With qualification for a third consecutive World Cup complete, in arguably the most unconvincing campaign of the three, the Socceroos’ greatest challenge still awaits.
The struggle to qualify, and poor performances that dogged the campaign bar the final three matches, away to Japan and at home to Jordan and Iraq, highlighted the difficulty the Socceroos are having in this period of generational transition.
There’s no doubting the ability of the last men standing of the golden generation ‘Class of 2006’ to lift to the occasion when a result is needed for their country – Lucas Neill, Mark Schwarzer, Tim Cahill, Mark Bresciano and co were key to qualification when it mattered most.
But the average age of the current Socceroos line-up is 31 years of age, while more concerning is the age and club status of the spine of the team.
Goalkeeper Schwarzer will be 41 in 2014 and has been forced out a long-time club Fulham. Centre backs Neill and Sasa Ognenovski will be over 35 with captain Neill unattached at club level.
In the midfield, Cahill and Bresciano are approaching 35 and have long since left the cauldron of European club football.
Up front, where the greatest concerns remains, qualification goal-scoring hero Josh Kennedy, Archie Thompson and Alex Brosque will all be over 30.
While their international experience is key, particularly those players shaping up for their third World Cup, at the elite level, on the world’s biggest stage, that age and lack of competitive football could prove costly when it counts in the finals.
Relying too heavily on this generation of players leaves the Socceroos at risk of being embarrassed in the finals, especially if age should prove too costly in terms of pace, form and matching up against the world’s best.
Sure, under 25’s Robbie Kruse, Tommy Oar and Tom Rogic have come on leaps and bounds in recent qualifiers and will feature prominently in the Socceroos’ attacking stocks in Brazil 2014, but is there the depth of young talent across the rest of the park?
Rhys Williams, Jason Davidson, Matthew Spiranovic, Adam Sarota and Matthew Leckie remain on the outer of the national team and will require breakout seasons at club level to come into World Cup contention. Even then, the lack of international experience and time spent in camp with the Socceroos remains a concern.
Take the question marks over the left-back position, for example, currently filled by 30-year-old Matt McKay, which is screaming out for someone to be given the opportunity to rise up and plug the hole.
Curtis Good, Shane Lowry, Michael Zullo, Aziz Behich or future Australian convert Adama Traore could slot into the position, but 12 months out from the World Cup, a prime candidate needs to emerge soon.
While there is an under-20 World Cup on the horizon and 12 months of club football between now and kick-off in Brazil, there will be precious few opportunities to impress in a Socceroos shirts, making friendlies against the likes of Brazil vital.
Encouragingly for Australian football, this next generation slowly filtering into the Socceroos squad is a product of the A-League, including Rogic, Oar and Kruse.
But while the ‘Class of 2006’ takes its final bow in Brazil, the A-League generation may not have its chance to take charge of the national team until qualification for Russia 2018.
Coach Holger Osieck was rightfully praised for his bravery in subbing perennial saviour Cahill for goal-scorer Kennedy late on in the crucial qualifier against Iraq. But his greatest test awaits in the next 12 months and the decisions he makes heading to Brazil.
He and Australia need to hope that Neill, Cahill, Schwarzer and co can retain their form over the next season and continue to defy age, while more promising youngsters push their way the squad in order to accelerate the change and competition for places. Otherwise it could be a bleak World Cup in Brazil, based on some of the poor performances of the qualifying campaign.
Remember, too, that the 2015 Asian Cup awaits on home soil six months after the World Cup, so ensuring there is a competitive squad in place post-World Cup should only accelerate the changing of the guard.
Any result that comes in Brazil will be a bonus for the Socceroos during the difficult transition away from the golden generation. Just qualifying for a third consecutive World Cup could be their curtain call.