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Last Updated: Friday, 23 June 2006, 12:56 GMT 13:56 UK
Football on top Down Under
By Julian Shea

Australia fans celebrate
Australia fans stayed up all night watching the game
The issue of republicanism may have divided Australia in recent years, but on Thursday night the country hailed a new king.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard dubbed Harry Kewell "King Harry" after his equalising goal in their 2-2 draw with Croatia, and few people in Australia would have disagreed.

The sight of Howard watching football in the early hours of the morning and jumping out of his chair with excitement summed up how Australia has fallen in love with football. And things may never be the same again.

For years, football was the poor relation in the sports-mad country.

Despite a steady stream of talented individuals, fate seemed to conspire against the Socceroos, with just one appearance at the World Cup finals - in 1974 in West Germany - to show for years of effort.

Former Liverpool striker Craig Johnston was one of those voices in the footballing wilderness, so he is relishing seeing football finally take centre stage.

"The World Cup has completely galvanised Australian society," he told BBC Sport.

Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill
Kewell and Tim Cahill are two of Australia's brightest stars

"There was always a great prejudice against soccer when I grew up.

"You were made to feel you were playing an immigrant game, but now all those years of hurt have been swept away because the other sports can't match the global nature of football.

"We've waited 32 years to qualify. It's been a long wait by what we call the Soccer Tragics - of which I'm one."

In the 1980s Johnston played in England for Middlesbrough and Liverpool and remains the only Australian to have scored in an FA Cup final, as Liverpool beat Everton 3-1 in 1986.

He was a standard bearer for Australian football in an era when Australian Rules Football, the two rugby codes and cricket were dominant back home.

But Johnston says Australia's success at the World Cup has changed all that - and the other sports are worried.

"The other codes have always been terrified of Australia having a good World Cup," he said.

"That would mean the sport having Australian heroes for kids to look up to."

Back home, thousands of fans have gathered in the early hours of the morning to watch their new heroes on big screens.

In the eyes of many Australians, playing football has been an un-Australian thing. But that's finished now

Craig Johnston

And Johnston says that now Australia have shown their worth in football's biggest arena, the next natural step is to host it.

"Australian football is no longer an adolescent, it's grown up and had its 21st birthday.

"I've been saying for 25 years that we want to bring the World Cup to Australia.

"You saw what we did with the Olympics, so could we stage the World Cup? Indisputably, yes.

"Until now, in the eyes of many Australians, playing football has been an un-Australian thing to do. But that's all finished now."

One of the reasons cited for Australia's new love affair with football is fans picking up the habit when they return home from living in Europe.

Lynette Eyb is managing editor of London-based TNT Magazine, aimed at the young ex-pat community.

She says the legacy of the 'overseas experience' is having a big impact back home.

"For the Australian sporting landscape, this World Cup is monumental," she said.

"A lot of people become absorbed in the game when they're here and realise what it means to be involved in the global game.

Harry Kewell celebrates his goal
Kewell's equaliser took Australia into the second round

"And every bit of feedback we're getting from back home is that the game is taking off like nobody - including the players - could have seen."

And while the Socceroos are busy changing Australian society, they also mirror the way the country has changed over the years.

The 1974 World Cup squad was largely made up of British ex-pats who had taken their game with them to their new home.

But the 2006 squad is full of second generation immigrants - ironically, many of them of Croatian descent - and Eyb says there are major social implications.

"Football is still fairly segmented into immigrant communities in the city suburbs, but the biggest thing the World Cup has done is take it out of these pockets," she said.

"A lot of these guys are children of immigrants, who could have played for other countries, but chose to play for Australia.

"This will have a knock-on effect in the schools and sports clubs.

"There's somebody in this team for everybody, regardless of where you've come from. They represent a new generation of Australians."

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