Baby steps forward

Australia’s return to the competition in 2006 was a memorable one. It started off its campaign with a rousing 3-1 win over Japan, but lost its next encounter 2-0 to Brazil. However, the Australians, with an indomitable spirit, regrouped well to hold Croatia to a 2-2 draw and advance to the Round of 16.

Australia, despite all the acclaim it has gained over the years as a true sporting nation, unfortunately, is yet to make its mark in world football. The beautiful game, however, has been played in the continent-nation right from the middle years of the 19th century.

In Brazil 2014, the Socceroos would be making its only fourth appearance in a World Cup, but its third on the trot — a fact which would suggest that the fortunes of the game are on the upswing in the country.

However, in Brazil, the team will find it difficult to match its good showing at Germany 2006, where Australia took the world by surprise by making it to the second round. This time round the Aussies are grouped with Spain, Holland and Chile.

Historical facts indicate the game was introduced in the country by British immigrants somewhere in the 1830s and the first recorded match, in accordance with the laws of the games, was played in August 1880. The Australian Soccer Association was formed in 1921.

However, the game struggled to gain the expected acceptance among the wider Australian society and hence the first attempt to qualify for the World Cup was made only around 1966. The trigger behind that decision was the formation of the Oceania Football Confederation in the same year, in which Australia played a leading role. But with Oceania missing out on a direct berth to the World Cup, Australia’s path was strewn with hardship. The top team from the regional qualifiers had to go through a play-off tie to reach the Finals. Australia finally made the cut in 1974, but was unable to leave its mark on the tournament, returning home after defeats to both East and West Germany and a goalless draw against Chile.

The struggle for qualifying continued through the next 32 years. But Australia’s return to the competition in 2006 was a memorable one. It started off its campaign with a rousing 3-1 win over Japan, but lost its next encounter 2-0 to Brazil. However, the Australians, with an indomitable spirit, regrouped well to hold Croatia to a 2-2 draw and advance to the Round of 16. Against eventual champion Italy, the Australians showed their fighting spirit to keep the Italians at bay till late into the second half.

However, a dubious penalty, converted by Francesco Totti, ended its journey. In between, the game, too, went through a transformation in the country, and the A-League was successfully launched in 2005, following an intervention from the local government.

In 2010, in South Africa, playing back-to-back World Cups for the first time, Australia failed to rework the magic and was eliminated in the group-stage on goal-difference after losing heavily to Germany (4-0) and then settling for a 1-1 draw to Ghana before beating Serbia 2-1.

* * * Striker par excellence

Anthony Viduka-AP

In a country, where footballers have often failed to gain the deserved recognition, Mark Anthony Viduka rewrote the script during his 16-year career and was hailed as a "National Hero", leading the Socceroos to the 2006 World Cup in Germany. It was the crowning moment in the forward's career, though he failed to score in any of the four matches.

Yet, there is no mistaking the class of this Australian icon, who was voted the Oceania Player of the Year in 2000, and represented his country 43 times, scoring 11 goals.

Viduka started his playing career with Melbourne- Croatia in 1993 and earned his first national cap the following year. He was a prolific scorer for his club and was twice its top-scorer in the NFL, before moving over to Croatia Zagreb (now Dinamo Zagreb).

The Aussie finally moved to the English Premier League, after a two-stint with Scottish Club Celtic. He played for Leeds United from 2000 and moved to Middlesbrough in 2005, before finding his way to Newcastle United two years later. At the club-level, Viduka played 419 matches, scoring 219 goals, before retiring in 2009. A. Vinod AP