Ask American fans how they feel about qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and they won’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Despite enjoying one of the easiest routes to Russia, Americans will be watching a World Cup without the USA for the first time since 1986.
Similarly, the Italians missed out for the first time since 1958 after losing in a two-leg playoff to Sweden yesterday.
Meanwhile, the Dutch had a disastrous campaign and won’t be going to Russia either.
It marks a new nadir for a team that finished third at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil – and promptly missed out on qualifying for the subsequent 2016 UEFA European Championship in France.
And what about Chile?
Fresh from ending a 99-year wait for the Copa America by claiming back-to-back continental tiles, La Roja promptly missed out on qualifying for Russia by finishing sixth in arguably the toughest qualifying group of all – the notoriously difficult ten-team South American slugfest.
The Socceroos, meanwhile?
Sure, we were unlucky to draw the might of Japan in qualifying yet again. And some neutral fans may suggest it was high time Saudi Arabia reached the World Cup finals for the first time since 2006.
But the reality is that Ange Postecoglou’s team had plenty of chances to seal progression, even if it hardly seems fair to miss out after losing just once in the final round of qualifying.
Asia is tough
Having lost fewer games than Saudi Arabia and boasting a superior record to Group A qualifiers South Korea, it would be easy to suggest the Socceroos have been hard done by.
But the move into Asia was designed to expose Australia to a tougher qualifying route, and it’s done exactly that.
Had the Socceroos taken maximum points against Iraq in neutral Tehran, or scored more goals against Thailand in Melbourne, it might be a moot point anyway.
And while Football Federation Australia must be sick of the sight of Japan – wouldn’t it be nice to play South Korea in World Cup qualifying for once? – the simple fact is that the Socceroos failed to get the job done when they had the chance.
There are no guarantees on a continent which boasts vast geographical and cultural differences.
Not only do its World Cup participants criss-cross oceans and time zones, but the standard of Asian football is improving at a rapid pace.
With war-torn states like Syria and Iraq playing for national pride, and upwardly mobile nations such as China and Qatar pouring money into football as a means of wielding soft power across the globe, the route through Asia is only going to get more difficult.
It all adds up to a simple axiom: Asia is tough.
And the Socceroos should underestimate the continent at their peril – something that is only now just dawning on some Australian fans.
A new frontier
The trip to the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula to face Honduras was a throwback to the days of yesteryear, when visits to far-flung places like North Korea, Israel and Argentina all ended in heartbreak.
No doubt the most traumatic exit was the away-goals defeat to Iran in 1997, when Australia blew a two-goal lead at the Melbourne Cricket Ground to draw 3-3 on aggregate and go out on the away goals rule.
But that two-legged tie proved the Socceroos can go to places like Tehran – where they were stared down by a hostile crowd of more than 120,000 – to get a result.
They’ve already gained more battle-hardened experience when they secured a 0-0 draw in San Pedro Sula, where a less-than-inviting home crowd gave the Socceroos a ‘warm’ welcome.
The Honduran press made much of Australia’s supposed ignorance of the Central American state, although it’s worth pointing out that the stereotypes tend to fly both ways, and there’ll probably be a few references to kangaroos and barbecues dotted throughout the Spanish-language coverage for the second leg.
Now that the Aussies have avoided a heavy defeat in Honduras, they can qualify for Russia tonight on their own terms.
It’s a tactic that worked against Uruguay in 2005, although fans could be forgiven for hoping the tie doesn’t finish up in a tension-filled penalty shootout like it did 12 years ago.
Reasons to dream
Of the 210 countries that started out in World Cup qualifying – excluding the host nation – 177 have already been knocked out of contention.
Some, like those who ended up in Europe’s star-studded playoff round, will feel reasonably confident of progressing.
Others, like the New Zealand side set to take on Peru over two legs in their inter-confederation playoff, have plenty of reasons to dream.
That’s the scenario the Socceroos find themselves in, even if some are incredulous to see them in this position.
At the end of the day, reaching the World Cup finals is difficult and if we’ve learned any lessons from a fractious qualifying campaign, it’s that we can’t take anything for granted.
We can console ourselves with the knowledge that from 2026 onwards the qualification route is likely to get easier, thanks to FIFA’s plan to expand the finals to 48 teams.
But for now, it’s worth remembering that our route may involve more air travel and plenty of logistical planning, but it’s also devoid of some of the big guns of world football.
And if we think finishing third in a group behind Japan and Saudi Arabia is unbecoming of Australia’s position in world football, it could always be worse.
We could be Chile. Or the Netherlands. Or the USA. Or Italy.
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