England 1 - Australia 3

I collected a few stories from around the place to give the match context, 
generally we only use "fan" articles. This one is, by the sounds of it, a
journalistic piece. I'd like to give credit (and get permission) but until
I know the source it's hard to do so. Please 
contact us if you know more.

THE STORY AFTER COMPLETE HUMILIATION IN the cricket and total annihilation in the tennis, David Beckham and his men have an opportunity to restore some national pride when England play Australia in a friendly football international on Wednesday. It will be the first time that the fierce sporting rivals have met on English soil. England should win comfortably, being a well-established international side with World Cup experience. Australia, although they can boast a world-class player in Harry Kewell, have only qualified for one World Cup and that was before the 24-year-old Leeds United forward was even born.

Surely a simple win is not enough, then? Only a whitewash will do for a public sick of constant gloating from the hordes of Australian expatriates they work and live alongside. Three thousand of them are expected at the game at Upton Park. The fact that football remains the only leading sport in which Australia has never beaten England will only add to the burden of national expectation. God forbid the Socceroos should actually win. Luckily, for the sake of English sanity, that is an unlikely outcome.

Despite a history in the sport that extends back to 1880, when the first recorded match took place in Parramatta, New South Wales, between Kings School and the Wanderers club, Australia has never really taken to football. For a start, it is known as soccer to distinguish it from the more popular sport of Australian Rules.

Not considered a "true blue" sport, football has struggled to command the attention of the Australian public, whose heroes are strapping Aussie Rules goalkickers, beefy rugby league centres and awesome fast bowlers. In the postwar era, football was an immigrant sport in a nation of immigrants, played by Hungarians, Slavs, Greeks and Italians. "Soccer in Australia still faces entrenched cultural and institutional resistance," Johnny Warren, the Socceroos captain from 1964 to 1974, says in his autobiography, entitled Sheilas, Wogs & Poofters.

It is a discrimination the sport is only starting to overcome. "Soccer is not part of the social fabric of our society," Jeff Dennis, the chief executive of Perth Glory, the West Australian club founded seven years ago, said. Unlike rival teams such as Melbourne Knights (Croatia) or Olympic Sharks (Greece), Glory are not rooted in any ethnic community to give them a wider appeal. "We are trying to attract new supporters to the game," Dennis said. "If we don't, it will be a niche sport always."

Top of the National Soccer League (NSL), Glory have enjoyed some success since their creation, although they have never won a grand final. However, average attendances are falling; 10,000 this year compared with 13,000 last year and 18,000 at their peak. Nick Tana and David Rodwell, the owners, lose about A$1 million (about £350,000) a year on the club.

At a match this year against fourth-placed South Melbourne, there were 11,173 spectators of all ages, including children on bouncy castles. Football in Perth is quite a family event, despite the valiant attempts of the supporters in the Glory Shed (standing room only) to replicate the atmosphere of the English terraces.

Considering this is the best that Australian football has to offer, the standard of play is pretty poor. Most observers equate it to the bottom end of the Nationwide League second division but, farther down the NSL table, third division teams would not find it hard going.

It is astounding that Australia is not better at football. It is the country 's highest participation sport, with more than 618,850 registered players according to Soccer Australia, the governing body. It also has cross-state appeal, with a national league that was established in 1977. Other sports have regional biases: rugby league in New South Wales and Queensland; Australian Rules in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. The problem for football's administrators is that once talented sportsmen turn 16, they will be directed to more manly pursuits, such as Australian Rules or rugby league, where the money is to be made. "A lot of mums see soccer as a softer sport," Mark Peters, chief executive of the Australian Sports Commission, said. "But when kids get to that age, then the dads win the argument."

The image of football in Australia as a sissy sport is becoming outdated, especially as the country continues to produce players such as Kewell, recruited by Leeds from the New South Wales Soccer Academy. The trouble is that these national heroes are never in the country. They have followed the road to England opened by Joe Marston, who arrived at Preston North End in 1950, and widened by the likes of Craig Johnston, the former Liverpool darling who ignored South African birth and an Australian upbringing to play for England.

Of the 18-man squad selected by Frank Farina, the Socceroos coach, for this week's friendly, not one plays his club football in his home country. It is a predicament that Jacques Santini, the France coach, might find sympathy with. The talent drain is killing the NSL, which lacks the thrill of promotion or relegation and exposure on any domestic television channel. Channel 7, a commercial broadcaster, has opted not to screen NSL games, despite buying the rights.

"More than 150 of our best players are abroad," Farina, a former Socceroo whose career took him to Bari and Notts County, said. "You take that out of any domestic competition and it makes it less attractive." Instead, the Australian sports pages report the goings-on at Leeds, Middlesbrough, Blackburn Rovers, Rangers, Parma and Lille.

The Australia national team have not played together for 12 months. It is a situation that has sparked calls for Farina to be based in the United Kingdom. Remo Nogarotto, the newly appointed chairman of Soccer Australia, will this week talk to Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United about using their grounds for friendly fixtures.This would save players the long-haul flight back to Australia, a time-consuming exercise that has provoked the ire of their clubs. It might also provide valuable gate receipt money to a governing body teetering on the brink of bankruptcy after failing to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. Recently described by Jeff Kennett, the Premier of Victoria, as "the most diabolically run organisation in Australia", Soccer Australia is up to A$3.8 million in debt and the subject of an independent government inquiry.

When the report is handed down next month, it is expected to recommend an overhaul of the league structure and a revamp of Soccer Australia's corporate governance. Without radical change, the Government will stop funding the sport. There is optimism that this review will finally end a cycle of incompetence in Soccer Australia, which sacked most of its board last year. There is also a renewed impetus after Fifa's controversial decision in December to award Oceania with a direct World Cup qualification place. It is effectively a ticket to Germany in 2006 for Australia, whose strongest opposition in the confederation is New Zealand.

"This is the beginning of our World Cup campaign for 2006," Farina, who would like to see an "Ashes" series develop between England and Australia, said. In their past two World Cup qualifying campaigns, the Socceroos failed to get past Uruguay and Iran. In the latter match, under the management of Terry Venables, Australia threw away a 2-0 lead - and a place in the 1998 World Cup finals - in front of a record crowd of 85,022 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The defeat broke a nation's heart and caused many to lose interest.

Australia's presence at the World Cup will raise the profile of football back home but it is not an overnight fix. "I do not think Australia will be world-beaters, but if the governing body got its act together, they could be competitors," Mich d'Avray, the Perth Glory coach and a former protégé of Sir Bobby Robson at Ipswich Town in the 1970s and 1980s, said.

Farina speaks for England as well as Australia when he says that Wednesday's match is anything but friendly. "It takes on extra significance because of our histories," he said. "The interest in Australia is enormous." Tickets for the game sold out in less time than it takes to watch an episode of Neighbours.

England should know that Australia, perhaps bored of its dominance in cricket, is hungry for victory in another sport invented by its former colonial master. "Australians want to see success on a national stage," Peters said. "The general public actually thinks we have a shout at knocking off England at Upton Park. I mean, how crazy is that? That's the sort of confidence around."

Becks! Tie those Socceroos down, sport.

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