SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia have crisscrossed the globe for more than two years in their quest for a World Cup berth and, while that path has not always run smooth, they will be confident of a triumphant conclusion on Wednesday.
A campaign that began in Kyrgyzstan in June 2015 will come to an end on Wednesday in match number 22 when they face Honduras in the second leg of the intercontinental playoff having secured a 0-0 draw in San Pedro Sula last week.
At stake is a place at soccer’s top table for a fourth successive World Cup and another huge shot in the arm for a game that has made huge strides in recent years but still lags behind rugby league and Australian Rules in popularity.
Three years ago in Brazil, Australia enjoyed a creditable campaign despite losing all three games in a group that also included Chile, the Netherlands and Spain.
Of that trio only Spain will be in Russia next year, and with Italy also failing to reach the finals for the first time since 1958, coach Ange Postecoglou is well aware how costly failure to qualify could be.
“In terms of the game, it’s always important, you want to be there when the World Cup’s played, we saw with Italy missing out this morning, and you realise the impact that has,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
”It doesn’t mean that not qualifying means that the game somehow ceases to exist, it’s more about our continued growth.
“We’ve got to be ambitious about international football, both about wanting to qualify and wanting to do well. Those things can’t happen if you don’t get the job done.”
Memories of the 1997 playoff, when Iran came from 2-0 down in the second leg in Melbourne to go through on away goals, will always haunt Australian fans but Postecoglou is confident his players will finish the job against Honduras.
“They’re a dangerous team, but more important for us is that we impose ourselves on the game,” he added.
“If we dictate the game, as we have done in the past, we’re going to be difficult to stop.”
Postecoglou said all his players were fit and suggested he was likely to bring in some fresh legs with Tim Cahill, who had an ankle injury, Robbie Kruse (knee), Mathew Leckie and Mark Milligan (both suspended) now available.
It remains unclear whether Postecoglou will take Australia to Russia even if they qualify and he again declined to confirm or deny that he would be stepping down after Wednesday’s match.
There was no disguising, though, his desire for Australia’s campaign to end in triumph in front of more than 70,000 fans at the Olympic Stadium.
“The feeling within the camp is that we’re ready for a big game tomorrow night and hopefully getting the job done,” he said.
“This has been the longest qualifying campaign that any nation has played, both in terms of the amount of games and kilometres travelled, you don’t want all of that to be wasted.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford