Twenty years ago in Australia, I began to play what we called soccer, and so a child weaned on rugby league started to learn about "the other football". Back then, the Australian national team was still dining out on the glories of its one appearance in the World Cup finals, in 1974, and hoping — seemingly against hope — to repeat the feat.
But the Oceania qualifying group didn't have a spot in the finals in its own right, having to finally qualify against a stream of oddly scattered nations, from South America to the Middle East. That led to a depressing, predictable parade of raised hopes, as Australia beat such footballing giants as Fiji and New Zealand, before faltering when the serious opposition appeared.
You occasionally saw "highlights" of Australian league and even national games on the television news; the play was slow, and laughably unskilled – nothing to compare to Match of the Day, shown on ABC television each week. English players hoofing the ball hopefully into a crowded penalty box from the halfway line — pretty much what the League consisted of then — looked sophisticated in comparison with the Australian game.
The Australian league was plagued too by ethnic violence; I used to play for Sydney University against Sydney Olympic, the "Greeks' club". Reports suggested that spectators banned from the men's team had taken to coming along to the women's matches. Certainly they were a passionate lot — it was the only time on a sporting field I've ever been spat on by a spectator. (Okay, I had just taken down their small, super-fast centre-forward, but that was how Australians played the game.) Such things did little to convince the Australian public to take the sport to its heart.
When visiting teams, such as the English, came along, the Socceroos' only tactic was to try to muscle, and kick, them off the park, and so, unsurprisingly, not many teams made the long trip Down Under to strut their stuff. When they did, it tended to be only the second-string risked to the untender boots of the Aussies.
Fast-forward two decades; I've moved continents a couple of times since then, no longer play regularly, and gave up following the Socceroos, only noting in passing that a few Australian players had started to crop up around the serious leagues, even if, as with Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka, they were often in the headlines for the wrong reasons.
So I sat down this afternoon to watch Brazil versus Australia — the first Socceroo game I've watched in a decade — with trepidation. That feeling was not so much about the result — anything less than 3-0 I was prepared to consider reasonable — but about the tactics. Would Australia follow the "kick 'em hard and often" approach I remembered?
Happily, I can say that there was barely a hint of that. In the first half the Socceroos kept an admittedly less than sparkling (by their standards) Brazil almost entirely caged, but the well-drilled defence did that by tight marking, a solid shape and overall classy football. When an Australian defender got the ball in his own area, rather than a frantic swipe at the ball he was looking for a teammate, passing the ball calmly; strings of 10, 15, even 20 passes were not unusual. This is not the Australia that I remember. The inflatable kangaroos in the crowd were dancing with delight at the interval.
In the second half, perhaps inevitably, however, that tight marking fell down, and in the 50th minute of the game Ronaldo, on the edge of the area, surrounded by three defenders, played the simple, but right, ball to Adriano, who gave Mark Schwarzer in goal no hope at all: a professional finish.