This World Cup is starting to feel a bit South Africa 2010. Australia’s 4-1 humbling at the hands of France in Qatar on Wednesday stirs up a sentiment similarly portentous to that of 12 years ago, when Australia started their campaign with a 4-0 drubbing by Germany in Durban.
The team, under the tutelage of the late Pim Verbeek, recovered via a 1-1 draw with Ghana – despite Harry Kewell’s early red card – and went on to beat Serbia 2-1. But the damage had been done in the first match. Too many goals had been shipped, and they finished third in their group on goal difference.
The Socceroos of today find themselves in a comparable position, and now face the daunting task of climbing back up the hill France tossed them down to stop history repeating itself.
“Of course now the stakes are higher for the second game,” midfielder Jackson Irvine said the day after the opener. “But at the end of the day you know you’re going to have to get two positive results to progress, and we’ve still got full belief that that’s achievable.”
Graham Arnold’s side are in a marginally more promising position than the class of 2010, with one goal in their favour courtesy of that Craig Goodwin scorcher that had the country believing – for a beautiful 18 minutes – that an upset of the defending champions might be on the cards.
What it means is they must beat Tunisia in their second match on Saturday and also pray that France score another hatful against Denmark, who were held to a 0-0 draw by the less-fancied Tunisia in their opening fixture. That would put Australia in a positive position going into next Wednesday’s third and final match with Denmark.
This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.
Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.
Draw with world No 30 Tunisia and the outlook is more difficult, with a win over Denmark the minimum requirement plus a hope other results fall their way. A loss would effectively spell the end of their Qatar 2022 campaign.
In short, the team have two days to prepare for the Tunisians, who they have not played since a 2-0 Confederations Cup loss in 2005. The North Africans will have a 12th man in a big and extremely vocal contingent of Tunisian fans largely made up of a 55,000-strong expat community in Qatar. It could make for a hostile atmosphere back at Al Janoub Stadium, where Australia are playing all three of their group fixtures.
Right now, though, the priority for the players is moving on mentally from the gut-wrenching loss against what Arnold called a “bigger, faster and stronger” France. Irvine said it still felt “quite raw”, but the group had starting shifting focus to their next opponent.
“The key is using last night as a platform to build into Saturday rather than overthinking how that game went,” Irvine said. “Tactically there are lessons to be learned. We need to defend crosses better – to concede three goals from wide areas is a very clear lesson for us to learn.
“When we were on the front foot early in the game we looked a totally different kind of threat. Obviously you’ve got to be aware of the individual quality of the opposition, especially when you’re playing against players of that pace – you don’t want to be leaving too much space in behind. But I think when we played on the front foot, when we pressed high, that was where we had our most joy.”
Tunisia, led by captain Youssef Msakni, matched 10th-ranked Denmark in both attack and defence, creating chances and targeting Christian Eriksen. That performance will increase confidence the team can reach the knockout stage after five unsuccessful attempts.
“This will obviously be a very different opposition; the game will flow in a totally different way,” Irvine said. “Against a team that can play so compact ... you are going to have to find different ways to create chances.
“We have got the quality of players who can play in those areas out wide or in between lines and create chances to score goals. We will look at where are the best areas to hurt them but not much changes within the framework that we’re always trying to do.”
The key for Australia could be attacker Ajdin Hrustic, who has not played since 3 October because of an ankle injury and was unused against France, but could yet play a crucial role in this game.
“He’s a quality player, obviously we want him out on the pitch as soon as he is available,” Irvine said. “I am sure he will have a big role to play in these next couple of games.”