As it happened: v Honduras
The Socceroos journey has been a long and winding one, a road that has taken them into a multitude of time zones, climatic conditions and hemispheres.
It has been the road less trodden, a travelogue of unfamiliar places like Bishkek and Dushanbe in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Dhaka and San Pedro Sula, in Bangladesh and Honduras.
It has been an expedition that tested the team’s character and adaptability, a trek that has forced its indefatigable band of travelling supporters to run through a gamut of emotions: the joy of victory in the UAE, the disappointment of defeat in Tokyo, and the horror that accompanied the Socceroos’ failure to rout Thailand in Melbourne – a result that consigned them to the mystery tour of the play-offs and the jangled nerves that such sudden-death encounters bring.
But that road has finally led to the destination all craved, Russia, where Ange Postecoglou’s team will take its place amongst the finalists at the next World Cup in 2018.
And how appropriate that the man who delivered the coup de grace when it counted most was the skipper, Mile Jedinak, the player who has been a constant in Postecoglou’s set-up ever since the coach took charge in November 2013.
Jedinak it was whom Postecoglou chose to be his captain when the old guard and former skipper Lucas Neill were dispensed with.
Jedinak it is, the quiet looming presence, the manager’s coach on the field, who has been a tower of strength whenever this team has wobbled and wavered.
His presence was never felt more than when he was absent. Missing from June onwards following the victory over Saudi Arabia, the Socceroos have not been the same without him, his leadership and cool nerve when the situation was at its most critical never being more apparent than when it wasn’t there.
And now, extraordinarily, this holding midfielder, this destroyer of opponents, is the goal-scoring hero who has delivered ‘s World Cup dreams, striking first from a deflected free kick early in the second half, and then twice from the penalty spot to seal a historic 3-1 triumph over Honduras.
It is a result that coach Ange Postecoglou, so often in this past year the subject of fierce criticism for his tactical tweaks and changes, can luxuriate in.
With this victory he has become the first n coach to take his country to the World Cup finals.
Having inherited Holger Osieck’s squad and qualification last time round, it is a box he has been desperate to tick. Whether he stays now or goes, this will be his legacy as much as triumph in the Asian Cup in 2015 – a match in which Jedinak also led his country – was.
In typical fashion the final stages of the Socceroos journey – which, in distance terms, has seen them travel more than six times round the circumference of the globe, was not straightforward. Having dispensed with Syria in the Asian play-off the Socceroos were expected, perhaps by fans driven more by hope and optimism than a cool- headed appraisal of the situation, to progress without too many problems after securing a scoreless draw in Honduras.
After all, hadn’t the Aussies arrived back in Sydney a day before their cash-strapped Central American rivals, the economic disparity that allowed the FFA to charter a private plane in stark contrast to the Hondurans, who had to travel on scheduled airlines with all the dubious joys such journeys bring.
But things rarely work out as expected when such enormous prizes are at stake.
Honduras made their intentions clear from the moment they lined up at the kick off, with five men stationed just beyond their own penalty area, the rest of the team just a few metres ahead. Had they been able to carry out a cement mixer and trowels to construct a brick wall on the edge of their box they would have been happy to do so.
But for all of its possession struggled to break through the massed ranks of Honduran defenders and create any real chances, while the visitors, not surprisingly, were happy for the game to be turned into as big a non-event as possible. Not until Jedinak’s critical intervention did the game open up, and there was only ever going to be one outcome after that.
It is a virtue of the World Cup that it doesn’t simply feature the top-32-ranked teams in the world but casts the net and spreads it over the entire globe to catch a representative sample. For , one journey has ended, another just begun.