The eye of the Tiger

As post season tournaments go the La Liga World Challenge takes some beating. Not for the quality or even the sides involved. No, this is simply for the random nature and complexity of the format. Even the most savvy of football experts I know failed to explain it to me other than it was a chance for some of the lesser La Liga sides to get some sunshine and play a bit of pressure-free football. Valencia in Ohio, Espanyol in Ecuador and Europa League champions, Sevilla in Morocco all playing a single game, if there is a format to the challenge then it’s as clear as mud how it works.

I’ve already made my feelings known about these post-season games but being in Brisbane for a work event when the game between The Roar and Villarreal was taking place was an opportunity not to miss. The games played this week in Sydney with Chelsea and Spurs the guests had been played out in front of huge attendances (83,500 and 71,500 respectively). Would the same interest rub off on the locals in Queensland?

17813466433_d5e84c38f4_kIf Melbourne was an AFL dominated city then Brisbane’s passion was Rugby League. Then Union, Cricket, AFL and finally “soccer”. The Brisbane Roar are one of the most successful A-League franchises, winning the Champions title in 2011, 2012 and 2014. Calling the 52,000 capacity Suncorp Stadium home is both a benefit and a disadvantage for the club. The plus side is the ultra-modern facilities and a passionate band of fans who took up residence in the north stand. With such facilities they can attract commercial revenues that some other clubs can’t. However, with 52,000 seats to fill each and every home, the stadium can sometimes have a sparse feel.

The Suncorp Stadium sits a few minutes walk from the Brisbane River. From the South Bank area of the city centre it’s a short hop over the William Jolly bridge, not forgetting to look to your right as you do and the impressive city skyline. Then up the hill passed the backpacker hostels and all the beauty they bring before you hang a left into Caxton Street, a downhill stretch of superb bars and restaurants that buzz on a match day. The tip here, so the locals tell me is not too peak too early. The trap is at the top of the hill – Honey B’s, which should need no explanation and is best left until after the game when you can share your emotions with the locals.

17811489664_6efc0f8784_k (1)The road wasn’t exactly rocking when I wandered down an hour before kick off. The locals seemed as perplexed as I was about this game. The Australian A-League finished 3 weeks ago with Melbourne Victory taking the crown after beating Sydney in the Grand Final. La Liga concluded 10 days ago with Villarreal finishing in an impressive 6th place and qualifying for the Europa League.

With the rest of my work colleagues deciding to stay behind in one of the steak restaurants up the road I’d gone out on a limb here. We can get good steak, served by some of the “friendliest” waitresses and washed down with some decent local brews any time right? Football with a cold meat pie and a pint of XXXX is much more important…surely?

Brisbane Roar 3 Villarreal 0 – Suncorp Stadium – Wednesday 3rd June 2015
In the 68th minute Villarreal’s night was complete. Two-nil down and any chance of a way back into the game had been lost when Vietta’s “cheeky” chipped penalty clipped the top of the bar. After a long season in La Liga the faces of the players told of a journey too far. The Spaniards had arrived in Australia last week, taking in and beating Adelaide United before arriving on the Gold Coast.

18246292718_52cdca54d9_kThe sparse crowd of just 9,000 suggested a couple of things to a neutral like me. Firstly, based on the comments I heard from a number of fans was that they hadn’t actually heard of Villarreal, which wouldn’t entice them from the bars of South Bank. Secondly, whilst Brisbane Roar get some decent crowds, averaging 11,600 for their A-League games down significantly from last season’s almost record high of 18,000, a post-season meaningless, despite what the marketing spin said, was a game to miss, especially as thirdly, ticket prices weren’t exactly set at a level that would encourage the locals to attend.

This was my first taste of watching an A-League team and I have to say I was impressed. New manager, ex-Portsmouth and Coventry City striker John Aloisi watched on, with former Ipswich Town Dutch maestro Frans Thijssen overseeing his last game in the dug out, the Roar passed the ball up, down, left and right with consummate ease. They were always looking for that killer ball behind the Villarreal back four.

The major surprise was it took 40 minutes (aka two beers) for the home side to take the lead. The intricate Brisbane passing play finally found teenage midfielder Devante Clut on the edge of the area and his shot easily beat Carlos Sanchez in the Villarreal goal. They doubled their lead on the stroke of half-time when Solorzano finished from close range after a sublime pass from playmaker Thomas Broich.

The second half saw much of the same from the home side. Roared on my the noise of the fans from The Den they went in search of the third goal. The boos of disapproval at the decision by the referee to give a penalty against Brisbane’s Hingert when the Argentinian Luciano Vietto clearly dived, as the big screen TV’s verified. However the officials blushes were spared when Vietto tried to take the piss with his resulting spot kick, trying to dink the ball over the Roar keeper. Boos turned to cheers when his kick bounced off the top of the bar and over. To add insult to injury Clut added a third after a well-worked effort a few minutes later.

17813451083_353f6e0908_zThree-nil wasn’t probably a fair reflection of the possession or attacking intent. The Australians dominated a tired-looking Villarreal and could have put them to the sword. But with a watching audience back home, and the Spanish commercial partners invested in the concept of the La Liga World Challenge, perhaps the Australians took their foot off the gas towards the end. I doubt it will be the same situation next month when Liverpool are the guests. That night the stadium will be close to capacity, the fans will be in full voice, the bars and restaurants of Caxton Street will be pumping and Honey B’s will certainly be buzzin’.

Go on my Son

You make your own luck in this world, goes the saying and to an extent I’d agree. I’m a firm believer that luck is no more than a by-product of good planning, hard work and patience. In terms of being in the right place at the right time for football, I can wheel out a few good stories – many revolving around work trips where there just happened to be a game on whilst I was visiting a particular city (only 19 slices of “luck” in 2014) but on the other hands I’d also missed out on a few games. Los Angeles, India and Australia were three such destinations that fell into the “must try harder” pot.

Last summer I’d had the pleasure in visiting Australia for the first time. We’d just made a big investment into Melbourne so I traveled down under to see how they were getting on. The trip took place slap-bang in the middle of the World Cup which was both a blessing and a curse. Plenty of football on the TV, albeit it at stupid o’clock, but the domestic leagues had shut down for the duration of the tournament. Whilst watching Australia’s nail-biter against Holland in a Gentleman’s Club (not my idea but when needs must) and England’s painful demise against Uruguay in a casino was all very well, it wasn’t the real deal. We did manage to snag (tip for you travelers – snag refers to a sausage in Australia, not a catch) some tickets to watch AFL at the Melbourne Cricket Ground which was a great night out but it wasn’t real football despite was any Victorian (resident of the state of Victoria and not a very very very old person) will tell you.

So when a request came through on the bat phone to go back to Australia to present at a conference or two I of course consulted the fixtures before I said yes. As luck would have it Melbourne would be hosting not one, two but three major sporting events in the same week in the same place. Luck? Absolutely. Australia was hosting the Asian Cup across four cities (plus the town of Newcastle) and in the week I’d be arriving there would be two games as the very descriptive Melbourne Rectangular stadium, sandwiched between a Big Bash cricket match at the MCG and the Australian Open tennis championships. Somewhere in there I had to fit in some client meetings and delivering a key-note speech at two seminars.

16144165128_1e8c8e5d5c_kThe moving of the first event from Melbourne to Sydney meant I’d be missing not only the Jordan v Japan game as well as the very important Big Bash game between play-off chasing Melbourne Stars and already qualified Perth Scorchers. Hmm. But on the plus side I would be having lunch under the Sydney Harbour Bridge with a view on the Opera House. Was that any consolation? What do you think? But at least I’d had the forethought to grab tickets for Australia’s triumphal quarter final tie back in Melbourne on the Thursday night. After winning their opening two games convincingly all they needed was a draw against South Korea to ensure the festival of sport would continue in Melbourne. Of course, they lost meaning that we’d now be watching South Korea v Uzbekistan. Someone up there wasn’t playing fair.

Exactly thirty hours after leaving TBIR Towers I touched down at Sydney airport. It doesn’t matter how comfy the seats are, or the choice of films and TV shows, 19 hours sitting on any airplane isn’t fun. Boredom sets in relatively quickly, and if you happen to be sitting next to Mr Snorey Smelly Feet well good luck in trying to get some sleep! I was well excited to be going to Sydney, even if it was only for 24 hours. It’s one of those cities where you see the icons, the sights and have a mental image of what it’ll be like to be standing in front of them. One of my Australian colleagues summed up the difference between the two cities as follows:-

“Sydney’s like your pin up fantasy girlfriend” a work colleague told me, Great looking, with world class boobs you’d want to show off to your mates. But Melbourne’s your childhood sweetheart you will always love, and will always love you when you make that walk of shame back late at night”

As if the sunshine, the scenery and the thrill of experiencing something new weren’t enough, another glimmer of good news reached us. Our final meeting of the day had been cancelled, meaning we could fly back to Melbourne a few hours early MEANING the Big Bash was back on!

16336240445_c1544b231b_kAn hour after I landed at Melbourne I was entering the finest cricket ground in the world. Free transport from the city centre, tickets for £10, drinking encouraged. This was like watching our original Twenty20 competition before the counties got very greedy. As you’d expect the crowd was boisterous fuelled by the music and fireworks that accompanied an away team wicket (there was only 2) and a home team six (there wasn’t many of those at first either). Melbourne Stars, captained by Luke Wright and featuring the leading run scorer in the competition, Kevin Pieterson, needed to spank the visitors to have any hope of a home semi-final (and thus another game to watch at the weekend!). With 6 overs gone in their return innings, chasing an impressive Perth score of 179/2, it was all going wrong for The Stars. Wright fell very cheaply then Pieterson arrived at the crease to great expectation, only to depart 1 ball later to ridicule. He was, after all as the chap next to me said, “An arrogant Pommie bastard”. Fair point.

It was tempting to head off early, with it being obvious to even the most ardent fan that 150 more runs in 11 overs wasn’t going to happen. But as the sun fell, Peter Handscomb took centre stage, hitting 108 not out including five sixes in the last few overs to see the Stars home to the most unlikely victory with 3 balls to spare.

Cricket ticked off it was time for the main event. The Asian Cup organising committee had also bet big on it being Australia and had upped ticket prices according (although AU$69 or £35 for a top-priced ticket is hardly Premier League pricing). Demand was high initially although the (legal) secondary market picked up once it was clear it would be the Koreans rather than the Australians who would be in town. With a few thousand tickets still left to shift on the day, the organisers cut ticket prices to stimulate demand, although their claims of a sell out were premature with a few thousand seats empty still at kick off.

Football is one of the biggest growing sports in Australia. Despite the time zone difference and a decrease in the number of Australian players plying their trade in England, the Premier League still pulls in the audiences and some papers dedicate a full page a day to the goings on the other side of the world. However, with the U.S. open in town, the Asian Cup had passed many locals by despite the Australians coming into the tournament as joint favourites with Japan, who they lost to in the last Asian Cup final in Doha in 2011.

The Rectangular Stadium normally goes by the name of AAMI Park and is the newest sporting venue on the Melbourne skyline. Opened in 2010 it is now home to two football teams, Melbourne Victory and another Manchester City franchise, Melbourne City as well as the rugby teams The Rebels (League) and The Storm (Union). Crowds for the tennis and football mingled outside the stadiums, with the Koreans, many dressing down for the occasion (not that anyone was complaining) coming out in huge numbers. We took our seats with a beer in each hand (Yep – that’s also allowed, as it is at all sports here) and looked forward to getting behind the White Wolves and whether they could pull off a shock. They’d came close to qualifying for the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, losing in the Play-Offs. The tournament threatened shocks-a-plenty so could this be the their moment to shine?

South Korea 2 Uzbekistan 0 – The Rectangular Stadium – Thursday 22nd January 2015
It may have taken almost 110 minutes to finally wear down the White Wolves but the Fighting Tigers did their job and would be heading to Newcastle to take on the winner of Iran versus Iraq. As football matches go, this was up there with one of the best. The sight of the Uzbekistan players laying prostrate on the field after Bayer Leverkusen’s Korean centre-forward Son Heung-Min broke the deadlock in the last minute of the first period of extra time.

They’d given their all, even had a few chances of their own in the dying seconds where they could have won the game. They’d be able to return home with their heads held high but this tournament was only ever going to be won by one of three countries win this tournament and Uli Stielke’s men were one of those. Their last tournament victory was over 50 years ago but this time the German had added maturity to the squad that grabbed Olympic Bronze in London in 2012.

16339947472_63c8828689_zIgnatiy Nesterov was the stand out star of the show. The White Wolves keeper pulled off save after save in normal time to deny the likes of Lee Keun-hoo and Nam Tae-hee although some poor finishing also conspired to keep the score goal-less.

It was good to see the locals getting into the spirit. A group of young girls all dressed in Aston Villa shirts gave some glamour to a dull subject, whilst a Man Utd fan wearing nothing more (it appeared) than a slightly over-sized shirt with “Horny Devil” on the back was keeping someone in a constant supply of beers as she skipped up and down the steps. It was a fine evening for sightseeing I can tell you – even ignoring the Melbourne skyline peaking over the top of the deconstructed football stands(take a leather football, cut it open, make a short of hat and that’s the sort of shape if the stands).

Uzbekistan were hanging on as the ninety minutes ticked down. They put everyone behind the ball although Turaev wasted a great opportunity with a back-post header with 12 minutes remaining, and then danger man Rashidov teed up Nam who completely fluffed his lines.

In extra time you simply had the feeling that it would be Korea’s night and in the 104th minute the Uzbeki full back, and winner of the most expensive shirt back, Shukhrat Mukhammadiev lost possession as he dribbled out of his own penalty area, allowing Kim Jin-su to run at the defenders and his deflected cross was nodded home, Brooking-style, by Son Haung-Min.

Despite their attempts to pull themselves back into the game, Uzbekistan simply ran out of steam. Whilst a second goal, a superb effort from Son again that saw him collapse with a mixture of cramp and emotion.

It was a brave effort, but one that ultimately saw the White Wolves fall short. It was a mark though of how far they had come as a nation. Their focus will now be on qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. With three of the four places almost a shoe-in for Australia, Japan and South Korea, they’d be potentially fighting it out with the other quarter-finalists Iran and China as well as the surprise packages who reached the last four, United Arab Emirates with their bags of money and Iraq with their bags of spirit.

To complete my trip we headed down to the Australian Open on a vet hot and sunny Sunday. Tickets were plentiful for ground passes at just £30, which gave you access for all bar the two shoe courts. Take note Wimbledon. There was none of this stuffy attitude we see in the UK, with most fans heading to the Heineken village where live music, alcohol and decent food provided a great accompaniment to the tennis in the big screens. Australia knows how to throw a party and doesn’t ever need an excuse to throw one.

Five things from….Australia 2 Netherlands 3

Here is some good advice when you have travelled to the other side of the world.

  • Try to get back into a regular rhythm of sleep as soon as possible to reduce the pain of jet lag
  • Avoid coffee and excessive alcohol
  • Avoid heavy, stodgy food that will keep you up

So it probably wasn’t wise to decide to head out to a bar in Melbourne at 1.30am to watch this game, having not slept for a couple of days due to travel.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but so too is beer, football and hundreds of screaming Australian girls.  Irresponsibility wins hands down.  But I had missed a whole day’s worth of World Cup action travelling yesterday (hence no updates) so I was determined to get back into the World Cup swing, albeit watching the games all through the night.

This promised to be a fantastic, colourful match with a couple of the best supported teams in the tournament clashing in Port Alegre.  The Australians knew that defeat would almost spell curtains, whilst the Dutch knew a win would almost certainly take them through. AND can we talk about beer?  No shortage of outstanding brews on “home turf” for this one.

download1. The Australian Adrian Chiles – We all love Adrian don’t we?  His cute face, his knack of asking a question and then answering it himself and then THOSE shorts.  Having watched a few games across the world this week on TV we don’t know how lucky we are. I mean, take the Australian Sports anchor for their World Cup coverage – Lucy Zelic. Highly respected as a sports presenter, knowledgeable about the game and not wearing shorts. British TV, best in the world.

2. THAT volley – If I was still a little sleepy then Tim Cahill’s volley woke me up and the whole of the Central Business District here in Melbourne.  The chap next to me got so excited he gave me a big hug when it flew in off the bar.  “Believe” he said to me, throwing a pint of Red Spice Ale down my white T-Shirt.  One of the goals in World Cup history?

3. Hoof it – The Australians are frustrating to watch when they defend, neatly summed up by their fans in the bar who added a soundtrack of “no, No, NO…just bloody HOOF IT OUT” every time the Dutch broke.  All three Dutch goals came from defensive indecision and sometimes winning games is as much about being functional as it is being technical. Bring back Lucas Neill I say.

4. Dutch fans blending in – The camera panned round the stadium and for a brief few seconds it appeared that a big bit of the stadium was empty.  It wasn’t.  It was the Dutch fans, dressed in orange who had taken on the appearance of chameleons and changed a fetching colour of orange in the hot sunshine.  Nice tan lines.

5. Time to say goodbye – The good thing about the World Cup is wall to wall football for a month.  The bad thing is sometimes results make games meaningless.  The surprise win by the Dutch over the Spanish meant their victory tonight means they only need a point maximum versus Chile to go through.  That is assuming Spain do not win their game on now versus Chile.  If the Chileans win, then both Spain and Australia would be on their way home less than a week into the tournament.

Beer World Cup

Back at last….Only 17 different Australian beers on offer in the bar I watched this in, compared to two Dutch beers (Heineken and Grolsch).  The best of the Aussie brews, the Cahill to relate it back to the side, was a Red Spiced Ale which was, as my new learned Australian friend told me was “bonza”.  He was right.  As good a contest as it was on the field, with the Australians just taking this one.

Australia 4 Netherlands 3


Five things from….Chile 3 Australia 1

We should’ve all packed up and turned off the TV long before this game started. Surely nothing could beat THAT game and you could imagine ITV’s producers trying to think of ways to suggest BBC’s coverage of the Spain v Netherlands game was nothing compared to what we could expect from this game. Alas I’d failed to find any Chilean beer in SE9 so the Beer World Cup would take a brief diversion for the game in the exact centre of South America in Cuiabá.

1. Lucas Neill – when Panini brought out their sticker album for the World Cup they had included Lucas Neill. This shocked me in two ways. Firstly the horrible memories of seeing a player who makes BFF look like he’s been at Weightwatchers huff and puff around Upton Park. Secondly, up until a few weeks ago he was still registered to play in England, with Watford. Must have been a bad season for the Hornets. Good old Lucas was on an eye watering £60k per week six years ago at Upton Park.

2. Globe trotters – the Australian squad play in thirteen different countries. That takes some beating and may explain the fact that for the vast majority of the game they played as complete strangers, often bring eight men behind the ball in the final third yet Chile still dominated possession – with 74% of the ball at half-time.

3. Rubbish use of advertising – What’s that all about? As anyone who works in the domain name world will know, the new .futbol domain is available AND McDonalds own it. So why not use it? Relevant, catchy and easy to remember…Rainham Steel, Rainham Steel, Rainham Steel.

Marco4. A Chilean player called Gary – Seriously?  That’s like having someone born in Nottingham called Marco.  I can only assume he was named after a famous Gary from the late 1980’s.  There could only be one man – Gary Coleman from Different Strokes or perhaps Gary Lineker after his Golden Boot performance in Mexico in 1986…which was ten months before he was born…Interesting.

5. Thank God for goal line technology – Just four games in and FIFA can breathe a sigh of relief when Wilkinson clears off the line and the referee gets a message to say “no goal”.  Goal shouted the Chilean fans, who according to certain newspapers all looked like this.  No goal said GoalControl thanks to their secret eye in the net.

The Beer World Cup

With a lack of Chilean beer in the World Cup fridge we had to turn to Current Mrs Fuller’s wine cellar (cupboard under the stairs). And what did we find? A cheeky Chilean Casillero del Diablo, the official wine of Manchester United no less, and a Hunter Valley white. One glass of each? Go on then…

Chilean Red 2 Australian White 2

The fact we hadn’t chilled the white counteracted the fact the red hadn’t had time to “breathe”. Even so it was a tight run contest with nothing coming between the two apart from a bowl of spicy Jalapeño pretzel pieces at half time. A bit like watching an episode of Emmerdale when you are in a Bond marathon…it’s OK but you’d rather go back to seeing 007. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow.

The Kit World Cup – Day two

Nike – 6pts
adidas – 3pts
Puma – 3pts


Do you come from a land down under? Errr Yes I Do!

”England’s moment of strewth against Australia was hard to swallow, but there were some positives to be had amid the rubble of the Upton Park shambles.  Plaudits for the performances of Jermaine Jenas, Wayne Rooney and Francis Jeffers in England’s 3-1 defeat at the hands of Australia could arguably be heard over the rustling backdrop of straws being clutched.” Stuart Roach – BBC

Wed 13th February 2003 – Upton Park – England 1 Australia 3
The lowpoint of English football from the past decade.  Sven Goran Eriksson fielded a different team in each half to not only devalue the English national team but to leave us with our heads hung in embarrassment.  A full house at Upton Park saw Australia race to a 2-0 lead thanks to first half goals from Popovic and Kewell.  Wayne Rooney came on at half time to be the youngest ever England international at 17 years and 111 days but it was too little too late.  Franny Jeffers got one back in the second half but Brett Emerton made the final score 3-1.  And what sort of players did out illustrious leader chose for that Valentine’s treat? Danny Mills, Paul Konchesky, Danny Murphy and James Beattie anyone?

Well, we still haven’t forgotten that night, and I can be that our guest today hasn’t either.  Australia are on their way to their second successive World Cup after an impressive campaign that saw them qualify way back when we had some sunshine in this country.  Their main supporters organisation is the Green and Gold Army, and we are honoured have been joined by Mark van Aken from the GGA.

Thanks for taking the time out to speak with us Mark.  Let’s start with the Green and Gold Army then. When was it formed?
Back in 2001 in the lead up to Australia’s two-pronged World Cup qualifiers against Uruguay. A small nucleus attended the 1-0 win at the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground for us Poms),  but the real spur for the group was the subsequent 3-0 loss in Montevideo that cost us a place in Japan/South Korea. That was the line in the sand.

How many members do you have?
The group offers a free membership which now numbers 12,500 in 60 countries with the lions share in Australia (well duh!).

I know one of the issues at Wembley when England play at home is that the stadium is so huge that it is difficult for the more vocal fans to be able to sit together and create much of a home atmosphere.  How do you organise yourself for home games?
It’s been a fluctuating ride in this regard. For many years the FFA designated a dedicated Green and Gold Army area but now it’s termed the more generic Australian Home End which, most of the time, serves the same purpose. The group’s site – – is the virtual meeting place for fans to coordinate pre-game functions, choreos and the like.

How many of the 12,500 members attend home games?
You can bank on the home end being filled for most home matches which usually equates to 500 to a thousand punters behind the goals for any given game. Aussie support has quickly made up ground on its counterparts in Europe and South America at club level, but it’s still a push to get more than a few hundred die hards singing loud and proud for the Socceroos. While you’ll see Spurs and Gooners singing together for England, it seems hard to get Sydney and Melbourne folk to get along!

And what about away following?  This is one area that us England Fans are suitably proud of.
Given the girth of Asia, away travel can be a logistical and financial challenge. The Green and Gold Army has had as few as 50 hardy souls traveling to places like Tashkent and Doha through to a few hundred in Kunming, China. The biggest away crowd was in Yokohama when nearly 2,000 Aussies packed the stands for the Socceroos showdown with the Blue Samurai in February last year.

Apart from our rousing rendition of God Save the Queen, England Fans are short on songs.  Any rituals or specific songs?
No rituals apart from the obligatory pre-match pub. Not that it really gets sung during the game, but The Land Down Under is a post-match favourite. As for chants, we tend to lend them from other countries, including England. There is the tired old, Aussie-Aussie-Ausie-Oi-Oi-Oi, but that is fairly derided by football fans. It’s usually met with a reciprocal chant – It’s not the F%&king Cricket, It’s not the F%&king Cricket. The number one tune is simply AUS-TRA-LIA, LA, LA, LA, LA, LA, LA to the chorus of Crocodile Rock… I guess there’s some symmetry there.

After missing out for so long on a World Cup place because of the Oceania Play Off situation, did you support the decision to move to the Asian federation and thus a harder route to the World Cup?
Absolutely. And it’s the most important thing that’s ever happened in Aussie football. It gives us a future and some direction. And you could argue that it’s a far lengthier path but not necessarily a harder one. What’s hard is having a national team essentially dormant for four years then being dusted off and expected to beat a South American team that’s gone through 18 tough matches together. Now Australia, like Italy, like Holland, like Argentina, are judged on the strength of their whole campaign, not a two-legged lottery.

Did you expect to qualify for this World Cup when the draw was made, and then again when you got drawn in a tough 2nd round group?
We certainly hoped so, but with Asia being somewhat of an unknown, it was very much a ‘suck it and see’ type deal. There were some hairy moments along the way, but it’s the journey of getting there this time that we hadn’t had in the past that gives you some sense of real accomplishment. And a match-hardened team will hopefully bare fruit in South Africa.

Any stand out memories as fans from the qualifiers?
For me personally it was the Japan trip. That was the only one that I caught on the road, although the game itself was a text book nil-nil, it was the result that essentially put us in qualification cruise control. I think most foreigners can’t appreciate what a challenge it is to follow the team, especially Europeans. An away trip to Turkey or Russia is probably as far as an England fan can be asked to travel (You’d be surprised – England took nearly a thousand to Trinidad and Tobago for a friendly in May 2008, and nearly double that for the qualifier in Kazakhstan). For us that’s a domestic trip to Perth in terms of cost and distance. I know others loved far flung places like Uzbekistan.

How many Australian fans you expect to travel to South Africa?
We have an official tour which will take nearly 500 fans, then we’d expect a few thousand more GGArmy folk to make up the 10,000-plus landing on the veldt. It’s amazing, considering the relatively small population and that football is growing but still well behind cricket, Rugby League and Aussie Rules, that Aussies have requested the third-most tickets for the Cup from FIFA. More than Brazil! More than the USA! More than Italy! C’mon.

Do you have organised tours in place for the tournament?  I wonder if they are as expensive as our ones with Thomsons!
We do. We’ve managed to commandeer the entire Hotel Nicol in Bedfordview in Johannesburg for the Cup, which is great because the Socceroos are based close by and it’s a central point for getting to and from all the games. There are still some spots left – and it offers the best of both worlds – the camaraderie of traveling with your comrades while experiencing life the Jozi locals.

Your World Cup group is the traditional “group of death”…confident of qualifying?
Yeah well I don’t know about a group of death. I mean every group means death for two teams, but it’s a challenge. Germany first up is tough, you’d definitely like the strongest team last up in the hope they’ve already made the second round and take their foot off the gas. Ghana are beatable. Serbia are beatable. It’ll be tough but we’re good enough.

And a potential 2nd round game v England beckons for the runners up (England have the group of boredom) – how much will the fans look forward to that?  Will it be payback for the Ashes?
It’ll be the biggest thing ever won’t it? The Aussie media will go into overdrive. Everyone will bring up the 3-1 at Upton Park. Revenge for the Ashes? We’ll get that next summer in Oz, but this is way more important than that.

Which players should we look out for in the Summer?
The thing with the Aussie team is that it’s very similar to the one we had in Germany. So we’re banking on the old grey mare having the familiarity of four years together to win the day.  Dario Vidosic is a youngster at Nurnberg in Germany who might spring up to add some pace to the midfield. Mark Bresciano has been around a long time but is in career best form with Palermo in the Serie A and will be important, especially since our attack is pretty impotent.

As a West Ham fan I was glad to see the back of  Lucas Neill in the summer.  He seemed to lack pace and tactical awareness in the Premier League, yet then re-surfaced at Everton.  Is he still seen as a hero by the Australia fans?
By many yes. I think his good looks and charm (Not his wide girth then?) really made him a star after the last World Cup. And he was very good in Germany, save for the part where his sliding tackle got us eliminated that is! He’s definitely up there with Harry Kewell and Timmy Cahill as the stars of Aussie football. Whether his club form and latest bizarre transfer warrant the hype is another thing.

How much influence has the growing importance of the A-League had on the national team?
Not much really. The national coach, Pim Verbeek, has publicly expressed his preference for players playing in better leagues abroad. He famously put it that players would be better off training in the Bundesliga than playing in the A-League. And by and large any young and up and coming players pressing for World Cup spots will come from a foreign league.

Why do you think that friendlies in London have been so poorly supported in the past (2,000 v SA in 2007, 4,000 v Nigeria) when there are so many Aussies in the city?
I wasn’t aware the numbers were that low. I think you’ll find that demographically football support in Australia comes from very different parts of society than cricket or rugby. The nation enjoyed a massive post WWII population boom from immigration and it changed the country forever. All of a sudden recently arrived Greeks, Italians and those from the former Yugoslavia (for example) were here and they were football people. The game was around before them, but it was these vents that kick started it all into a slow ride to prominence.

So even today football is a game supported very strongly – but not exclusively – by first and second generation Aussies. That’s not to say that Anglo-Saxons and Celts aren’t also on board, but it is a different mix to the very stereotypical crowd at the cricket. Aussies in London, broadly, probably come from a background that would be more likely to watch the Wallabies than the Socceroos.

Who are your greatest rivals in terms of opposition and fans?
Definitely Japan. For a start there’s the history. England have Ze Germans, we have Nippon. Now, in a very short time, we’ve built a great football rivalry with them. There was our knock-out punch in Kaiserslautern, our move to Asia that has knocked them off their perch as Asia’s best team, their elimination of us from the Asian Cup and then us topping the group on the way to South Africa. There’s a friendly rivalry yes, but it’s got a little bit bubbling away under the surface.

What will the Australian fans deem as success from the World Cup?
There are two camps in Australia. Football fans and non-football fans, and you can appreciate there are more of the latter than the former. People who know football understand that we can play well and still not advance. But I think a Round of 16 appearance would be the pass mark and the quarters would be great. The football haters out there will pounce if the Socceroos don’t get out of the group and, as long as they haven’t lost all three games and been spanked, that is just naivety about what a real World Cup is all about.

Finally, it is deemed the “greatest league in the world”, but we recently disproved that here on the blog to some extend.  As an outsider looking in, what is your view of English football in general?
Well the EPL is great. Great football. Great teams. Great promotion. The EPL receives probably as much publicity as the A-League here. It is funny to see ‘English’ teams which are really only English in geography these days. It probably isn’t seen this way in the UK as it’s hard to see the forest from the trees, but these clubs are now owned by Americans and Saudis. The players are from all over the world and there are less and less Englishman in the EPL.

I get that there is such a strong emotional connection between the fans and the clubs but guess what? They aren’t even yours anymore and the blokes on the pitch aren’t locals. You basically watch the Championship and think, ‘well this is actually England’s league. These clubs are fan-based and the players are actually English’.

The EPL has filled this vacuum where it is literally a global product for global consumption, not entirely different from the Indian IPL Twenty20. I know this is like nails on the blackboard for English fans but it’s reality. That’s why the 39th step will happen eventually because there are 3-billion in Asia that feel on some level that the league is there’s too, and they’re (our) money is as good as anyone else’s.

As for England’s national team? Read the above. One World Cup, 44 years ago won at home in dubious circumstances. It ‘aint much to hang your hat on is it? But, for now, it’s more than we’ve got. See you in the Round of 16!!

Many thanks to Mark for the interview.  Us English love to get one over on the Aussie’s but deep down I am sure we are all just a little bit jealous of their passion for sport, and winning.  If we had 10% of that fire in our bellies all the time then we would not be constantly talking about “xx years of hurt”.

Let’s hope we do meet in the 2nd round and gain revenge for Sven’s nightmare at Upton Park back in February 2003.

Thanks as well to my mate Jon down under for the use of some of his snaps – Yes I know you still love me Jon!