Aussies are in with a sporting chance
Fledgling Socceroos lead the scoreboard for a crack at the World Cup and hopes are high for cricket, golf and rugby
WHEN SUBSTITUTE John Aloisi scored a goal that propelled Australia's newest sporting heroes, the Socceroos, into this year's Fifa World Cup in Germany, it was an especially sweet moment for a nation besotted with sport.
The heart-stopping victory over Uruguay meant that, for the first time in 32 years, Aussie fans would be able to cheer 'the green and gold' in a professional team championship that is truly global.
While Australia has savoured World Cup triumphs in rugby and cricket, and an unforgettable victory in the America's Cup, none of these comes close to the World Cup, which rivals the Olympic Games as the world's biggest sporting event.
It was as if Australian sport had come of age and Australians could finally believe in the long-cherished notion that theirs is a country which punches well above its weight in sporting achievements.
Of course, the challenge in Germany will be enormous. Australia has drawn tournament favourites Brazil, along with seasoned campaigners Japan and Croatia, both making third successive World Cup appearances.
For fans who remember the Socceroos' first and only other Cup appearance in 1974, the memories will be bittersweet. On that occasion, Australia met Chile, East Germany and West Germany in round one - and failed to score a goal.
But this time the antipodeans have more potent weapons in their arsenal. Seven Socceroos - Mark Schwarzer, Lucas Neill, Tim Cahill, Mark Viduka, Craig Moore, Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton - are playing in the English Premier League, while Aloisi and Marco Bresciano compete in Spain and Italy respectively.
Perhaps the biggest trump card will be Australia's Dutch-born coach Guus Hiddink, who led South Korea to the semi-finals of the last World Cup. Can he do it again, or perhaps go one better?
Whatever the outcome, you can be sure that millions of Aussies at home and abroad will be glued to TV screens when the green and gold open their campaign against the Japanese at Kaiserslautern stadium on June 12.
Another eagerly awaited contest will be the Ashes cricket series in Australia at the end of the year. Already there are reports that up to 40,000 members of England's 'barmy army', still buoyed by England's unlikely 2-1 home triumph last September, will make the journey Down Under.
Having seized the Ashes for the first time in 18 years, England will not be in a hurry to give them back. Captain Michael Vaughan is a fierce competitor and Ashes hero Andrew 'Freddie' Flintoff has already proven to be a match-winner against the Aussies.
The boys in the baggy green, however, seemed to have bounced back stronger than ever from the Ashes setback. With a remodelled team line-up, the Australians have since enjoyed decisive Test series wins over the West Indies and South Africa. All of which points to a mouth-watering clash over the next Australian summer.
Aussie golfers are also hitting their straps and appear better placed to break their jinx at the first of this year's Majors, the Masters at Augusta, in the US, in April. No Australian has won the prestigious tournament, although the Shark, Greg Norman, came agonizingly close, finishing runner-up three times.
A record contingent of nine Australians will compete this year. Top 10-ranked Adam Scott heads the list, along with Stuart Appleby, who recently won his third consecutive Mercedes Championship in Hawaii, and Robert Allenby, who made a clean sweep of the major Australian titles late last year.
But Australia's international rugby fortunes have rarely been at a lower ebb. After a disastrous tour of Europe during which only one of four Test matches was won, the Wallabies record over their past nine Tests reads - wins: one, losses: eight. It has been a sad decline for the former world champions, who are now searching for a new coach and new talent.
Australia will be looking to the Super 14 series to unearth some emerging stars and build a team around world-class players such as outside-centre Lote Tuqiri and fullback Chris Latham.