Monday, June 05, 2006

World Cup Spotlight: Australia

I harbor ambivalence towards Australia. On the one hand, everybody loves an underdog, and they don't come underdoggier than the Socceroos in the World Cup. FIFA-ranked 48th last time I checked, it's been 32 years since they qualified, and they did it by knocking out Uruguay--Uruguay!--in penalties. It'd be difficult not to feel John Aloisi's joy in the wake of that final kick. Difficult not to admire Mark Schwarzer, an extraordinary keeper, whose saves made the victory possible, or Harry Kewell, who subbed in at 30 minutes and brought with him the energy that turned the game in their favor.

But what if the underdogs turn out to be snarling mastiffs? Ben Rice in The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup tells a cringe-inducing story of a 2001 Australian victory over American Samoa, final score 31-nil (possibly 32. It's disputed). A few days earlier they'd trounced across Tonga, 22-nil. Granted, Australia had a thing to prove. It may be the only place in the world outside the U.S. where football is a game called soccer which ranks third or fourth in importance after other sports, some brazenly calling themselves football. The alternating indifference and amused indulgence with which Australians view the beautiful game is all too familiar to us Yankees.

But 31-nil? 22-nil? It becomes a question of ethics: at what point do you let up? After a six-goal lead--OK, I'll give a margin for machismo--a ten-goal lead, a team has a certain moral imperative to back off, just out of common decency. These men have to go home and face their neighbors, their wives. It's well and good talking about victory at any cost, but once the win is in the bag, there's a point at which red-blooded, competitive zeal gives way to gleeful sadism. Dismantle your moral compass, strip yourself of empathy, and you're headed into a soulless, Jens Lehmannesque sort of hell where the beauty of the game cannot follow.

That said, I'm excited to watch these players. They rest now in the interesting hands of Guus Hiddink, and Schwarzer, rock-solid in the goal, opens up space for scintillating play from men like Kewell and Tim Cahill. If nothing else, I expect vast explosions of pure, raw energy.

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