Despite the clash with Germany kicking-off at the painfully-early local time of 4.30am, it was watched live by 1.4m people, with later repeats taking the total to over 1.6m, the eighth most-watched programme in the history of SBS, the Australian network with the rights to the coverage. Under 2m may not sound a particularly high number, but consider this – the seven programmes above that game are also football matches. In first place is the 2005 play-off against Uruguay that saw the Socceroos progress to the 2006 tournament, their first World Cup finals since 1974. 2.5m people watched that penalty shoot-out victory, which, for a country traditionally more obsessed with both codes of rugby as well as cricket and Aussie Rules football, is an impressive number. The victory over Uruguay aired in a prime time slot of 8pm, and although viewing figures for the 2006 World Cup games were slightly higher at a similar time – the Italy defeat began at 1am and attracted 2m viewers – the decline can be more attributed to the frosty relationship Head Coach Pim Verbeek has with the rest of the country than interest in the game levelling off. Attention in football would be at an all-time high should Australia host the World Cup 12 years from now, with sold-out stadiums and raucous fans a plenty, but a more pressing concern is the state of the national team ahead of the meeting with Serbia.
In one game, out the next has long been a tag Harry Kewell has tried to avoid, but it is undoubtedly true this team as the Galatasaray midfielder misses out against Serbia through suspension, having also missed the hammering by Germany, that time due to injury. Tim Cahill returns and his teammates will need every ounce of his drive to help them pull of the seemingly-impossible – qualification for the next stage after their opening game embarrassment. With Germany in need of three points to ensure their place in the second round, Australia can at least have faith Die Mannschaft will hold up their end of the bargain and try their utmost to defeat Ghana, which they have to be considered favourites to do. Whether Australia will be able to not only beat Serbia, but do so by three clear goals is another matter entirely. Attack has never been Verbeek’s preferred mode, the Dutchman favouring the security of a tight, deep-lying defence. The loss of Kewell only further strains the already-stretched forward line Australia brought to the World Cup, as the men from Down Under have so far failed to replace Mark Viduka. Youngster Tommy Oar, with the squad in South Africa for experience, could one day be the answer but that day is not just yet. Goals are what Australia need on Wednesday, but they do not appear to have them this time around.
The future of football in Australia is a mixed bag. Off the field, the game continues to grow, and inviting the game’s great and good – whoever they may be in 2022 – to spend a month at an Australian World Cup would be the crowning glory. On the field, matters are much less rosy, as the generation of players that led Australia to previously unseen heights start to wind down their careers – Cahill is already talking of retirement in five years, after his new Everton contract has expired and he has spent a year playing back home. Cahill has a few more years left on the international scene but many of his teammates from this year’s World Cup are soon to say their goodbyes, perhaps after the tournament but definitely within the next few years. As Australia enter a re-building phase, there can be no greater incentive than the prospect of an Aussie World Cup in 2022 – but they will need the team to match.