Same Crap, Different Bucket
An Englishman's adventure in the land that Chocolate Digestives forgot.

Australia 2 New Zealand 1

The World Cup is nearly upon us and like the coaches of the 32 competing teams; I have been busy making last-minute preparations. My annual leave requests have been signed by a perplexed line manager; two world cup wall charts are blue-tacked and primed for studious completion; and the internet has been trawled for a dubious selection of potentially harmful pep pills (“May contain petrol”? who cares? It’s only once every four years).

On Monday evening Australia played their final pre-tournament fixture on home soil, against a New Zealand team still celebrating their own qualification. The match presented a last chance for coach, Pim Verbeek, to run the rule over his preliminary squad and to make decisions on who to leave behind. And so these two great sporting rivals gathered at the MCG in front of an enthusiastic but sparse crowd – the damp weather clearly presenting a hazard to the locals’ challenging hairstyles and threatening to shrink skinny jeans to circulation-restricting sizes.

Fox Sports may not have the broadcasting rights for the World Cup, but in screening this fixture they showed that they know what lies at the heart of the tournament: rampant commercialism! Yay!

With the match being first sporting event to be broadcast in 3D in Australia, who better to tell us all about this exciting technological advancement than a representative from a major manufacturer of 3D televisions? A really nice man in a charcoal suit informed us that consumers have voiced just two concerns about 3DTVs – quality and content. Before I had a chance to smash an enraged fist into my own face, he reassured us that both issues have been addressed. Phew. His brainiac colleagues have taken care of the quality, so that’s okay, and by screening sporting events of this magnitude there can be no complaints about content. Meaningless fixtures between international gnatweights are what will establish 3DTV.

Viewers were then treated to a film of the Socceroos stars, Tim Cahill and Lucas Neill, watching a 3D television, extolling its virtues and stating they would never watch anything in crappy old two dimensions ever again. This is convenient, as they are probably the only two people in the whole country who can afford to buy a set. The rest of us plebs will be forced to sell our internal organs on the black market in order to finance such a purchase. Thankfully, the trauma of backstreet surgery will reduce our life expectancy to such an extent that we are unlikely to see any hi-tech developments that render 3DTV redundant. Double phew.

“It’s just like being on part of the game”, said Cahill. This illusion of an alternative reality must have been familiar to Socceroos front-man Scott McDonald, as the match completely passed him by – the crushing sensation of seeing the substitute board raised and Pim’s pointing finger no doubt enhanced in glorious 3D.

Once this shameless marketing exercise was exhausted we were treated to a dazzling array of Australian celebrities giving heartfelt video messages of support to the World Cup-bound heroes, none of which seemed in any way contrived. Well-wishers included a swimmer, a netball player, a rugby player, a shock jock, a prime minister, an international cricket captain who appears to have done something alarming to his hair, a swimmer, a swimmer…

Opposition leader, Tony Abbott leered his way through his good luck message, looking as natural in a tuxedo as an Alsatian in a waistcoat. “We’re not all soccer fans”, he started, ominously, “but when the team take to the paddock, we’ll all be barracking for you”. If nothing else, it at least provided the first, and probably only, opportunity for Tony Abbot’s name to appear in the same paragraph as Barack.

My analysis of the game itself is obviously compromised for the fact that I watched it in 2D. I haven’t even got HD. I don’t deserve to have eyes, let alone an opinion. However, even if the match had been broadcast via cave painting, it would have been painfully obvious that the Socceroos  have problems.

Their system of employing one striker is common, but other teams don’t have to rely on Harry Kewell to lead the line – a man who lives his life in a perpetual late fitness test. His latest ailment – a gammy groin – kept him out of contention for this match but his omission  presented a chance for Scott McDonald to stake his claim for inclusion in the squad. His failure to bury an early half-chance hardly helped his case, but it was his inability to control a long ball, which ultimately led to Chris Killen opening the scoring for New Zealand, which probably did more to seal his fate. It was announced the next day that he wouldn’t be going to South Africa.

The Socceroos’ great creative hope, Tim Cahill, contributed little beyond a reckless lunge at Leo Bertos; a red card challenge on any other occasion. In a competitive fixture, Cahill would have been joined in the dressing room by Vince Grella, whose earlier two-footed assault on Bertos (whom I can only think must have questioned the achievements of Jessica Watson in the pre-match warm-up) was as petulant as it was late.

Elsewhere, Rory Fallon was causing havoc in the Australia defence; exhibiting an aerial dominance that no doubt revised memories within the international football community of his imperious performance for Swindon Town at Luton Town on Easter Monday 2004. Verbeek has just two weeks to organise his defence to cope with more gifted opponents (Rory was never quite the same after he signed for Swansea City).

The inevitable flurry of second half substitutions sucked any life out of the game. Australia eventually ran out 2-1 winners, but the score was academic. The relentless Victorian drizzle provided a fitting backdrop as the team shuffled around a lap of honour. Amidst the gloom though, there were some straws for Australian supporters to cling on to.

Firstly, Australia have form for this kind of thing – their farewell game before the 2006 World Cup was an equally uninspiring 1-0 win over Greece. Secondly, Jason Cullina was excellent in midfield, delivering an industrious performance which culminated in a precise chipped pass to Brett Holman to score the winning goal. And finally, you have to expect that Tim Cahill can’t play this badly again.

The selection problems that Verbeek faces are age-old. The dearth of attacking options cannot be resolved by simply going out and signing Diego Milito. The most acurate summary of the challenges faced by international managers I can think of was provided by a character in an Irvine Welsh book, who, in sympathising with Craig Brown’s lack of choices for the Scottish national team, lamented: “you can only pish with the cock you’ve got”.

You won’t hear cold-eyed analysis like that in the Fox Sports studio.

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