THE (VERY) GREEN AND GOLDS
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.