Socceroos must overcome history to beat Honduras in World Cup playoff
All of Asia should be getting behind Australia ahead of next month's intercontinental playoff between the Socceroos and Honduras. Should the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) team be victorious over the CONCAFAF opponents, the continent will have five participants in Russia next June.
While the two confederations have rarely met in World Cup playoffs, no-one can boast more experience than the Aussies, compared to the rest of Asia, in such cut-throat matches. As previous members of Oceania, they were forced to play games against teams from all over the world as far back as the 1960s. Twice they have been successful -- in 1974 and 2006.
To get there this time, Australia have to defeat Honduras over two legs in November. While there may be relief in Sydney that the opposition are not the United States, the Central Americans will be no pushovers. Honduras have made the World Cup finals on three occasions, including Brazil 2014 where they finished bottom of a group containing France, Switzerland and Ecuador, after three defeats.
There has been just the one meeting between AFC and CONCAFAF nations with the World Cup at stake. Germany 2006 was waiting for the team who triumphed when Bahrain met Trinidad and Tobago. These island nations were aiming for a first-ever appearance on the biggest stage of all.
Bahrain had controversially defeated Uzbekistan in the AFC playoff in Sept. 2005. The first leg in Tashkent made headlines around the world when the Uzbeks, already leading 1-0, scored a penalty to make it 2-0 -- or so they thought. The referee blew his whistle for encroachment, but instead of ordering a retake, gave an indirect free kick to the stunned, but happy Bahrainis.
The White Wolves, however, were howling with rage and demanded a 3-0 forfeit win. Instead, FIFA ordered a replay. Uzbekistan, who had already travelled to Manama for the second leg, had to return home quickly.
This time, the first leg in Tashkent ended 1-1, and Bahrain progressed with a goalless draw at home. While Uzbekistan's protests were understandable, had they not been made, it could have all been very different.
Against Trinidad and Tobago, the first leg in Port of Spain in Nov. 2005 went well for the Asian team as it ended 1-1. With 18 minutes remaining, Salman Isa headed Bahrain into a priceless lead. Unfortunately, just four minutes later, a 25-metre Chris Birchall volley shook the back of the net and, so it seemed, the entire Caribbean.
Four days later, the nerves in the Bahrain National Stadium could be felt over the border in Saudi Arabia, but confidence was high. The hosts seemed a little unsure whether to attack, or protect their slender away-goal advantage.
Four minutes into the second half, the massive frame of Dennis Lawrence was given a little space in the area, and he headed powerfully into the net. Despite some late pressure, Trinidad and Tobago held onto their 1-0 advantage to advance 2-1 on aggregate.
Bahrain returned to the same stage four years later, and once again, failed narrowly, losing 1-0 on aggregate to Ricky Herbert's New Zealand.
In fact, the AFC does not have the best of records in intercontinental World Cup playoffs. The last time an Asian team won such a game came 20 years ago, as Iran squeezed past Australia, thanks to away goals, to book a place at France '98.
That left a scar on the Australian football psyche that was removed in 2005 when the Socceroos defeated Uruguay with a penalty shootout victory in Sydney.
If the AFC has never beaten CONCAFAF in a World Cup play-off, the same can't be said of Australia. The Socceroos overcame Canada in 1993.
The first leg in Edmonton ended in a 2-1 defeat for the visitors who had taken the lead. In Sydney, however, Australia also won 2-1, with Mehmet Durakovic getting the all-important winner. With the scores level on aggregate, Australia won the penalty shootout, with Mark Schwarzer in goals, to progress to a final showdown with Argentina.
The South Americans had faded a little from their run of three finals, and two triumphs from 1978 to 1990, but were just a little too strong, winning 2-1 on aggregate.
So, history provides plenty of ups and downs for Australia and Asia in intercontinental World Cup playoffs, but now their fate is bound together. All fans on the giant continent should hope that Australia can defeat Honduras next month to give Asia five qualifiers at the World Cup for the first time.
John Duerden covers Asian football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.