Politics overshadow Socceroos win

Only in Australia could a bout of political maneuvering upstage one of our proudest football triumphs.

On the eve of the Socceroos’ vital Group D decider against Serbia, Australia’s ruling Labor party dropped the bombshell that deputy Julia Gillard was set to challenge embattled Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for leadership of the nation.

If and when the news filtered through to the Socceroos camp, the players must have sat back and laughed – after all, Australia’s national football team have always had to play second fiddle one way or another.

In the end, an historic first ever win over a European nation at the World Cup finals was not enough to see Australia progress to the Round of 16, with the Socceroos knocked out on goal difference despite outscoring both Ghana and Serbia in the group stage.

The 1-1 draw against Ghana in Rustenburg didn’t help – Harry Kewell’s harsh but technically correct sending off by referee Roberto Rosetti renewed Australia’s love affair with all things Italian – but it was the disastrous 4-0 defeat to Germany in Durban that proved the deciding factor.

With the group decided on goal difference, the Socceroos just couldn’t make up the four goals conceded to the Germans in what was undoubtedly their worst international performance in years.

That shouldn’t take away from a typically gutsy win against the dangerous Serbs in Nelspruit, during which the Socceroos rode their luck as Milos Krasic and Milan Jovanovic pounded the Australian defence in a one-sided first half, only for the team in yellow to turn the tables with a dominant second half display.

Tim Cahill returned from suspension to lead the Socceroos midfield with another all-action performance, and as so often it was the Everton midfielder who broke the deadlock with a trademark towering header with just over twenty minutes remaining.

Yet it was the introduction of much-maligned midfielder Brett Holman that made all the difference, as the player who scored the goal against Ghana made it two from two with an accurate strike from distance just four minutes after Cahill’s opener.

The goals saw Pim Verbeek urge his team forward in a desperate search for more, but in the end it was Ajax striker Marko Pantelic who obliged, coming on as a late substitute and beating the unlucky Schwarzer from close range after the Fulham goalkeeper had spilled a swerving effort from another substitute in Zoran Tosic.

So it was that the Socceroos were left to rue their fortunes, as they were knocked out by a Ghana side who scored both of their goals from the penalty spot to advance as group runners-up.

The Australian public thus bid farewell to two unpopular leaders within hours of each other, although the end of Pim Verbeek’s reign as Socceroos coach won’t have been greeted by too many sighs of disappointment.

On the same morning that ousted former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was wondering just where it all went wrong, Socceroos fans and media alike left no doubt that they lay the blame for Australia’s first-round exit squarely at the feet of Verbeek.

The Dutch tactician was roundly criticised for his overly conservative tactics against Germany, and ultimately the two second-half goals conceded following Cahill’s dismissal in that match proved costly.

A campaign that began with blind optimism almost ended in blind fury for the Socceroos faithful, however there’s a begrudging acknowledgement that Verbeek did the best he could with the limited stocks at his disposal, and that Australia must improve technically if it is to make the transition to a genuine world class team.

The coming days will herald the full inquest into what needs to be done in future, and the search now begins in earnest for Verbeek’s successor.

On a long morning for politicians and sports fans alike, it was once again a case of “so near, yet so far” for the Socceroos – a refrain no doubt being uttered by at least one former Prime Minister right now.

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