Socceroos' pride restored despite exit
The Socceroos' inspiring 2-1 win over Serbia was everything Australian fans could have hoped for, with the exception of qualification for the second round in South Africa.
Pride in the shirt and the sport's credibility have been restored, and probably even enhanced with this performance. Australia's second ever World Cup win removed any doubt they deserve a place on this stage. By matching all but the best in back-to-back World Cups, this group of players has now elevated Australia's reputation from relative minnows to deserving participants.
The emergence of Brett Holman, Carl Valeri, David Carney and Michael Beauchamp as capable internationals both in this match and across the tournament has also finally given Australia some hope for the future when it looked increasingly as though their chances of even qualifying for the next World Cup were going to disappear off into the horizon along with the ageing members of the 'golden generation'.
There will certainly be mixed emotions among the team and supporters. The 4-0 humbling by Germany was a blemish but is now a regret as those goals conceded proved the only difference between Australia and Ghana in the Group D standings.
Four points was enough to take Australia through at the last World Cup but other results conspired against them this time. Such was their small margin of failure, if they had had less bad luck with red cards and even the missed penalty call early in the second half of the Germany match their World Cup journey could have easily been different. They simply left themselves too much to do on this final day, but at least leave with their heads held high.
The Socceroos were due some luck at this tournament and they certainly rode it against the Serbs, who were close to their best despite the scoreline. A combination of wasteful finishing and Mark Schwarzer's brilliance kept Serbia, and particularly Milos Krasic, off the scoreboard in a cagey first half. Along with Beauchamp, who played his best game for his country, captain Lucas Neill too deserves special mention for recapturing his best form as the central defensive pair snuffed out almost everything that got through to them.
The complex Group D equation meant that none of the four teams were desperate to attack in the first halves of the two simultaneous matches, particularly so in Nelspruit where Australia and Serbia both employed five-man midfields from the start. Radomir Antic persisted with the winning formula from his side's upset win over Germany in the form of Krasic and Milan Jovanovic pushed higher up the wings to provide more service and support to the towering Nikola Zigic.
It worked for the most part as Serbia dictated play for the first 45 and should have had a goal to show for their efforts. Krasic won the battle against Carney down the right before tiring in the second half and had his side's best chance when put through one on one with Schwarzer on a counter-attack, but he blasted wide under pressure from the veteran goalkeeper.
Failing to pass through Serbia's stacked middle third, Australia found some joy sending the early ball forward to their own beanpole striker in Josh Kennedy, whose partnership with Tim Cahill would prove a handful for any team. Australia looked good when Mark Bresciano and Brett Emerton raided forward to pick up the scraps in one of the more ambitious displays under Pim Verbeek.
The image of Cahill's fantastic headed goal, generated from a trademark leap over one of the world's premier defenders in Nemanja Vidic, should adorn the walls of a whole new generation of fans too young to remember his heroics from Germany 2006. Few goals come from the training ground but this was certainly one, as Emerton's perfect cross was met by a perfectly timed jump and perfectly placed nod from Australia's greatest scoring threat.
With Germany having taken a 1-0 lead at Soccer City, the Socceroos needed a further three-goal turnaround to overcome Ghana's position in the top two of the group, and when Holman struck his sensational effort from long range - Australia's best ever World Cup goal - with just under 20 minutes to go, the miracle was suddenly on. A late goal for both Germany and Australia, not at all far-fetched at that point, would have been enough to make the second round dream a reality.
Antic and Verbeek both rolled the dice with attacking substitutions and it was Serbia who benefited from the stretched nature of the contest as Schwarzer became the latest goalkeeper to fall victim of the bouncing Jabulani, spilling a speculative drive from Zoran Tosic - who made a big impact from the bench in place of Krasic - into the path of fellow sub Marko Pantelic for a tap in.
For the sake of the history books, it was fortunate that the Socceroos held on for victory in the dying minutes. Their 2010 record of one win, draw and loss matches their 2006 tally and is worthy of the pride of what remains an emerging football nation. Verbeek's belated injection of some next-generation players helped the golden crop go out with dignity, if also disappointment.
Away from the pitch, the fact the Socceroos at least won a match in South Africa can only boost their hopes of hosting their own World Cup in 2022, or at least takes away the perceived negative of an unimpressive team.
And Verbeek got to sign off with a sweet taste in his mouth, not the bitterness that was building towards him from the Australian football fraternity.
The Socceroos were humbled in their first World Cup in 1974, and became national heroes in their second in 2006. Their third will sit somewhere in between, with a pervading question of 'what might have been'.
But looking around at the capitulation of France, and the last-minute heartbreak suffered by Slovenia, this result at least gave Australia's massive travelling support something to cheer about while providing a fitting end to another thrilling World Cup ride.