Verbeek's luck is in
A Mozambican witchdoctor - as much as Dutch coach Pim Verbeek - might be the magical force behind Australia's smooth path towards their second straight World Cup finals.
In a similar vein to many previous matches over a 12-month campaign, the Socceroos relied on generous amounts of good fortune to earn an invaluable point away from home as they survived a Japanese onslaught in Yokohama on February 11.
Australian fans, who remember the days when the national team always seemed to draw the short straw, can now scarcely believe their luck.
And some believe that the lifting of a decades-old African curse on Australian soccer five years ago is linked to that intangible element that often means the difference between success and failure.
In Yokohama, the Japanese were all over the visitors, dominating possession, dictating the tempo and creating several clear-cut chances. On any other night, they probably would have won 3-0 instead of drawn 0-0.
At the very least, the Blue Samurai should have sealed a one-goal victory when a shot in the 85th minute from Makoto Hasebe rebounced off Keija Tamada past Mark Schwarzer - but somehow it went wide of the Australian goal.
Top of the table Australia have 10 points from four games in this final phase of qualifying - but, dealt a slightly different hand from the footballing Gods, it could easily have been only four points. The Socceroos have been more than a little fortunate in away matches in Tashkent (where they won but might have drawn) plus in Manama and Yokohama where, on the balance of play, they most certainly deserved to lose. In the previous round, a home victory against Iraq and an away draw to China were also a little 'jammy'.
The curse that once haunted the Socceroos dates back to 1969 when Australia's 1970 World Cup qualification path took them through Africa. They faced a must-win game against Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in Mozambique and enlisted the services of a local witchdoctor who buried some bones near one of the goalposts to curse the opposition. It apparently worked as Australia won the match, 3-1.
But after the Socceroos left Africa without paying the £1,000 fee, the witchdoctor reportedly reversed the curse, starting a series of unlucky events that would plague the national side for years.
Conceding a deflected goal away to Argentina in 1993, Iran's unthinkable comeback in Melbourne in 1997 and suffering stage fright to blow a first-leg lead in Uruguay in 2001 were three examples where luck seemed to desert the Socceroos when they were just a step away from the World Cup finals. Of course, others would argue that the Aussies simply weren't good enough.
It wasn't until 2004 that Australian documentary maker and comic John Safran travelled back to Mozambique to reverse the curse by returning to the same stadium with another local witchdoctor (the original one had died) and performing several rituals including the splattering of chicken blood. Safran held a similar ceremony at Telstra Stadium - the Sydney Olympics venue - alongside a former national captain, the late Johnny Warren.
Barely 12 months later on the same pitch in November 2005, Australia survived the lottery of a sudden-death penalty shootout against Uruguay to advance to their first World Cup finals in 32 years.
And once at Germany 2006, the Socceroos had more than their share of luck. In the opening win against Japan, two-goal hero Tim Cahill was lucky to avoid conceding a penalty and a red card after what appeared to be clear-cut foul in the box. Harry Kewell's equalising goal against Croatia - which sent Australia through to the second round - had a hint of offside.
Only eventual champions Italy ended that run of good fortune with Fabio Grosso's debatable injury-time spot kick in Kaiserslautern that eliminated Guus Hiddink's team in the round of 16.
Hiddink is now in west London via Moscow but his less acclaimed countryman has brought the same measure of good karma to the top job. 'Pim Verbeek Should Buy a Lottery Ticket' was one of the headlines in the Sydney newspapers following the most recent Japan game.
With qualification now so close, it is impossible to argue with Verbeek's excellent record to date. But the lack of good performances is starting to become a concern even with the valid excuses of having limited preparation and key players missing or lacking match practice. Indeed, it seems like an eternity since Australia actually played well or strung two good matches together.
A home victory over struggling Uzbekistan in Sydney on April 1 will all but guarantee the Socceroos' participation at their second straight World Cup finals.
But now could be the time for the pragmatic Verbeek to start worrying about style as well as substance. The Dutchman is getting fantastic results and has won over the hearts and minds of the dressing room but he needs to lift the quality of football up a notch, just as Hiddink did when he took over the reigns in 2005.
The Socceroos won't want to simply make up the numbers in South Africa. To consistently produce the kind of football to compete with the best of Europe and South America will take a considerable transformation from their admirable and professional - but often tepid - displays of the last few months.
Verbeek addresses Australia's World Cup qualification progress - and looks ahead to their next qualifier against Uzbekistan - in an exclusive interview with ESPN Soccernet.
Q: Pim, top of the table and without a defeat or even a goal conceded but how much a role has good luck played in Australia's recent performances at the halfway point of the final qualification phase?
A: I think it may be good management rather than good luck.
Q: Given that Australia has struggled to score goals away from home, how do you feel the strategy of playing Tim Cahill as a loan striker worked against Japan?
A: It worked because we came away with one point and I am happy with that result.
Q: How important was the return of Craig Moore and his defensive partnership with Lucas Neill in keeping a clean sheet against the Japanese?
A: Craig and Lucas are a very good pairing at the back. Together with Mark Schwarzer, they make a very effective defence.
Q: Mark Schwarzer's mistake against Japan in the 2006 World Cup and Guus Hiddink's mixed opinions of him were well documented, but how do you personally rate Schwarzer and his value to the Socceroos?
A: He is my first choice 'keeper, without question.
Q: How much room for improvement in terms of performance is there for Australia in the next qualifier, at home to Uzbekistan?
A: It will be a different game at home. Hopefully, it will be a big crowd. It will be on our side. The players will have a bit more time to be ready for the game. I think it will be good.
Q: What impact will Harry Kewell's likely return for the next qualifier have on the team?
A: Harry, when he is fit and in form, is a wonderful player and his return would have a positive impact. Having said that, we can also play effectively and well without him. That is what putting a team together is all about. We don't rely on one player but on 11 playing together.
Q: Player for player, how do you compare the strength of this Socceroo squad to the one you managed at the Korea Republic and the different challenges of coaching them?
A: They are very different. I am very much enjoying my job. (The Socceroos) are a great bunch of players and they are a pleasure to work with.
Q: After the important point in Japan, how is the team spirit and feeling of self-belief within the Socceroo dressing room?
A: We are not getting carried away. We are in a good position but we also know there are four games to go. We want to win all of them and particularly make the three home games - against Uzbekistan in April and Bahrain and Japan in June - a fortress.
• Sydney-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an international broadcaster and corporate host. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.