Ghana and Australia meet in Rustenburg tomorrow in a match that could end the Socceroos’ meaningful participation in the tournament.
Victory for Ghana will see the Black Stars become the first African nation to reach the knockout stages, a result that would render Australia’s final match with Serbia meaningless for Pim Verbeek and his squad.
Ghana go into the match on a high after defeating Serbia 1-0 in their opening game, the score line failing to do justice to a threatening and energetic performance.
Australia meanwhile have been engulfed by the recrimination that inevitably followed their truly disastrous opening game. Millions of supporters, motivated by memories of a strong showing in Germany four years go, set their alarms for 4.30am only to see their team suffer the most comprehensive defeat of any side at the tournament thus far.
For a nation where soccer still lags behind AFL, rugby league and cricket and where effort is prized almost as highly as victory, the embarrassing and lacklustre nature of the defeat cannot be underestimated.
Even if they fail to qualify, Australia must produce a performance supporters can be proud of. If they fizzle again against Ghana, they risk undermining the progress made in recent years by ‘soccer’ down under.
While the fans who trusted in the heroes of 2006 were still reeling, the Australian media pounced, savaging the players and coach with a gusto that would do the English tabloids proud.
The low point of the fallout has been an unseemly war of words between Fairfax journalist Michael Cockerill and injury prone star Harry Kewell, who lashed out at the criticism he has received after missing the opening game.
Only victory will now suffice, but to keep their tournament alive Australia face a Herculean task, needing to defeat Ghana without their talisman and main goal threat Tim Cahill, suspended for one match after a harsh sending off in the opener. Even if they overturn the Black Stars, they will still need a win against Serbia.
Ghana are the polar opposite of this Socceroos team. Missing star midfielder Michael Essien, coach Milovan Rajevac opted to leave out senior players Stephen Appiah and Sulley Muntari, trusting instead in the youngsters who starred in Ghana’s run to the final of the African Nations Cup in January.
Players such as Prince Tagoe, Andre Ayew and Kwadwo Asamoah terrified a Serbian defence consisting of elite Premier League defenders Nemanja Vidic and Branislav Ivanovo, performances that do not bode well for the brittle Australian back line so ruthlessly exposed by Germany’s pace and off the ball movement.
Under fire for his team selection and overall strategy, Pim Verbeek must decide whether or not to keep faith with Craig Moore, Lucas Neil and Scott Chipperfield, all of whom were culpable in the 0-4 demolition. Journeymen Mark Miligan, David Carney and Michael Beauchamp are the alternatives.
With Cahill suspended, the clamour for Kewell to return to the starting line up, along with Mark Bresciano and Josh Kennedy, must be deafening for the much maligned Verbeek.
Ghana are determined to secure their progression to the knockout rounds before they meet the Germans. During the 90 minutes, the Socceroos will be playing to keep their tournament alive, but more than the outcome of Group D is at stake.
As well as trying to salvage their professional pride and avoid becoming the laughing stock of the tournament, the Australian players could well be battling for the very future of the sport in their country.