By Doug Conway
Just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
Four goals conceded in a suicidal opening match, three suspensions, two red cards, one penalty and zero luck on the really big calls.
And still the Socceroos nearly defied all the odds.
They almost pinched a win with 10 men against Ghana, then stormed over the top of Serbia to claim their biggest scalp in World Cup finals history.
But it wasn’t enough.
They must now feel like the lottery winner who can’t find his ticket.
But while they are rummaging in the drawers, South Africa’s 2010 World Cup carries on without them.
Australia’s abortive mission succumbed to a litany of disasters from the very first kick-off or, according to Pim Verbeek critics, the hours before it.
The Socceroos suffered their heaviest defeat in finals history in a 4-0 drubbing by Germany, and finished their first two matches with only 10 men.
Their finest talent, Harry Kewell, got just 25 minutes of game time in the tournament.
He was overlooked by coach Pim Verbeek for the opening match, and suspended from the final game after being sensationally ordered off for an unintentional goal-line handball against Ghana.
The team’s most influential player, Tim Cahill, also missed a match through automatic suspension after being given a straight red card against Germany.
Even the man he fouled, Bastian Schweinsteiger, said he was treated harshly.
The rub of the green just refused to go Australia’s way.
Of all the players to be rubbed out by an unintentional handball, it just had to be Kewell, didn’t it?
Defensive midfielder Vince Grella was a permanent fixture in the team – until the World Cup.
Verbeek replaced him at halftime against Germany, then Grella injured a knee in training.
He ended up playing just 45 minutes.
Some of Australia’s wounds were self-inflicted, especially at the start.
Coach Verbeek confounded everyone, apparently including many of his players, with his team selection against Germany.
It helped produce a horror start in Durban.
Richard Garcia was thrust into the lone striker’s role, Kewell, Josh Kennedy and Mark Bresciano were benched, Jason Culina was suddenly switched wide to the left as Carl Valeri came into a central role from the start.
What happened to two and a half years of careful planning?
Verbeek walks out of the top job still not having fully explained what got into him.
Confusion reigned in the media box, the stands, in living rooms around Australia and, most importantly, on the pitch as the Germans tore Australia to shreds.
Even Australia’s world-class goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer made a rare error, misjudging a cross to allow Miroslav Klose in to score the second with a header.
The humiliation in Durban sparked rumours of disharmony in the camp.
Players like Grella, Bresciano and Kewell were clearly not best pleased to have been omitted or replaced – which player would be?
But the Australians denied there was anything more to it than that.
Football Federation Australia (FFA) chief executive Ben Buckley called a media doorstop to deny accusations that hadn’t seriously been made.
Senior players including Kewell and Craig Moore also hotly denied the rumours, Moore calling them “absolute rubbish”.
From the lows of Durban the Socceroos picked themselves off the floor to show their true colours against Ghana in Rustenburg.
Brett Holman, Australia’s success story of the World Cup, made his own little piece of history by ensuring Australia scored first for the first time ever in a finals match.
But even that joy was short-lived as 14 minutes later Jonathan Mensah’s powerful drive smashed into Kewell’s upper arm, and one of Australia’s potential match-winners was given his marching orders.
At least Australia’s team spirit was alive and kicking, as the remaining 10 men played their hearts out in a gutsy 1-1 draw.
Luke Wilkshire might even have pinched an improbable victory when presented with the best chance of a pulsating match.
But he hesitated a fraction too long and Ghana’s goalkeeper Richard Kingson closed him down to block the shot.
There was further bad news, too – Moore picked up a second yellow card, ruling him out of the final group match against Serbia.
And so the Socceroos went to Nelspruit not only minus Moore and Kewell but needing a near miracle.
Not only did they have to beat Serbia but they required a favourable result from the simultaneous Germany-Ghana match in Johannesburg.
They very nearly pulled it off, too.
Leading two-nil, and with Germany one up against Ghana, they were suddenly just two goals away from bridging the near-impossible five-goal gap in Ghana’s favour.
If Tim Cahill’s 21st Socceroo goal – an incredible record of one every two games – kindled the embers of hope, then Brett Holman’s Exocet missile on the end of a searing run breathed fire into their bellies.
It was intoxicating stuff.
But in their headlong rush for the required bag full, they let Serbia in when Marco Pantelic pounced on another error by Schwarzer, who like every other visitor must go home cursing FIFA’s ridiculous Jabulani balls almost as much as South Africa’s maddening vuvuzela horns.
Despite the uplifting finale, and the simply magnificent Australian support, the dream was over.
The Socceroos were out on goal difference, pipped by Ghana, with Germany leading the group.
After the dizzy heights of 2006, when they reached the round of 16, South Africa in the cold light of day was nothing but the heaviest let-down.
One day Verbeek might write a book explaining the thought processes that led him to blink at the critical moment and tamper with a Socceroos structure he had spent painstaking years putting into place.
At the end of a heady night in Nelspruit, as thousands of fans saluted their bravery with gold and green scarves raised above their heads, the Socceroos didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
The inquest will show Germany killed them.
They just didn’t know it, or allow themselves to believe it.
But they were dead in the water after Durban.
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