ivan Fran­jić.

If the de­fence pro­vides the pes­simism, the at­tack pro­vides the op­ti­mism. At times dur­ing the other­wise dis­ap­point­ing 1-1 draw against South Africa last week, the thrills pro­vided by Oar, Leckie and Cahill were un­de­ni­able.

So strap your­selves in. It could get bumpy, it could get scary. What it won’t be is dull. En­joy.

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