WE HAVE GROWN used to Australia as the great flat-track bullies of cricket – and, when the force is with them, at rugby union. And always at rugby league. And then again at swimming, with only the Americans able to give them a proper game. And, of course, at netball, which the Sheilas play with all the circumspection and ladylike qualities that their men have traditionally brought to Australian Rules football. We have always admired the Australian ability to extract deference from all opponents, especially English ones, in all the sports that have been closely associated with the Empire and the Commonwealth. Well, here’s the bad news for the English – we now have to salute the Australians’ genius for underdoggery as well. The entire Australia World Cup campaign has been a showcase for all the things the English person loves best about Australia – that is to say, a total rejection of the conventional dominance hierarchy, a complete inability to bow the knee to anyone, no matter how exalted, the exaltation of bloody-mindedness to a point of ethical perfection and, when it comes to sport (or anything else), a relish for the process of combat. Young and free – how we envy that boast. Australia qualified for the World Cup finals by beating Uruguay – the winners of the first World Cup in 1930 – eventually on penalties. That was trippy enough for a nation that is unfamiliar with the ways of soccer (football, or footy, being the kind that is scored in goals and behinds). But now they have miraculously qualified for the round of 16 and done so by drawing with Croatia in the final group match. As a result, a team with all the pedigree and the experience of Croatia go out, while Australia qualify alongside, of all teams, Brazil. And it has all been about those sporting virtues such as pluck, tenacity, grit and determination – all that kind of stuff. There has been no Shane Warne to turn the screw of genius here. It has been an adventure; for that reason, all the more easy for an English person to savour. The players themselves are mostly adventurers, people who left Australia to ply their trade abroad, often in difficult and unsympathetic circumstances – and certainly climates. This business out in Germany has come naturally to them; underdogs, but all the same Australian. Used to being good at sport. Brought up with the attitude that Australians win stuff, even when they aren’t supposed to. Their first-match win against Japan was one of the small epics of the World Cup finals so far, a goal down for most of the game but scoring three times in the last eight minutes. Against Brazil, they lost, but they frightened the life out of a Brazil team who were still trying to set down a marker performance at this tournament. And they managed the draw against Croatia, coming from behind twice. Just think. All across that huge island, with all those frightening bits in the middle, Australia will be watching and taking yet another sport to its heart. International sport expresses all kinds of things about the nations involved and in the case of Australia here at this World Cup, it is about damn-fool optimism. What do you mean, we don’t have a chance? She’ll be right, mate. And now we know what it takes to make Harry Kewell play with heart – a green-and-gold shirt. Young countries are not like old countries. And when it comes to sport, an insufficiency of naivety is a very serious disadvantage. It’s a lesson. Australia have played above themselves in this competition; so far, England have done the exact opposite. But then all parents should be prepared, at all times, to learn lessons from their children.
June 23, 2006 By Simon Barnes
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