Stadium Australia has been the site of many of Australia’s most famous moments. Whether it’s Josh Kennedy’s commanding header to defeat Iraq and secure their progress to the 2014 World Cup or captain Mile Jedinak’s hat-trick against Honduras in the 2018 World Cup qualifying play-off. Or, of course, the famous John Aloisi penalty that dispatched Uruguay and ended the nation’s long 32-year absence from football’s biggest stage. Stadium Australia has often proven itself to be the dream ground of Australian rules football.
In other words, one could not have picked a better venue for a Socceroos game that bore all the hallmarks of a clichéd Hollywood epic; an understaffed and underarmed host nation with its back to the wall, struggling to defy the odds in a way no one expected it to do. Graham Arnold had leaned into the narrative saying his side had to ‘fight through’ their enemies, and assistant coach Rene Meulensteen, performing pre-match media duties as Arnold finished (another) period of Covid isolation, joined the bromides when he said that, more than anything, “courage will win us the game”. Everything was very moving.
But courage doesn’t win you football matches. Goals do. And on Thursday night, the Socceroos’ hopes were dashed by Kaoru Mitoma’s 89th-minute strike and ensuing twisty run and 94th-minute sealer for Japan that came out of Mat Ryan’s hand and rolled , slowly, into the back of the net.
Perhaps fitting this effort, along with Miki Yamane’s cut to find Mitoma for his prime, apparently took an age to slide on the wet surface at Stadium Australia. Plenty of time to reflect on a result which has now served to deal a deathblow to Australia’s automatic World Cup qualification hopes which, almost as part of a collective exercise in adaptation, had long abandoned by the majority of the 41,852 fans who visited Homebush.
Although controversy will follow the decision to disallow an own goal in the 25th minute which would have given Australia the lead for a foul on goalkeeper Shūichi Gonda, it was telling that the hosts looked capable of only doing damage on set pieces. Another night, perhaps the one when Takumi Minamino has his radar on, the Japanese might have had four or five more. Australia began to look devoid of ideas and by the end of the contest had even exhausted them.
Regardless of what the Socceroos are able to accomplish in Saudi Arabia next week, they will be forced to qualify for a fifth consecutive World Cup through the Asian gauntlet and then the Intercontinental play-off. It was a path they also had to take to qualify for the 2018 tournament in Russia. Unlike this campaign, however, it will not be a two-man barrage against a North or Central American nation that awaits them, but rather a one-legged clash against a country of the power that is South America. .
The Conmebol play-offs will also end in the next few days but, as things stand, that opponent would be 2018 World Cup opponents Peru. Or maybe it will currently be Chile in sixth place. or even, just to add to all the weirdly scripted vibe the Socceroos campaign has come to possess, old foes Uruguay. Before that, however, they will have to beat third in the other Asian qualifying group – currently the United Arab Emirates – and it won’t be safe.
But no matter who they’re up against, they’ll definitely need to find some kind of inspiration. While Japan couldn’t be said to have played smooth, swashbuckling football, they were still able to win more territory and create more chances than their counterparts. The Socceroos were admittedly heavily understaffed, but that’s not enough to explain Thursday night’s lackluster performance.