Stadium Australia has been the site for many of Australia’s most celebrated moments. Be it Josh Kennedy’s towering header to defeat Iraq and secure progression to the 2014 World Cup or Mile Jedinak’s captain’s hat-trick against Honduras in the 2018 World Cup qualification play-offs. Or, of course, John Aloisi’s famous penalty that dispatched Uruguay and ended the nation’s long, 32-year absence from football’s grandest stage;. Stadium Australia has so often proved to be Australian football’s field of dreams.
In other words, one could not have picked a better venue for a Socceroos fixture which carried all the hallmarks of a cliched Hollywood epic; an outmanned and outgunned host nation with their backs to the wall fighting to defy the odds in a manner nobody expected them to. Graham Arnold had leaned into the narrative by declaring his side needed to “fight” against their foes, and assistant coach Rene Meulensteen, filling in on pre-match media duties as Arnold completed (another) Covid isolation period, joined in on the bromides when he declared that, more than anything, “courage will win us the game”. It was all very stirring.
But courage does not win you football games. Goals do. And on Thursday evening, the Socceroos’ hopes were dashed by Kaoru Mitoma’s 89th-minute strike and subsequent winding run and the 94th-minute sealer for Japan that popped out of Mat Ryan’s hand and rolled, slowly, into the back of the net.
Perhaps it was fitting that effort, as well as Miki Yamane’s cutback to find Mitoma for his first, seemingly took an age to slide across the wet surface at Stadium Australia. Plenty of time to reflect on a result that has now served to deliver a coup de grâce to Australia’s hopes of automatic qualification for the World Cup that, almost as part of a collective coping exercise, had long since been discarded by the majority of the 41,852 fans who had made their way to Homebush.
Though controversy will dog the decision to disallow a 25th-minute own goal which would have given Australia the lead for a foul on goalkeeper Shūichi Gonda, it was indicative that the hosts looked capable of doing any damage only from set pieces. On another night, perhaps one in which Takumi Minamino has his radar on, the Japanese could have had another four or five. Australia started looking devoid of ideas and, by the end of the contest, had exhausted even those.
Regardless of what the Socceroos are able to accomplish in Saudi Arabia next week, they will be forced to qualify for a fifth straight World Cup through the gauntlet of the Asian and then the intercontinental play-off. It was a path they also had to tread to qualify for the 2018 tournament in Russia. Unlike that campaign, though, it will not be a two-legged play-off against a North or Central American nation that awaits them but, instead, a one-legged, do-or-die clash against a country from the powerhouse that is South America.
Conmebol’s play-offs will also end in the coming days but, as it presently stands, that opponent would be 2018 World Cup opponents Peru. Or perhaps it will currently be sixth-placed Chile or even, just to add to the whole strangely scripted vibe the Socceroos campaign has come to possess, old foes Uruguay. Before then, however, they will need to defeat the third-placed finisher from Asia’s other qualifying group – presently the United Arab Emirates – and that will be no sure thing.
But whoever they face, they will certainly need to fashion some sort of inspiration. As while Japan can’t be said to have played free-flowing, swashbuckling football, they were still able to win more territory and create more chances than their counterparts. The Socceroos were, it must be acknowledged, heavily undermanned, but that alone cannot explain away Thursday night’s uninspiring performance.