For Australia the long wait is over. After 32 years the Socceroos will return to Germany, scene of their one previous FIFA World Cup’Ñ¢ finals appearance, for next summer's finals after beating Uruguay 4-2 on penalties in front of 83,000 spellbound spectators in Sydney's Telstra Stadium.
Substitute John Aloisi converted the decisive kick after goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer had produced superb saves to deny Dario Rodriguez and Marcelo Zalayeta, as the Socceroos finally savoured success in a play-off after four previous failures. Trailing 1-0 from the first leg, Marco Bresciano had earlier drawn Australia level on aggregate with a 34th-minute goal before Guus Hiddink's side held their nerve in the climactic shoot-out to book their ticket to Germany.
Australia's triumph is another landmark for their Dutch coach Hiddink. Brought on board in the summer, the man who led Korea Republic to the semi-finals of the last FIFA World Cup’Ñ¢ has produced another act of alchemy, helping Australian football erase the pain of those previous play-off defeats in 1985, 1993, 1997 and 2001.
For the first half-hour of this match, however, it seemed Australia were facing further heartache. The early exchanges were all about Uruguay's little talisman, Alvaro Recoba. Australia needed no introduction to the Inter Milan playmaker whose free-kick had led to Rodriguez's goal in Montevideo. Yet the hosts hardly helped their cause by conceding a series of free-kicks in perfect positions for Recoba to hurt them with his superb left foot.
Recoba provided an early scare with a delivery from distance which struck the turf in front of Schwarzer, seemingly catching the keeper by surprise as the ball bounced away off his midriff. Moments later another ball from Recoba had Scott Chipperfield straining to head behind as Carlos Diogo prepared to pounce at the far post.
Uruguay full-back Diego Lugano flashed a header just past the far post after getting his head to Recoba's corner in the 12th minute and with the Socceroos struggling to find their composure, Recoba gave them an even greater scare in the 20th minute. From Fabian Carini's goal-kick, Richard Morales flicked the ball on to Recoba and he skipped away from Tony Vidmar and, with just Schwarzer to beat, opted to strike early and flashed a shot wide of the near post.
With so much at stake, tensions were running high. Paolo Montero shoved a hand into Tim Cahill's face while Tony Popovic earned a caution for catching Recoba with a swinging arm in the 27th minute. That was the big defender's final contribution of note as Hiddink replaced him with Harry Kewell on the half-hour.
Up to that point, Australia's only threat on Carini's goal had come from Jason Culina whose low drive drew a fingertip save from the keeper. However, within four minutes of Kewell's arrival, they were ahead. Cahill and Mark Viduka combined to set up Kewell in the penalty box. The Liverpool winger swung a boot and miskicked but happily for the Socceroos the ball rolled on to Bresciano who lashed it high into the net.
With the confidence of a goal, Australia started the second half more purposefully than they had the first. Bresciano's free-kick into the box produced panic in the Uruguay defence but Chipperfield could only direct his far-post header back across goal. However, Morales then spurned a glorious opportunity at the other end. Rising unopposed to meet Recoba's corner, the big Uruguay striker ’Äì a goalscoring hero against the Socceroos in 2001 - headed the ball into the ground and up over the crossbar.
The hosts were now enjoying the control Uruguay had in the first half-hour, with Kewell's influence a factor. Cahill volleyed narrowly wide from a Kewell cross, then Bresciano shot over from Viduka's knockdown. Recoba, such a threat in the first period, had become a peripheral figure and made way for Zalayeta in the 72nd minute. Uruguay then suffered the loss of captain Montero to an apparent hamstring injury as Australia kept pushing for the decisive second goal.
Cahill sent a diving header wide and Carini kept out Kewell's near-post strike, before Chipperfield, with a clear sight of goal, delayed too long before shooting following a Bresciano corner. Extra time arrived, adding a fresh layer of tension, and Uruguay suddenly found a second wind. There were Australian hearts in mouths on more than one occasion.
Gustavo Rodriguez headed over from a corner, then, with 116 minutes on the clock, Morales sent a shot a whisker wide of the far post after latching on to Zalayeta’Äôs flick-on. Zalayeta then himself headed into Schwarzer's arms but for the first time, the destiny of a FIFA World Cup finals place would be decided by penalties.
Australia full-back Lucas Neill hailed Mark Schwarzer after the goalkeeper's heroics in the penalty shoot-out victory which secured a place at next year's FIFA World Cup’Ñ¢ in Germany.
Trailing 1-0 from the first leg in Montevideo, Australia levelled the play-off on aggregate through Marco Bresciano's first-half strike in a fiery match dominated by the hosts at Sydney's Telstra Stadium. Although Mark Viduka missed a spot-kick, the striker's Middlesbrough team-mate Schwarzer saved from Marcelo Zalayeta and Dario Rodriguez before John Aloisi tucked away Australia's fifth penalty to secure a famous win.
"He wasn't the only hero, everyone involved in the team was brilliant," said Neill, who himself scored in the shoot-out. "Credit goes to everyone but Mark will take the plaudits and deservedly so."
Schwarzer said: "It's a huge wave of relief for everyone. When the game progressed, we felt we had a good opportunity. They took off Recoba, and (Paolo) Montero through injury, so the sense of belief just mounted. Of the penalty shoot-out, he added: "It was surreal, I stood there and felt with every kick I knew where to go."
After a wait of 32 years since their only appearance at football's biggest tournament, Australia held on in front of 82,698 fans and took the game to penalties. Among the crowd was Hollywood actor John Travolta, who celebrated with the Socceroos in the changing room after the dramatic finale. "Not only have we made the nation proud, we had John Travolta in the changing room," Neill added. "It's an amazing night and that capped it off."
Australia coach Guus Hiddink, who is also in charge of Dutch side PSV Eindhoven, now has the opportunity to enhance his FIFA World Cup pedigree after taking Korea Republic to the semi-finals in 2002. In a repeat of the play-off four years ago, which Uruguay won comfortably, the enterprise of Merseyside-based duo Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell gave Australia the upper hand.
Hiddink's side opened the scoring when Bresciano forced the ball home ten minutes from the interval. Cahill initiated the goal with a sharp turn before heading towards the penalty area and slipping the ball to Viduka. The big striker instinctively flicked towards Kewell who missed his shot before the ball fell invitingly for Bresciano to lash into the top corner.
The goal vindicated Hiddink's decision to bring on Kewell for centre-back Tony Popovic, who had been cautioned shortly before for elbowing Uruguayan playmaker Alvaro Recoba.
"They made it very hard for us," Neill said. "The 1-0 in the first leg was a good result and we put ourselves in a good position. We had the composure to keep the pressure on, it went to the wire and was nerve-wracking but everyone got their value for money. Overall we've played fantastically well. There's a fantastic feeling in the changing room."
Uruguay coach Jorge Fossati, who was missing striker Diego Forlan and veteran defender Diego Lopez, said afterwards: "I feel great pain. I am at the lowest moment of my sporting life today. I am sorry to the Uruguayan public for failing at the last hurdle. I am at peace with myself. The players gave it their all. All of my players tonight fought like lions till the end."
Both the team and coaching staff were inconsolable after the game. The players, who had flown thousands of miles in economy class, battled to the very end only to see their dreams go up in smoke in the dreaded penalty shootout. Uruguay’Äôs coach Jorge Fossati summed up the mood of despondency afterwards with brutal honesty: "This is the lowest point in my sporting life. As the person who calls the shots both technically and tactically, the responsibility lies with me."
"I feel sorry for the people of Uruguay, with us falling like this at the last hurdle, but I'm at peace with myself. The players gave it their all and fought like lions for the cause," the coach added. Meanwhile back in his homeland, questions were being asked about his decision to take off Alvaro Recoba, considered by many as the team's most influential player.
It was not only the coach who agreed to face the media in Sydney. Captain Paolo Montero, who limped off injured, also had something important to say: "I'm retiring from the national team," the veteran defender told reporters, calling the result an "injustice". "This group of players deserve to be at the World Cup finals," he added. It was a sad end for the former Serie A star, whose long international career included an appearance at Korea/Japan 2002
As was to be expected, the streets of Montevideo were awash with tears of disappointment in the aftermath of the result. The print media caught the mood of the nation with dramatic headlines like "From Dream To Nightmare", "Celeste in Mourning" and "A slap in the face for the Celeste".
El Pais did not hold back either, stating bluntly that the Celeste had "failed". The paper then went on to criticise Fossati's side for its lack of forcefulness, saying: "One goal would have been enough, but they couldn't find the net, not even from the spot." El Observador took a similar line, saying: "The dream slipped away with each chance missed", a clear reference to Uruguay's misfiring forwards. "Our elimination was neither miraculous nor shocking; the players neither heroes nor villains. There were no extremes in this case. Uruguay's performance wasn't shameful or extraordinary, just mediocre, although it hurts just the same," the paper added.
For its part, the Ultimas Noticias led with "The Dream is Over", adding that it had been "more of an illusion than a dream". It also reminded its readers that Uruguay would be the only former champion missing from Germany.
Finally, all the dailies gave prominence to Fossati's statement on the repercussions of this latest setback for the team: "Uruguay needs to start by taking a long hard look at itself so as to draw conclusions about what went wrong," the coach was quoted as saying.