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Live from Sydney: Why World Cup triumph has (again) kickstarted Aussie game

While waiting for my coffee at the local cafe this morning, I casually turned the pages of the Herald Sun and was surprised to find the Socceroos featuring prominently in the sports section. Full-page spread and all. Usually football news is shuffled down near the results section, but on this day, it held its place besides the Ashes as the most important sports news in Australia.

This was telling given it'd been almost 48 hours since Australia beat Honduras 3-1, ensuring their fourth consecutive World Cup finals appearance. It was evidence of what I had witnessed on Wednesday night in Sydney - Australian football had regained its pulse.

I arrived at Stadium Australia two hours before kick-off, only because I got the time mixed up. In the end, I'm glad I did. As a result, I watched all the Australian fans trickle in as the atmosphere began to build. What they brought in with them was an overwhelming sense of apprehension. And despite my best intentions to remain impartial, I couldn't help but feel the same.

'Soccer' will most likely never surpass AFL - Australia's premier sports competition - in popularity, but considering the sport has the highest participation amongst youth across the entire country, it represents a sleeping giant. The other sporting codes have always been wary of this. However, given the current state of the A-League, there hasn't been much for them to worry about.

After the first six games of its 13th season, the competition is down on last year's numbers across the board, both in TV ratings and attendance. Last season, the total round attendance for Round 1 was a record 106,365. Round 1 this season saw 66,314 turn-out. That is a staggering -38% difference.

A myriad of factors have contributed to the problem. A reluctance to expand has made the competition stale. Channel Ten's free-to-air coverage has been diabolical - they show ads during play! - while the preseason advertising was almost non-existent. And without any household names arriving from overseas, fair-weather fans have been hard to attract.

Add in the financial instability that has plagued more than half of the clubs in the league and you begin to understand why Wednesday represented a whole lot more than just qualification to the World Cup.

If nails were being chewed off hours before kick-off, then people had nearly made their way to their toes by half-time with the scores locked at 0-0.

Despite all of Australia's dominance, and Honduras seemingly already holding out for penalties, I couldn't shake the feeling that the football gods were against us and it would be Iran 97' all over again.

When Mile Jedinak scored his first goal, pandemonium ensued. But what hadn't come yet was what the 75,000-strong crowd wanted more than anything - relief.

It wasn't until Jedinak's third that all the emotions came to the surface. Tears were flowing everywhere I looked and many hugs were exchanged between strangers.

There was a real sense of unity, one that is only ever really evoked when things aren't going your way. For football fans in Australia, this was our grand final.

The scenes on Wednesday were not too dissimilar to those in 2005, but with one distinct difference. Back then, John Aloisi's penalty saw the Socceroos qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 36 years, bringing about unbridled joy and thrusting the world game into relevance in Australia.

In 2017, Jedinak's hat-trick helped keep it alive.

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Andrew Maclean
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Andrew Maclean

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