There’s no denying that Monday morning was a bad day for the Socceroos. Not a NSW Blues, 34-6-to-seal-your-fifth-series-defeat-in-a-row kind of bad day, mind you. But getting beaten 4-0 by Germany hurt, especially for those of us watching it outdoors at Darling Harbour, where the chill coming off the water at 6am was almost as bitter as our mood.
But as the week went on, and we watched more of the World Cup, the disappointment at getting comprehensively beaten by the most successful European team in the history of the competition had somehow turned to fury. How could we have lost like this, the nation asked itself. Aren’t we the land of surprisingly high Olympic medal tallies? Of Don Bradman and of Phar Lap? Aren’t we the li’l nation that could?
No. Not in football, or at least association football. While we have a tally of Rugby League World Cups that seems impressive until you remember that NSW and Queensland are the only places in the world where it’s the dominant code, our FIFA World Cup record is worth recalling. 6 losses (all three games in 1974, then Brazil and Italy last time and Germany this time), 1 draw (Croatia, last time, to reach the second round), and 1 win (Japan, 3-1 – and even that took a remarkable comeback).
Now, let’s compare that to Germany’s record. Three World Cups. Runners-up in 2002 and third place in 2006 – not to mention losing the Euro 2008 final to Spain as well. Not only did they last lose an opening Cup match in 1982, their most successful player, Miroslav Klose, has now scored eleven goals in two-and-a-bit tournaments –more than our entire team has over the same period. To expect anything less than defeat was, with all due respect to the Socceroos, absurdly optimistic.
To put it in terms that will be clearer to most Aussies, it’s like expecting the Netherlands to beat Australia at the Cricket World Cup. Not impossible, by any means, but certainly very unlikely. And yet we’ve been reacting as though this result was a national disaster along the lines of last year’s Ashes loss. Are we really so attached to our self-image as battlers who punch above our weight, as a nation of plucky Lleyton-alikes, that it has made us downright irrational?
It wasn’t the defeat, Craig Foster said – it was the manner of the defeat. Well, admittedly, there are questions to be asked. I was baffled by Pim Verbeek’s decision to take on a powerhouse team with, as our lone striker, Richard Garcia. If you hadn’t heard of him before, you could be forgiven – he’s a fringe player at recently-relegated Hull City who is, ahem, a winger.
But after picking an extremely similar lineup in all of our qualifiers and friendlies, Pim Verbeek wasn’t necessarily unwise to try and surprise Germany. And we had a great first 10 minutes – we could well have scored the opening goal. Then we could have thrown all those midfielders and defenders behind the ball, and tried to keep Germany out. It mightn’t have worked, and it certainly didn’t comply with the Socceroos’ treasured self-perception as a team that never says die. But it might well have earned a draw, had Germany not been in quite such sparkling form.
In particular, not bringing on Harry Kewell while losing 2-0 with ten men seems to me rather wise. After all, his groin’s more suspect than Warwick Capper’s was.
Furthermore, prioritising defence and trying to score on the counterattack is a valid strategy in football – it won Inter Milan the Champions League recently. And playing defensively against formidable opponents has already won North Korea respect in South Africa – they held the world’s top-ranked team in the world, Brazil, to 2-1, and without resorting to a single torpedo.
It’s good to mention Brazil, actually. As a nation, we seem to have forgotten that in Germany, they beat us 2-0. Sure, that’s not 4-0, but it had the same impact on our tournament: it cost us three points. The Socceroos have drawn two of the strongest teams in World Cup history in its 2006 and 2010 groups. And that counts as unlucky even compared to Tim Cahill’s red card.
And that’s why I don’t quite get the doom and gloom. We still have two matches, and a solid chance to make the second round. We’re ranked higher than Ghana (20th v 32nd) so on paper at least, we should beat them – especially since they’re missing their best player, Michael Essien. And Serbia are a tough challenge, certainly, but not an insurmountable one.
But on Monday morning, with its unrealistically high hopes dashed, it was as though Australia was angrily telling the football community – hey, nobody told us there’d be days like this.
Well, get used to it – all football fans have had to. In April, I woke at an unfeasibly early time in the morning to watch my team, Arsenal, take on Barcelona in the Champions League quarter-final. We were lucky enough to get the first goal away from home, and I was on tenterhooks. But then a player called Lionel Messi, who is broadly agreed to be the best in the world and has certainly been behaving like it in Argentina’s group games, put four goals past us. It’s worth watching – an absolute masterclass:
For us, of course, it was heartbreaking. But you get up, dust yourself off, and get on with the next game. Because that’s football – a game where it can be incredibly hard to score or ridiculously easy, and where the paucity of goals means that any given one can mean everything. More than any other sport, the inherent drama of the scoring system provides more moments of agony and ecstasy than the career of Andrew Johns, and I reckon that’s why it’s the most popular game in the world
If we Aussies are going to follow football, then, we’d do well to develop some perspective. There will be far more heartbreaking losses ahead of us than getting beaten by the form team of the tournament. There will be days, like the one against Iran back in 1997, where glory somehow inexplicably eludes us. But, especially since we now have quite a strong team, there will also be days of triumph. Let’s hope we have them against Ghana and Serbia. But please, let’s stop beating ourselves up because we didn’t have one against as good a team as Germany.
For more attempts to sound like I know something about football, check out the World Cup Safari podcast I’m doing with triple j’s Vijay Khurana