In November 2005, my father scored last-minute tickets to the Australia v Uruguay playoff and took me and my sister to see the match that would result in the Socceroos’ qualification to the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
As the Olympic stadium shook like an earthquake and the people around me converged into a giant hugging mass, 11-year-old me thought this was the best night of my life. Nothing has topped it since.
I vividly remember the following months of anticipation ahead of the Socceroos’ first game in Kaiserslautern; reading every Australian edition of 4-4-2 magazine cover to cover, learning obscure stats about every player in the squad. I remember watching the TV as Australia were drawn in a group with Japan, Brazil and Croatia, and every day after that calculating in my head how Australia would progress from such a difficult group.
That was a golden era for the Socceroos, but even as Australia’s squad has changed over the years, with fewer players from Europe’s top leagues, every four years I would get just as excited as a newer, less experienced generation prepared to represent us on the world stage.
Nothing rivals the month of football that gives fans reason to forget about life’s worries, but a large part of the World Cup’s festive feeling is due to anticipation. As years turn into months, teams qualify, official balls and kits are released and, in the final weeks, plans are made on exactly how to watch games.
Then there is the sense of expectation. Of course Australia have never been real contenders to reach the latter stages of this tournament, but there has always been a glimmer of hope something could be achieved, a sense they could make a mark in some way on the world stage – and they have in the past.
Australia’s dramatic late comeback against Japan in 2006 to win their first ever World Cup finals match and the controversial defeat to Italy in the knockout stage gave the football world reason to sit up and take notice. In 2014, Tim Cahill’s stunning equaliser against the Netherlands, and the four or so minutes the Socceroos were in the lead against the previous tournament’s runners-up made it feel like Australia were on top of the footballing world.
These are the kind of rich, memorable moments that have been etched into Australian sporting folklore, so it is perhaps strange that this time around I am feeling rather unexcited about the Socceroos and this World Cup.
In many ways this is unsurprising. Qatar’s abysmal human rights record is well documented, and with the knowledge that at least 6,500 migrant workers have died on World Cup projects, even the most euphoric moments will be tarred with the image of a grieving family picking up their son in a coffin from Kathmandu airport.
Then, of course, there is the realisation this World Cup is actually happening – a long process that began with disbelief following the December 2010 announcement that Qatar’s hosting bid had won, then widespread concern for player safety in the intolerable Middle-Eastern summer, followed by an outrageous decision to move the tournament to the local winter and upend world football’s calendar. There were also revelations and allegations of corruption within Fifa.
Fans around the world are united in their struggle to comprehend all that, but for Australians, there is an added layer – Qatar’s victory came directly at the expense of Australia, which had submitted its own, ultimately failed, bid. It would later be revealed that Australia, despite its expenditure of $46m on the process, never had a chance of winning.
On paper Australia 2022 would have been a great option. As a teenager, I became drunk on the idea of a World Cup in my own country. I spent money from my job at Blockbuster on official bid towels and jumpers, and was shattered when that dream evaporated.
Can you imagine the party we’d have put on for the world, had we been afforded an end-of-year, summertime tournament? Hosting it in Qatar feels less about fan experience and communal joy, and more like Fifa giving a middle finger to football fans. Surely those fans arriving at tent cities this week who are being asked to pay $21 for beers, and the reporters being threatened by local authorities, might also be wondering what could have been.
The decision also robbed Australia of a decade of investment in the game . It has been a rough few years on these shores, and I’m ashamed to admit that, after waking up countless times at unsocial hours to watch a lacklustre national team squander chance after chance to qualify automatically, I became convinced it would be a good thing to miss out on this World Cup.
The playoff triumph against Peru has gone down in history, thanks to Andrew Redmayne’s goalline antics, but ultimately that dramatic shootout win has just delayed the reckoning the national team still needs to have. And while we wait for that to happen, I’ll settle for watching this year’s competition from afar, draped in dystopian merchandise for Australia’s doomed 2022 bid and dreaming of a very different World Cup.