Socceroos are doing it tough
Gruelling Asian campaign offers Australians an opportunity to better themselves
With their superb run in the 2006 World Cup a distant memory, life for Australia's Socceroos has moved on.
Since those heady days in Germany, when it seemed that every Aussie you ran into was confidently predicting they would win the competition - a trait the nation has in every sport - things have changed.
Coach Guus Hiddink left to manage Russia and his assistant, Graham Arnold, was promoted to his position. The Socceroos began plying their trade in the Asian Cup qualifiers in the likes of Bahrain and Kuwait, hardly the most glamorous of places.
They duly qualified for the Asian Cup finals in Thailand in July, but only after losing 2-0 to Kuwait along the way.
Back home the natives started getting restless. How can you do so well in a World Cup and controversially be put out by Italy, the team who went on to win it, and then lose 2-0 to Kuwait?
Well, welcome to Asian football, guys, and there's no point in complaining - you're the ones who wanted to be here in the first place.
'We moved into Asia to better ourselves and it will be a lot tougher to qualify for World Cups and junior tournaments,' Arnold said. 'Already our under-17s and under-20s haven't qualified for their World Cups and got knocked out in the first round. In the past we've only had to qualify for World Cups and the Olympics through Oceania.
'That's all changed so it will take an even greater effort, but it's the sort of challenge we wanted.'
Unlike some of his team's fans, West Ham United's Lucas Neill is all too aware of the pitfalls of playing in Asia. There are many variables to consider.
'In Oceania we were winning our games 7-0, 10-0, 14-0, and suddenly we were going into matches with the likes of Uruguay lacking any competitive games,' Neil, 29, said.
'Now we are playing against teams that have the chance of getting to the latter stages of competitions. Teams that have got good financial backing, therefore they've got great preparation.
'We've to travel long distances, in very different time zones and play in very difficult climates. We've already experienced playing Kuwait in Kuwait where the heat was 50 degrees Celsius during the day and on the night of the match it was just below 40 degrees. As a result every game is a hard game in Asia.'
The Socceroos' brilliant World Cup run also camouflaged the lack of depth in their squad. Fortunately, they went into the tournament injury-free and the nucleus of the side stayed that way.
'Over the past five years we've probably relied on a core of players. We've had four retirements since then and they'll be some more after the Asian Cup finals,' Arnold said. 'Moving into Asia has meant we'll now have 14 World Cup qualifiers, so we need to develop a bigger squad.'
The Australians spent a few days training in Hong Kong this week before playing tomorrow's friendly against China in Guangzhou, where they can expect a hot reception.
Not that their captain Mark Viduka would have expected anything less.
'I honestly believe that if you factor everything in, there are actually easier games playing countries in the European Championship than in Asia,' Viduka, 31, said.
'China will be tough, but a win is a must for us. We want to uphold the standard we set in the World Cup. For most of us growing up in Australia we were the kangaroos who didn't know how to play real football. Other sports were more important. Now we're going into the Asian Cup finals as one of the favourites and teams are really up for playing us, so it's a good thing not a bad thing.'
This is true but Australians pride themselves on excelling in sport. Winning is everything.
The Socceroos' meteoric rise now meets their lofty criteria and has sent fans' hopes sky high - maybe too high.
'If we don't prepare properly for this match against China and neglect our duties on the pitch, we will lose,' Neill said.