Qualifying feeling will be the same as four years ago
Clinching World Cup qualification on a quiet summer's night in the Middle East may seem anti-climactic compared to the Qantas Socceroos' penalty shootout heroics in Sydney four years ago.
DUBAI, June 4 AAP - Clinching World Cup qualification on a quiet summer's night in the Middle East may seem anti-climactic compared to the Qantas Socceroos' penalty shootout heroics in Sydney four years ago.
But try telling that to the players.
If Australia can snatch at least a draw against Qatar in Doha on Sunday morning (AEST) they will become the first team - other than South Africa as host - to qualify for next year's World Cup.
There won't be 80,000 screaming Australian fans as there were at ANZ Stadium in 2005 when the Qantas Socceroos booked their ticket to Germany by beating Uruguay.
Nor will the be any penalty shootout drama, or a sight like John Aloisi sprinting his way down the ground with glee, waving the green and gold shirt over his head like a schoolboy.
The pressure isn't even there, with Australia knowing they still have home matches against Bahrain and Japan to secure the point should they slip up in the Gulf nation.
Surely then, it's not going to feel quite so good this time?
"I'm telling you now, it will," Tim Cahill says.
"Because it's the biggest thing you can do, you're qualifying for a World Cup.
"(2005) was special in the fact that it was Australia's first World Cup in ages (since 1974) but it's going to be that feeling again.
"To qualify for a second World Cup will be amazing.
"It's a dream of mine to realise the same feelings that I got after the last one and hopefully we can go a step better."
The famous penalty shootout win in Sydney was recently voted Australia's greatest ever sporting moment and the players recognise the place it will hold in Australian football antiquity.
"I think that just sits in the history books of Australian football and will never be touched again," midfielder Vince Grella said.
But the team vying to take Australia to consecutive finals for the first time is also aware it has the chance to create another significant slice of history.
"It will be just as satisfying this time around," captain Lucas Neill said.
"And to do it with a couple of games to spare and not conceding any goals in the last stage of qualification ... to do it against better opposition on the way, and to be hopefully the first team apart from the hosts to qualify, what a great statement to put out to the rest of the world."
Several factors have contributed to a reduced sense of drama in this campaign, most notably Australia's switch from Oceania to the Asian Football Confederation.
Instead of the tense, and somewhat unfair, do-or-die playoffs of the past, the Qantas Socceroos have been able to pave a sure and steady path towards qualification over almost a year and a half.
Their performance in the final stage of qualifiers, in which they have 13 points from a possible 15 and are yet to concede a goal, has them in the position to qualify comfortably with room to spare.
It's a magnificent achievement for both the team and coach Pim Verbeek, but the lengthy campaign has also allowed time for critics to find flaws in their style of play and tactics.
Sections of the media and public have raised the bar with their expectations of the team, and are concerned their football will need to improve considerably to make significant inroads in the finals in South Africa.
Understandably, that attitude has left some of the players feeling a little hard done by.
"That's the thing I can't understand, " Cahill said.
"The expectation level always rises, and we want it to, but we also want focus on the positives.
"I've not read anything positive about the manager, or really anything positive about the players and the team and although, to an extent, we haven't spanked teams ... the situation we're in is a huge positive.
"As a player, I find it fickle to hear (the criticism), going from never qualifying for the World Cup to qualifying for two in row."
Nonetheless, the players have reiterated throughout the campaign that the performances will be long forgotten when they are on the plane to South Africa.
The company line has always been that qualification is all that really matters.
Once that's secured, there'll be plenty of time to criticise, debate and discuss the ins and outs, tactics, formations and personnel for the World Cup.
Because there is no doubt a whole new set of challenges await the Qantas Socceroos in South Africa.
"I think it's going to be very difficult for us, because everyone knows what we can do," said Harry Kewell, whose goal against Croatia put Australia through to the round of 16 in 2006 before they lost controversially to eventual champions Italy.
"We were a surprise packet last time, no one knew exactly what we were capable of.
"Now a lot more people are going to be expecting the same kind of thing."
For now, though, on the eve of Australia's biggest match since 2005, there's only one thing in sight.
"Qualification is all we can talk about," Neill said.
"Playing in a World Cup, it's just the ultimate thing you can do as a player.
"For some of us, this might be our last World Cups.
"We've got to grasp it."
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