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Last Updated: Sunday, 28 May 2006, 23:14 GMT 00:14 UK
World Cup marks Socceroos revival
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

Australian junior soccer
The World Cup will raise the profile of football in Australia
It seems a lifetime since Australia last qualified for the World Cup finals.

Back in 1974 cyclone Tracey flattened Darwin and controversial Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was busy pursing a radical reform agenda in Canberra.

It was also the year when Lord Lucan make headlines around the world. The British aristocrat vanished following the murder of his children's nanny.

Australian football went the same way - disappearing without a trace from the biggest international stage.

Generations of Aussie fans have suffered time and time again. Almost a decade on, the World Cup play-off defeat against Iran in 1997 remains one of this country's most distressing sporting defeats.

Giant stirring

Deliverance finally came on a chilly night in Sydney last November. Middlesbrough's Mark Schwarzer was the hero as the Aussies beat Uruguay on penalties and qualified for the finals in Germany.

"We haven't been involved in such a long time so it's just a bonus being there," Socceroos and PSV Eindhoven star Jason Culina told the BBC.

"I watched the game against Iran when we missed out. I was heart-broken as were many Australians and to be involved in it [the World Cup] as a player this time around is just a great feeling."

Culina left Australia seven years ago to carve out a successful career in Europe, where most of his Australian team-mates are based.

We play pretty hard and aggressive and we don't take dives like other countries
Ivan, 13-year-old football fan

Back home a sporting giant is beginning to stir. The new professional football competition, the A-League, has enjoyed a positive inaugural season.

More kids are playing soccer than ever before. These are heady times for the beautiful game down under.

World Cup qualification has given it a confident swagger that has been missing for so many years.

"It's just a great boost for football in Australia," said Jason Culina. "What more could you ask for?"

'Second-class sport'

A successful campaign in Germany for the men in green and gold could help transform Australia's sporting landscape, where football has long lived in the shadows of the heavyweights.

"Soccer here has always been a second-class sport behind cricket, rugby league and rugby union and I think it's finally coming of age," declared lifetime fan Stan Ebrell as he watched his young son play in a suburban league in Sydney.

Australian soccer player Jason Culina
Defeat by Iran in 1997 broke many an Australian heart, says Jason Culina

Fellow spectator Frank Mallard said that the future was indeed looking bright. "More boys and girls will now be interested in the game in their early formative years and we'll soon be a force to contend with in the soccer world."

Thirteen-year-old Ivan said the World Cup was "bigger than the Olympics and better than any other sporting event".

"It's so special," he said.

"We've got a pretty strong team, a good defence, a good attack and a strong midfield. We play pretty hard and aggressive and we don't take dives like other countries," he added enthusiastically.

While the Aussies may spring a surprise or two in Germany, they have been drawn in a tough group. If Croatia and Japan were not enough to worry about, Group F also features the favourites Brazil.

"We're really excited about playing Brazil and hope we'll get a draw!" said Sydney soccer mum Maeve Swanson.

The stylish South Americans will go into the tournament as defending champions, just as they did back in 1974 - when Australia last played in the finals.

Asked how far the Socceroos could go in Germany this time around Marco, a 12-year-old goalkeeper, proclaimed in a flash: "At least the semis!"

There may be more chance of Lord Lucan finally surfacing, but after 32 barren years the force appears to be with Australian football and the fans deserve their chance to dream.


SEE ALSO
Beating Brazil
20 May 06 |  World Cup 2006
Country profile: Australia
24 Mar 06 |  Country profiles
Australia team guide
22 May 06 |  Australia
World Cup schedule
25 May 06 |  Schedule
BBC at the World Cup
23 May 06 |  BBC coverage
World Cup history - West Germany 1974
04 May 06 |  World Cup 2006
Australia reach World Cup finals
16 Nov 05 |  Internationals

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