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.
This is where the old Australia would have, had they held it together for this long, fallen apart, fallen to kicking, scrambling, and a couple more quick goals. Instead, the Australia attack opened up and created half a dozen real chances. Marco Bresciano was one player, at least, who looked like he could just as easily be playing for the Brazilians, showing real class with the ball at his feet.
In the 57th minute the pub crowd gave a genuine gasp, a long ooh and many heads were in hands as Harry Kewell missed an open goal from 15 yards. (He'd only come on a minute before, replacing Tim Cahill, who'd looked classy, but was known not to be fit enough to last the game.) Had that fallen to a played-in player…
A minute later the ITV commentator says "there's still plenty of time for Australia", and soon the crowd is booing a Brazilian team playing for time by knocking the ball around in their own half. Australia brings on a striker to replace a defender. Then Kewell latches on to a through-ball and tries a dipper from 35 yards, with the keeper off his line. It just fails to drop in time, collecting the top netting. Who'd have thought this could be happening outside a dream?
In the 73rd minute Robinho comes on to replace Ronaldo, who's still looking far from well or in form, and for a minute or two the Australians look leaden-footed, outclassed, but then perhaps any team might. The Socceroos soon regroup and seem to largely get this fresh player's measure. Down the other end, Bresciano tries an overhead kick that he doesn't quite get on to. Still, Dida in the Brazilian goal is at full stretch at his right post.
In the 89th minute the Brazilian replacement Robinho converts the threat to action, with a thumping drive that connects with Schwarzer's left post. Had the sporting gods been being fairminded, it would have rebounded far upfield, but instead it ricochets to the replacement Fred, who has the easiest of tap-ins to make the score 2-0.
That's how it ends – Brazil have qualified for the finals, although Australia are still in with a decent chance of doing likewise, having only, probably to collect a draw against Croatia. (That team drew 0-0 earlier today with Japan.)
But the Socceroos have looked entirely like they belong here in the World Cup finals; a team that might be expected to return again and again, for respectable showings – quarters, even semi-finals. No longer are they a group of competitive semi-thugs, but a group of classy, decent football players.
And while the ITV commentator was noting that seven of the squad were born in Croatia, he also commented that three of the Croatians were born in Australia; in so far as it means anything in today's globalised world, this is a truly Australian team, and soccer has become a truly Australian game. The Australian competitive spirit that led many before the game to proclaim the likelihood of victory means that many will be disappointed by the result. They shouldn't be; those kangaroos should still be dancing.