In 2001, at the close of the college soccer season, I sat in my coach’s office for our annual year-end evaluation. I’d just come off a mediocre campaign as a starting centerback, and my coach—a short former English professional and ESPN soccer analyst named Eddie Mighten—was ready to hear me break down all the ways I was going to improve in the offseason. Instead, I told him I was going to spend the Spring semester in Australia at the University of Sydney. Not to worry though, I said. I’d train with the university team over there. Mighten scrunched up his nose. “In Australia?” he asked, rhetorically. “But their football is shit!”
And it was true. For so long, soccer in Australia languished as a sport of immigrants, called “wogball” or worse. Top young Australian athletes, in the same vein as Americans, turned to Aussie Rules Football, rugby, basketball, tennis, swimming, throwing things at sharks, nearly anything other than soccer. Meanwhile, the ones who did play were isolated by Australia’s location and weak international conference. The country didn’t qualify for its first World Cup until 1974, where the team embarrassed themselves by failing to score once in the tournament. It would take 32 years, a conference switch, and a once-in-a-lifetime talent pool to get Australia back into the championship.
The first key move was getting Australia out of the comically bad Oceania Football Confederation (OFC). Playing in Oceania meant facing, and easily crushing, tiny, tiny island nations made up of wayward fishermen and stranded dogs. And I mean Lizzie the Lizard in Rampage-style crushing. In 2001, Australia beat American Samoa 31-0. One player—Archie Thompson—scored 13 goals, and he wasn’t even a typical starter. Two days earlier, they’d beaten Tonga 22-0. And, mind you, these were official World Cup qualification matches.
But aside from the unhelpfully soft competition, there was a more important downside to playing in the Oceania federation: it didn’t get an automatic World Cup berth. Even if the team won Oceania—and really, that only ever came down to Australia or New Zealand—it still had to play another team from another Federation—usually the fifth-place South American country—in order to get in. Clearly, this was not a good way to become a credible international side.
In 2005, FIFA approved Australia’s move to the Asian Football Conference. But its qualifying effort for 2006 would have happen, one last time, through the OFC.
The 2002 World Cup kicked off in Japan/South Korea a month before I was set to return home from my time abroad. Unlike my teammates back in America, I was in the perfect time zone to watch all the games—they kicked off, Sydney-time, at 3 p.m., 6 p.m., and 9 p.m. My roommates and I had a routine: Watch the first match while drinking Victoria Bitters in our crappy house off Glebe Point Road. Then head to Scruffy Murphy’s on Goulburn to watch the latter two. Drink more Victoria Bitters. Very occasionally, try to make eye contact with girls.
It was there, watching the games alongside Irish and English expats, that I first heard the names Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, and Tim Cahill. “Kewell and Viduka play together at Leeds,” the expats said. “And they’re both classics.” Cahill, I was told, “was also a local boy. Coulda played for Ireland in this Cup, but didn’t. And he’s doing some damn impressive things at Milwall.”
In 2006, now playing under legendary Dutch coach Guus Hiddink and making that last bid through the OFC, Australia finally found its way back to the Cup. It took beating Uruguay in penalties to get in, but once they were, it was clear that this wasn’t just some lucky Oceania team wishing they could play Fiji again. Somehow, in the years building up to this Cup, the Socceroos had put together an incredibly talented squad filled with boys doing things abroad that were damn impressive indeed, including an experienced, English Premier League-tested keeper in Mark Schwarzer; a back line featuring Blackburn’s always-consistent Lucas Neill; Rangers defender/wicked tackler Craig Moore; the ever dangerous winger/defender Brett Emerton; preternatural leaper Tim Cahill, and Serie A standby/free kick specialist Mark Bresciano in the midfield; and Viduka, Kewell, and legendary goal poacher John Aloisi (who’d be the first Aussie to score in La Liga, the Premier League, and Serie A) up top. It was like the Australian soccer version of the Avengers, except no one had to be Ant-man.
Meanwhile, in the four years since I’d returned from Australia, I’d become obsessed with the team, feverishly tracking the careers of the guys playing in the Premier League, even, at one point, I am ashamed to admit, buying an extremely ugly Middlesborough jersey in a misguided expression of my ardor. I watched every single Australian World Cup game in 2006, from the surprise comeback vs. Japan featuring two Cahill goals, to the surprisingly well-fought Brazilian loss, to the weirdly refereed Croatian tie, which involved a Croatian defender getting three yellow cards, somehow.
But the ultimate heart-breaker came in the second round against Italy, when the Italians—playing a man down since the 51st minute—managed to pull the game out when Gross dribbled into the box in the 93rd minute, watched Lucas Neill slide, tossed himself over Neill’s body, then wriggled around as if he’d been struck by a sniper. The PK was given, Totti put it away, and just like that, the greatest Socceroos team ever assembled was done.
It didn’t seem fair. Minutes earlier, Tim Cahill just missed a bicycle kick that—had he connected—would’ve gone down as one of the great goals in World Cup history (instead he had to wait until this Cup to do that, against Holland), and put them through to the Round of Eight, and maybe beyond. But he missed, Italy seized on an opportunity, and the run was over.
Four years later, Australia sent to the 2010 Cup a team that was made up of many of the same players and seemed just that: a well-organized, talented side most notable for being four years older than the last one. They failed to get out of the group stage. This year, although they fought valiantly, the Aussies never had much of a chance in a group that also included Chile, the Netherlands, and Spain. Only Cahill and Bresciano, both 34, remained from that pinnacle squad of 2006. And now they too are done. Soccer is awkward at goodbyes.
Of course, the Socceroos Golden Generation didn’t invent a style like Spain’s tiki-taka; it didn’t inspire a whole generation of young Aussies to switch allegiances from Aussie Rules to A-League; it didn’t even win all that much. But what it did is provide a nation desperately in need of soccer history with a past, with a story worth telling. Before 2006, Australian soccer history didn’t consist of much more than a few Johnny Warren anecdotes and a logo. That changed when Cahill, Bresciano, Kewell, Viduka, Neill, Emerton, and Schwarzer dazzled in Germany.
The other day, while unpacking a box in my office, I found my old yellow and green Viduka number nine jersey balled up under a sweatshirt and an old map of Belfast. Elated, I threw it in the wash, and wore it out around San Francisco during the Netherlands match as the Socceroos—led by Cahill’s goal of the Cup, and Jedinak’s PK—threw an absolute scare into the Orange. After the game, while I was walking out of a bar, an Australian man pulled me aside and asked if he could take a picture. “I’ve got to show this to my mates,” he said, as he snapped a pic with his cell. “You never see Viduka anymore.”
Kevin Alexander, the executive editor of Thrillist, writes about soccer for Esquire.com.