Australia has never truly felt like a football nation. Fleeting success in the last decade-and-a-half has of course been met with celebrations, but always celebrations that felt short-lived. Every accomplishment has been left with a sense of; what’s next?
That all changed in the Russian city of Samara on Thursday afternoon as thousands of Australian fans descended upon the Samara arena. A quiet confidence could be sensed from the waves of green and gold clad supporters passing through the turnstiles, with various pockets of fans bursting into song as they waited to pass through security and into the stadium.
It is not often football fans in Australia feel this way. The sport must constantly try to punch above its weight domestically, while A-League attending fans continue to struggle to express themselves within stadiums under media and police scrutiny and FFA indifference.
None of that mattered in Samara, as Australian fans outnumbered their Danish opponents by what seemed to be ten to one, made twenty times more noise, all while looking like fans representing a nation where football was sole inhabitant of the sporting conscious. But no, this was not Brazil, this was not Argentina. This was Australia.
Likewise, Bert van Marwijk’s players have risen to the challenge of competing at the World Cup. The Dutchman has taken a team that looked lost towards the latter stages of Ange Postecoglou’s tenure as Socceroos coach. His decision to revert to a more simplistic 4-2-3-1 has allowed him to maximise his ability to get the very best out of his eleven best players. It sounds basic, but it is something that multiple managers at the World Cup have thus far been unable to do – most notably Argentina’s Jorge Sampaoli.
Aaron Mooy in particular is producing arguably the best football he has ever played in a Socceroos shirt. Matthew Leckie has looked energetic at worst, dynamic at best. And Tom Rogic looks comfortable knowing he has a very respectable double-pivot midfield supporting him in Mooy and Mile Jedinak; the latter looking fresh despite a gruelling and extended league campaign with Aston Villa in England.
Without needing any more motivation to perform - they are playing at a World Cup after all – the players have responded positively to the vibrant atmosphere in the stands. Trent Sainsbury tweeted after Thursday’s game that ‘you can’t imagine the lift [the support] gives us lads’, while describing the singing of the national anthem during last week’s game against France in Kazan as a ‘spine-tingling moment’. Not only that, a large portion of the squad has remained on the field after the two games to recognise the efforts of the vast numbers of travelling fans.
The high-intensity style is also reflective of what the supporters want to see. There has been no repeat of Pim Verbeek’s disaster in South Africa in which his Socceroos side crumpled in the face of adversity to lose 4-0 to Germany, in a performance passionately described post-game by SBS analyst and former Socceroo Craig Foster as ‘meek’. Instead, Australia are playing physical, attacking and aesthetically pleasing football that has drawn praise from fans and the Australian media, but also the Mexican national team manager Juan Carlos Osorio. In a press conference, Osorio branded the Socceroos’ style as ‘very appealing’.
There has been some negativity though. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has spawned back home with people taking to social media to vent their frustrations with Socceroos winger Robbie Kruse on social media, targeting not only him, but also his family. Fans in the stadium have also been left frustrated by Kruse’s performances, which the player himself would probably admit have not been up to his usual standard. However, these frustrations are fair and open criticisms – unlike the online attacks on Kruse which have led to Matthew Leckie and Aziz Behich having to come out in defence of their mate in the press.
In addition, some parts of the local media in Australia’s incessant drumming up of any type of Tim Cahill related story they can manufacture also threatens to destabilise what otherwise seems to be the most positive and inspiring Socceroos camp since 2006.
And that is not using inspiring lightly. In Samara, it took almost two hours before the Australian fans finally left the arena. What started in the stands with constant singing and supporting flowed post-game onto the concourses inside the arena. Inside the toilets, people flicked light switches on and off, while people sang and relieved themselves in an atmosphere that can only be described as an epilepsy sufferer’s worst nightmare.
Just outside the ground, a circle of at least a thousand people began to descend around a man perched atop a chair designated for tournament volunteers. Brandishing an Australian flag, he proceeded to lead the chants and dancing as fans belted out songs for an hour as security attempted to disperse the crowd. But security had no success. This was a moment of football nation building they were not going to interrupt.