Australia will be invited to the world's biggest sporting festival after defeating Uruguay in a penalty shootout in Sydney's Stadium Australia on Wednesday evening. Marco Bresciano's 35th minute goal was enough to level the tie on aggregate where it remained for the rest of normal time and half-an-hour extra time.
Goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer saved two Uruguay penalties, whilst Fabian Carini for Uruguay failed to get near any of Australia's five, even the one put wide of the post by captain Mark Viduka. Harry Kewell, Lucas Neill, Tony Vidmar, and finally John Aloisi comprehensively buried their spot kicks, rendering it unnecessary for Uruguay to take its fifth, and sending the capacity 82,698 attendance, transfixed by the tension and drama of the night, into wild and sustained rapture, and looking forward to Australia's involvement in next winter's football party in Germany.
In scenes last experienced when Cathy Freeman won Olympic gold for Australia at that very same venue five years before, and with a similar galvanising effect on national unity joined with pride in Australia's cultural diversity, those in the stadium, and countless clubs and private homes cross the country erupted in unbridled elation.
As if in homage to Freeman's world-beating sprint, Aloisi ripped his shirt over his head and went on his own mad dash immediately after scoring. Aloisi had gone half-way around the ground before his team-mates caught up with him, leaping all over him in the joy of the moment.
"I'm speechless," said Vidmar to the national television audience once the cameras had caught up. "I don't know what to say." But words were superfluous ¬‚ the performance was beyond words. It did not need description. The contrast between his demeanour at that moment and as graphically captured in photographs four years ago was stark and ample illustration.
Kewell, Neill, and Vidmar all sent Carini the wrong way in shooting to the left, Viduka also went left but Carini this time guessed correctly despite it being unnecessary, and Aloisi went right beyond Carini's dive.
Dario Rodriguez sought to make Schwarzer go early in a stuttering run-up, shooting to the right, but Schwarzer made a blocking save. Gustavo Varela also went right, Schwarzer read the direction correctly but couldn't get down quickly enough as the ball went beneath. Fabian Estoyanoff also went right. But it was Schwarzer's one-handed save of Marcelo Zalayeta's which gave Australia the final advantage which would not be surrendered.
Schwarzer had repeated his goalkeeping heroics in a World Cup qualification shootout. Three campaigns ago, in this same city, Schwarzer had held out Canada on the way to a dramatic last-stage duel with Argentina. Then he was a relatively unknown goalkeeping back-up. Now he's his nation's best, finally getting his opportunity to illustrate his skills at a gathering of the world's finest.
These scenes would have played out in millions of households across Australia by fans who have gone through the agony of previous last-stage failures, since that famous night in far-away Hong Kong in November 1973 which took Australia to its first World Cup.
A phalanx of famous footballers had failed to make the Finals. George Best, George Weah, and Ryan Giggs never played in football's biggest event despite their undoubted playing pedigree during which they earned significant club honours. They knew though that their careers had sadly missed a major football chapter. Were Australia to fail this time, a host of Australian footballers would be added to this unfortunate list. The win gives Viduka and a raft of others a chance that would likely not be repeated for them, even if Australia repeated its qualifying success in 2010.
This tie was always in the balance, even through the shootout. Schwarzer saved Uruguay's first after Kewell had put the Socceroos ahead, and the advantage held until Viduka's miss. The Schwarzer saved Uruguay's very next to immediately tip the balance Australia's way once again, and Aloisi ended the contest comprehensively scoring past Carini with the next and last kick of the enthralling four-hour battle played over two legs in two different continents.
Australia coach Guus Hiddink had always seemed to have the better of Jorge Fossati, his opposite number in the Uruguay technical area. Just over half-an-hour had been played when Hiddink brought on Kewell to take a forward position wide on the right in place of centre-back Tony Popovic. Popovic had been cautioned two minutes beforehand for a cynical foul on Uruguay dangerman Alvaro Recoba who had made a promising burst against a stretched Australia back-line.
Whatever the reason for the change it brought width to Socceroo attacks for the rest of the game which Uruguay had difficulty dealing with. When Kewell had the ball at his feet and ran at the defence, its discomfort was plain to see. Often Kewell would draw the foul and on two occasions earnt its perpetrator the yellow card. There was always the possibility that the caution count would bring out referee Luis Mendina Cantalejo's red unless the defence alternated who had responsibility for marking the speedy winger.
Not long after Kewell's introduction, Bresciano scored the goal which turned what was a contest balanced on a knife-edge into balanced on the edge of a razor-blade.
Kewell had made a run up the left and cut inside. Near the edge of the penalty area, he passed to Viduka. Viduka was blocked and so he back-heeled it to Kewell. Kewell's shot was a misfire but it fell into space near Bresciano. Bresciano, inside the forward edge of the 'eighteen-yard line' and directly in front, was first to react and his left foot shot screamed in beyond the reach of Carini.
The first task was now complete ¬‚ get the opening goal, and early enough to give time for the winner. There was almost a precise symmetry between the two legs ¬‚ in both the opening goal had come shortly after the half-hour ¬‚ too soon for it to be relied upon as the end of the matter, but at a crucial time for the players' morale.
Now the scores locked at one-all on aggregate. But Australia needed still two more to breathe easier, whilst Uruguay would have the advantage with just one.
Uruguay's most dangerous moments came through Australia conceding free-kicks and corners within range of Recoba's sights. The experienced nature of Uruguay players meant that Australia was lured into giving them away regularly. Schwarzer was up to the challenge in most cases when he had to be, but Australian hearts were in mouths on each occasion Recoba stood over the ball.
Richard Morales must still wonder how he was given time eight yards out to make a clean connection with a header from one of Recoba's corners just after half-time, only to send the ball into the ground and over the bar. It was a pointer to just how deadly this combination could be, and a worrying sign that the poor marking which had led to Uruguay's goal in Montevideo was still in evidence in Sydney.
But Recoba's involvement was to cease with almost twenty minutes of normal time remaining, and ¬‚ as it happened ¬‚ an hour before the end of the game, substituted by Fossati for Zalayeta who had little of the influence of the man he replaced until almost the game's last action before the shootout. Recoba had done a power of running, but was on his last legs, likely due at least in part to the long hours as a passenger on Uruguay's commercial flight after the first game of the series.
Recoba's reported remarks illustrating Uruguay hubris by claiming Australia would not qualify because it was Uruguay's divine right to participate in the World Cup, ensured that his departure was roundly celebrated by the Australia support.
The changes were rung in during extra-time as players' energy levels disappeared. Both sides had chances to wrap up the game but failed to take them ¬‚ the most clear-cut a chance in extra-time's last minutes when firstly Morales shot only centimetres past the far-post after being first onto a free-kick. Then ¬‚ to the astonishment of the whole stadium ¬‚ Zalayeta had a goal-bound header from a far-post cross which required Schwarzer to make a last-ditch one-handed save to gather.
Players around the world recognise the deadly finality and brutal exposure of the penalty-shootout, even despite having engaged in intense physical battles against each other over the preceding two hours. As Cantalejo's whistle sounded to end extra-time, Tim Cahill and Diego Lugano ¬‚ neither of whom would have much time for the niceties during the actual contest ¬‚ embraced each other in the shared knowledge that the game would be determined by a series of one-on-one battles from 12 yards.
Following the dramatic scenes of the shootout, Aloisi sought out Morales to exchange shirts. Now both are foreign players in Spain, at one time for the same club, and both had participated in the duel four years previously when Uruguay had with the aid of two Morales goals. Then it was Morales who left the stadium triumphant and as the prime focus of the fans' acclaim. This time it was Aloisi's turn.
Four years ago, it was Australian tears which fell as the players left the stadium ¬‚ now the joy was unbounded.