Will the Socceroos make the World Cup and does Australia even care?

Paul Williams Columnist

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    To say there is a buzz around Adelaide ahead of Thursday’s crucial World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia is probably overstating things a touch. It’s more of a light hum.

    The lack of any real fanfare around the significance of this match in the wider populace has me wondering – does Australia actually care about qualifying for the World Cup?

    Of course football fans do, it’s what we live and breathe for, but does the general sports fan actually care? Or will they only care when we’re not there?

    Looking at the numbers of travelling fans for the past three World Cups, where the Australian contingent has been one of the largest, you’d say the answer is yes. But does that say more about our love of an event or our love of football?

    Last week Ange Postecoglou, sensing the same thing, implored fans to stop treating Socceroos matches as a ‘trendy event’ and understand the serious nature of the match at hand – to turn out in numbers and play their role in creating an atmosphere worthy of the occasion.

    But I get the sense that message fell largely on deaf ears.

    Of course nothing will replicate the night of 16 November 2005, but this match isn’t far behind in terms of its significance. If Australia wants to qualify for Russia 2018, only a win will suffice on Thursday, nothing less.

    A match of this magnitude demands not just a full stadium but a heaving one. Imagine this fixture in reverse – imagine the Socceroos had to travel to Riyadh or Jeddah with the home team needing a win to keep their hopes alive.

    As those that were there in September will attest, Jeddah is an intimidating place at the best of times. And those who were lucky enough to be in Riyadh for the 2014 AFC Champions League final still tell stories of the atmosphere inside the King Fahd Stadium in the hours leading up to kick-off. Yes, hours.

    Those fans know the importance of the 12th man and they play their part. There is no doubt whatsoever that the crowd played a role in helping Saudi Arabia come from behind to get a 2-2 draw last time around.

    Tomas Rogic congratulated by team

    (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

    The same can rarely be said of Australian crowds. Only that fateful night in November 2005 can compare. Too often the atmosphere is muted and more resembling a night at the theatre than a sporting cauldron. So why can’t we replicate that atmosphere for these big matches that matter?

    Is it because meaningful World Cup qualifiers back then were rare, occurring only every four years, whereas they now occur every few months? Is there a World Cup qualifier fatigue?

    Do we take qualification for granted? Despite the scare in 2014, when it needed a late Josh Kennedy header to secure our passage to Brazil, it seems the malaise has returned. We now simply expect to qualify. Proclamations of impending failure, which have been said before in previous campaigns, are now like the boy who cried wolf.

    Yes, we may be struggling, but we’ll find a way. We always find a way. It’s the old ‘she’ll be right’ attitude.

    I was discussing this with fellow journalists Tuesday morning at a Socceroos press call, and the thinking was the same.

    It seems Adelaide is more worried about whether Tom Hawkins should be suspended for his ‘jumper punch’ on Adelaide Crow Matt Crouch than whether Tomi Juric should lead the line for the Socceroos or who will fill the void left by the suspended Mark Milligan.

    As one remarked when I asked if the casual fan understands the importance of the match, “They will the next day if we don’t win”.

    And maybe that’s the case. Maybe rather than being emotionally invested in the journey the whole way through and knowing all the permutations at each different stage, it will take a smack in the face from reality for fans to truly sit up and take notice of the situation.

    Perhaps only then will we find out the answer to the question. Does Australia care?

    Paul Williams
    Paul Williams

    Paul Williams is an Adelaide-based football writer. Specialising in Asian football, he writes about the beautiful game for a host of publications including SBS The World Game, FourFourTwo Singapore and Al Jazeera, and is a regular guest on the Daily Football Show. You can follow him on Twitter @PaulWilliams_85.