It’s not quite in the class of the sudden death eliminators against Uruguay in 2001 and 2005 and Iran that fateful night at the MCG almost 20 years ago.
But Australia’s clash with Japan in the penultimate World Cup qualifier next Thursday night in Tokyo has enormous ramifications, and not just for the immediate career prospects of the players.
High profile as the A-League has become – and no one can doubt that it is the bread and butter of domestic soccer and responsible for the lion’s share of the new broadcast revenue deal – the World Cup remains the greatest shop window and marketing tool the game has in this country.
No other mainstream team sport can offer such a variety of opponents in such a massive competition as the World Cup, a tournament to which only the summer Olympics attracts anything like a comparable international interest.
As such, qualification is significant for far more than just footballing reasons.
An appearance in the finals would net the FFA, an organisation which is engaged in a series of cost cutting exercises and under siege from angry A-League clubs demanding a greater slice of the revenue pie, a huge windfall gain.
Just for reaching the first round Australia would pick up $US12 million from FIFA. Should the Socceroos get to Russia and then emulate their forbears of 2006 and get to the knockout stage the rewards would be commensurately greater depending on how far they got – $14 million for reaching the round of 16, $20 million for the quarter-finals.
But FIFA’s potential dividend is only one part of the fiscal equation.
Qualification for the greatest sporting show on earth (well, in every country bar probably Australia, NZ, the US and Canada that’s how its regarded) offers the game the kind of exposure that would allow it to pursue new sponsors and pitch for wider marketing support.
Still, with the FFA there is no certainty as it hasn’t always managed to cash in on that opportunity. The Socceroos were without a sponsor for some years after Qantas walked away in 2013 before securing Caltex in 2016, despite winning the Asian Cup in 2015.
But surely the chance to sell an interest in a team that can potentially deliver eyeballs to a TV audience of audience of billions in a World Cup could be capitalised on this time round, particularly with the growth in the past five years of digital media and advertising and the chance to promote the brand on a plethora of platforms.
Money aside, there is nothing like the chance to barrack for the national team in a critical game that unites the country, an emotion that cricket, in particular, has long been able to exploit for The Ashes series against England.
That has no equals in terms of Australian sporting rivalries. The fragmented nature of the country’s football affiliations means that while the Bledisloe Cup against New Zealand is a massive deal in the rugby playing states of NSW and Queensland it doesn’t usually trigger as much interest in Victoria, South Australia and WA. Ditto the Kangaroos, the rugby league team, whose rivalry with the Kiwis plays well in Sydney and Brisbane but is rather more muted everywhere else.
Former FFA boss John O’Neill (who had come from rugby union and knew the potency of regular competition against the same rival) once floated the idea of playing a Test series of soccer internationals against England or New Zealand, Australia’s closest colonial and regional rivals.
But the nature of the FIFA calendar and the geographic organisation of the world game made that all but impossible once Australia moved into FIFA’s Asian region as New Zealand are the king pins of the Oceania region, while England play in Europe.
So, in the absence of the obvious rivals, it is Thursday night’s opponents, Japan, who have become Australia’s greatest challenge in the past decade or more.
The two nations have met 24 times in the past 61 years since their first clash at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, where the hosts won 2-0.
Overall the Blue Samurai have the marginally better record, with eight wins to Australia’s seven, and nine games having been drawn
As rivalries go, at least on the field, you couldn’t ask for more, and the clash in Kaiserslautern in the 2006 World Cup, when Australia came from a goal down late in the game to win 3-1 in a match in which Tim Cahill announced himself to the world, remains one of the most compelling games any Australian national sporting team has been involved in.
Both teams respect each other but don’t fear each other, both raise their game whenever they take each other on, and Thursday night will be no different with direct World Cup qualification on the line.
The permutations as Australia, Japan and Saudi Arabia go into the last round of games locked in a three-way battle for the top two positions are fascinating, especially as the Japanese face the Saudis in the Middle East straight after they entertain the Socceroos.
A draw in Tokyo and a win against Thailand in the September 5 game in Melbourne, the final qualifier of the Asian group stage, would give Australia a fourth straight World Cup qualifying success.
If the Socceroos should finish third they will have to embark on a long and arduous play-off process: they would first have to dispose of the third placed nation in the other group (most likely South Korea or Uzbekistan) and then see off the fourth placed nation in the South and Central American group, which could be Costa Rica, the US, Panama or Honduras, most likely one of the latter two.