socceroos on the rise

MELBOURNE - When Australia went to their first World Cup in 1974, the team was made up of part-timers and its progress was largely ignored at home.

MELBOURNE - When Australia went to their first World Cup in 1974, the team was made up of part-timers and its progress was largely ignored at home.

Now, having dominated their Asian qualifying group to reach back-to-back World Cups for the first time, there is a sense among the team and its supporters that Australia is finally being regarded as a globally competitive football nation.

Australia held Qatar to a scoreless draw late on Saturday in Doha to qualify for the 2010 World Cup with two matches in hand. It was far more comfortable, if less climactic, than for 2006 when it took a penalty shoot-out win over Uruguay in an intercontinental playoff to secure a spot.

"It's all about us. It's all about the nation creating some more memories like we did in the last one. I can't wait, it's going to be fantastic," Australia and West Ham defender Lucas Neill said after the match. "The green and gold army is there."

Their commanding qualifying campaign - they are yet to concede a goal in six matches - follows an impressive return to the World Cup finals in 2006, when Australia were eliminated in the second round on a contentious late penalty by eventual champions Italy. By contrast, the highlight of the 1974 World Cup campaign was a goalless draw with Chile en route to a first-round exit.

Qualifying for South Africa 2010 will attract significantly more exposure, sponsorship and prestige to a sport that had for many years been a fringe interest in Australia's sporting landscape dominated by the rugby codes, Australian Rules, cricket and tennis.

For much of its post-war history, football in Australia was largely played and followed by migrants from Britain and southern and Eastern Europe.

Australian media coverage of the sport was limited, but the advent of the Internet and cable television meant supporters Down Under were able to watch live coverage of matches from the major international competitions each week, as well as access the latest news in real time.

It was Craig Johnston's emergence at Liverpool in the 1980s that awakened more interest Down Under. Inspired by Johnston's success, a growing number of young Australians set out for Europe. By the late 1990s players such as Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka had become well known for their exploits overseas.

Still, the potential for the "world game" to break into the mainstream was squandered by successive administrations. According to popular folklore, the Australian Rules hierarchy opened bottles of champagne every time the Socceroos failed to qualify for a World Cup.

Australia came tantalisingly close to reaching the World Cup several times between 1974 and 2006, with the most heartbreaking failure coming in 1997. In a playoff for the last berth at France '98, Australia led Iran 3-1 on aggregate late in the second leg but conceded twice to lose on away goals.

Kewell was among the players involved that night, and it still spurs him on.

"It's been an uphill battle but we've survived it," Kewell said of the 2010 qualifying campaign. "There have been a lot of people saying we wouldn't do it, but we proved them wrong and I'm proud of all of the team."

Kewell said Australia had demonstrated it belonged at the top level.

"It's a respect thing if you make back-to-back World Cups. Only great teams make it every four years."

As well as a new breed of players, a radical overhaul of the sport helped put Australia on course for international success.

In 2005, the beleaguered Soccer Australia and the National Soccer League were scrapped and replaced with a new administration, Football Federation Australia and the A-League national competition.

Australia also switched from the tiny Oceania Confederation to Asia, offering a better standard of regular international competition for the national team and clubs, and a direct path to the World Cup. - Sapa-AP