When Mile Jedinak opened Australia’s World Cup qualification campaign against Kyrgyzstan with a second minute goal in Bishkek, few envisaged it would take the Socceroos another 21 matches to secure qualification for Russia 2018.
More than two years since that largely-forgettable June 2015 encounter, a deflected goal and two spot kicks from the bearded midfield general has secured Australia the second last available spot for FIFA’s flagship tournament.
Not much more needs to be said about the Socceroos’ route from Central Asia to Russia via the likes of Saitama, San Pedro Sula and Sydney.
The campaign generated acrimony and division among the Australian footballing community. Manager Ange Postecoglou’s back three is probably the most-discussed tactical issue in the sport’s local history.
The ‘will he, won’t he’ questions surrounding Postecoglou’s future have split fans and observers. Qualification was not pretty on the pitch, and it was not much better off it.
That must all be now forgotten.
Of course Football Federation Australia should learn lessons – valuable lessons – from the Socceroos’ experiences of the past two years. But there is no point relitigating the past.
All eyes must switch to Russia, and the division that has characterised recent months discarded to history.
To make that happen, Postecoglou needs to immediately confirm his future. Not next week, or next month. Either the 52-year-old is committed to taking his team to Russia, or he must exit now.
Credit should be paid to Postecoglou – he has achieved World Cup qualification in challenging circumstances and history will remember him kindly for doing so.
But that was the minimum expectation that came with the job. He cannot now treat the managerial position as a personal plaything for doing what he was hired to do.
His comment in the post-match press conference on Wednesday – that he would soon discuss the matter with the “powers that be”, but “right now it is about enjoying the moment” – indicate we could be waiting a while yet.
Once the coaching issue is resolved, attention will switch to the vexing task facing Australia in June 2018. The glow of post-qualification satisfaction is likely to be short-lived – the Socceroos face an ominous test in Russia.
The team will be seeded in the fourth pool for the draw, meaning a difficult group is all but guaranteed. Brazil, Spain and Egypt could be possible foes; even a favourable permutation of Russia, Mexico and Senegal would see Australia travel to the tournament as favourites for that group’s wooden spoon.
But there are positive for the Socceroos faithful.
The benefit of Australia’s experience at the Confederations Cup should not be underestimated. Russia is a difficult place to travel, in terms of language, logistics and geography; having the warm-up event behind them will leave the players and management team well-placed to adjust faster than competitors.
The FFA has already secured a training base in Kazan, a pleasant, well-connected city in the heart of Russia away from the disruptive buzz of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
Less than a day after Australia’s draw with Chile at the Confederations Cup, which prevented the team from continuing to the tournament’s knock-out round, FFA staff were on a plane to Kazan to continue their scouting.
The nous that saw Australia charter a plane home from Honduras and arrive 24 hours ahead of their Honduran opponents was on display earlier in the year as well, at a time when the planning of most World Cup opponents was formative at best.
It may seem insignificant, but an accumulation of these minor details can give the Socceroos an edge that could prove important in this game of slender margins.
While Socceroos fans are certain to continuing celebrating, in the coming days those at FFA headquarters will switch their focus to the task ahead.
The Socceroos learn who they will face in Russia on 2 December Australian time, when FIFA executives host a glittering event for the World Cup draw in Moscow.
For Postecoglou and his charges, the challenge is over. The challenge has just begun.