Gianni Stensness conflicted after Socceroos debut

In miserable weather and with a disappointing result, it would not be unreasonable for every Socceroos player to want to quickly move on from Australia’s 2-0 loss to Japan at Stadium Australia.

The loss meant that it was impossible for the national team to qualify directly for the FIFA World Cup with the team now having to prepare for the play-off pathway with two yet-to-be-decided teams now standing in their way.

But even still, the match on Thursday night will always remain in the memories of three specific players: Gianni Stensness, Bruno Fornaroli, and Ben Folami.

On the night, these three players became Socceroos caps #617, #618, and #619 respectively. While undoubtedly all three players would have dreamed of celebrating their debut national cap with a famous victory – football can be a cruel sport and it was not to be.

All three players had very different routes to their first senior national cap. For Stensness, he had the rare situation of being pursued by multiple countries.

Originally selected by the Australian U20 team, Stensness represented the green and gold in youth football before transferring to New Zealand: earning selection in their U20 World Cup squad and even scoring a stunning goal in the final tournament.

After an eye-catching season with Central Coast Mariners in 2020/21, most observers thought he would be an automatic selection in the senior All Whites squad – so it was a surprise when he switched his allegiance to Australia.

In hindsight, the decision made sense, the midfielder was born and raised in Australia – only eligible for New Zealand through his father – so playing for the Socceroos was his preferred option.

It also made Thursday night a memorable but emotionally conflicting situation.

“Starting the game meant a lot of hopes and a lot of dreams coming true and it was definitely a massive moment for me, but obviously the result is disappointing,” said Stensness.

What made the loss so cruel was how the Socceroos were still fighting for qualification until the death blow in the 89th minute (followed by further damage when Japan scored their second goal in the 94th minute).

“I felt good coming into the game, I felt confident and the whole team did. Unfortunately, just at the end, the game slipped away from us."

It was an end that Stensness was on the field for having started his debut match and lasting 90 minutes before being replaced by fellow debutant, Folami. Fornaroli – brought on in the 68th minute – made up the trio of first-timers.

With the playoffs looming, the three debutants – and all Socceroos – will now have to prepare for the cut-throat nature of playoff football. But it’s a pathway that Australia has a rich history in, being involved in nine playoff series in national team history.

“We've lost this game and we're not through to the World Cup straight away, but we'll take the next five days and we'll continue on this journey. Australia did this four years ago so that's what we'll do our best to achieve again.”

Australia closes out their Group B fixtures on Wednesday morning against Saudi Arabia before preparing for the play-offs against the third-placed team from Group A in June.