As James Troisi smashed home an extra time winner in Saturday’s Asian Cup Final, the outpouring of joy from the majority of supporters at Sydney’s Stadium Australia was as much in relief than anything else.
The Socceroos had taken a first half lead against the Korea Republic only to be pegged back by a goal from superstar Son Heung-min with almost the final kick of normal time, leading to wild celebrations amongst the travelling fans.
Australia’s talisman, Tim Cahill, had been substituted around the hour mark, leaving a team that featured not a single player who could be described as a household name on the world stage.
They dug deep though and it was Cahill’s replacement, Tomi Juric, who battled brilliantly on the byline to put in the cross that allowed Troisi to fire home.
For the 76,385 people in attendance, it was arguably the biggest “I was there” moment in Australian football history, rivalled only by John Alosi’s penalty conversion to send the Socceroos to the 2006 World Cup.
The performance and result were a far cry from June of last year when coach Ange Postecoglou’s side trudged off the field following their third loss from three group games at the World Cup in Brazil.
Defeats to Chile, the Netherlands and Spain weren’t unexpected from a squad in transition, having lost almost all of the “Golden Generation” that had guided them to three successive finals appearances, while Postecoglou had only been in the job a wet week having replaced Holger Osieck after qualification had been achieved.
Gone from the set up were names synonymous with Australian football for more than a decade – Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Mark Schwarzer, Brett Emerton and Lucas Neill amongst others – leaving a couple of established veterans, Cahill and Mark Bresciano, and a new breed who for the most part had come through the A-League system.
There was a huge challenge on the horizon after Brazil, with just six months to prepare for an Asian Cup on home soil, and it was essential that the Socceroos didn’t flop in front of a nation that includes plenty of naysayers.
I want us to shed ourselves of this inferiority complex that Australian players and coaches can only do things a certain way, because I am Australian I am limited in what I can do.
– Ange Postecoglou
Since leaving Oceania for Asia in after the 2006 World Cup, Australia have performed strongly and were hopeful of going one better than 2011 when they suffered an extra time defeat to Japan in the Asian Cup Final.
However, a pre-tournament slide down the FIFA rankings did little to stir optimism and there were questions around whether Australia would even make it out of a group that also featured Korea, Oman and Kuwait.
Socceroos aside, the tournament was a wonderful success, with great stories throughout, including the first appearance in a major tournament by the Palestinian national team and China’s adoption of a young Aussie ball boy.
A total of 649,705 fans passed through the turnstiles, far exceeding the target of 500,000, and there were some enthralling games, not least the quarter final match up between Iran and Iraq which included a refereeing controversy, a first half red card, late goals, extra time, and penalties.
The first 26 contests yielded a winner, the longest sequence in a major competition without a draw, breaking the previous record of 18 which had stood since the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay.
A number of new stars emerged, including the Most Valuable Player, Swindon Town’s Massimo Luongo, while a global audience was given a platform to watch the likes of Omar Abdulrahman of the United Arab Emirates who is without doubt one of the game’s most exciting talents.
Back in 2012, prominent Australian Rules Football (AFL) figure Eddie McGuire predicted that the Asian Cup would be a ‘lemon’, and he wasn’t the only one with doubts.
The South Australia and Western Australia State Governments wanted no part in hosting games, while Queensland and Victoria knocked back the opportunity to have a semi final in their back yard.
That presented an opportunity for Newcastle, a city two hours’ drive north of Sydney, to host what turned out to be a final four contest between Australia and the UAE, giving the football community in the region a massive boost.
Canberra, the nation’s capital, is still without an A-League club but boasted healthy attendances for its seven games and will no doubt be heavily considered when the next stage of expansion is discussed.
This spread of fixtures outside major cities Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane could continue with the hosting of Australia’s 2018 World Cup qualifiers which get underway later this year.
The popularity of the round ball game has been growing year-on-year, and domestic attendances this season reached the one million figure quicker than ever before.
It’s the tenth season of the A-League and while strong television and social media coverage have opened up the game to new audiences, there were already some excellent foundations in place thanks to the now defunct National Soccer League (NSL).
A number of NSL clubs are still in existence at a level below the top flight, and through the new FFA Cup knockout competition they have been given an opportunity to go head-to-head with the “big boys”.
Of the 23 players in Postecoglou’s Asian Cup squad, 18 have played or are currently playing in the A-League, a ringing endorsement for the improvement of the domestic game.
Even the retirement of Tim Cahill, the poster boy in recent years, wouldn’t be that big a loss when you consider that during the tournament he started five games out of six and was substituted in all of them, including after 63 minutes of the final.
This is a tournament we were never supposed to win with this group of players.
– Tim Cahill
While losing to Korea, a side that hadn’t conceded in their five outings prior to the Saturday’s contest, would have been no disgrace, Australia’s victory was a fitting end to the Asian Cup and created a buzz across the country.
Postecoglou had always asked to be judged on the Socceroos’ performances at the tournament, and the former Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory boss delivered in the best possible way.
The 2015 Asian Cup Champions have spawned memories that will be cherished for years to come and a legacy that provides the perfect platform on which to develop the game even more.