ALL the double sessions, the video analysis, the ice baths and the PlayStation FIFA tournaments are over. It’s time for the real thing.
The Socceroos have spent weeks immersed in a training camp that has led them to one point — their World Cup opener against the might of France in the Russian city of Kazan tonight.
Like students given tutoring in the weeks before an exam, the Socceroos have listened intently to the instructions and guidance of Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk since he gathered them in the Turkish resort of Belek nearly a month ago.
GENEROSITY: Socceroos star’s selfless act
KEWELL: Socceroos need permission to be fearless
Since he succeeded Ange Postecoglou in January, van Marwijk has been playing a high-speed game of catch-up, given little time to re-educate a squad so inculcated with Postecoglou’s buccaneering style of play.
How effective van Marwijk has been will only become clear tonight, when the more durable style he has preached is set against the flair and goalscoring threat of France.
REJECT: The French superstar branded ‘too small’
YOUNG GUN: Arzani pencilled in for key role against French
His message has been simple, a reprise from the mantra he espoused at the 2010 World Cup in leading an unfancied Dutch side to the final — many other teams have the best players, but Australia can try to make itself a collective that is the equal of many others.
Starting with a blank sheet, van Marwijk has picked on merit and gut instinct.
Captain Mile Jedinak appears set to start the game on the bench, an unthinkable prospect less than seven months ago when his hat-trick in the playoff against Honduras guided Australia to one of the last spots in Russia.
In Jedinak’s place is almost certain to be Massimo Luongo, almost a decade younger than his captain and whose mobility and street smarts are highly rated by van Marwijk.
Upfront will be the beneficiary of van Marwijk’s belief in his own ability to identify talent.
Listen to our football experts Tom Smithies and David Davutovic preview the Socceroos’ opening World Cup clash with France for Another Football Podcast.
Two years ago Andrew Nabbout was told he wasn’t good enough for the Malaysian second division — now van Marwijk will send him out to ruffle feathers in the French defence with his speed and ability to harass the Les Bleus rearguard.
Tom Rogic looks set to be Australia’s No.10, a vital playmaking role when the team try to hit France on the break. Van Marwijk has worked repeatedly with his team on exploiting the first few seconds after France lose the ball, using the pace of Nabbout, Mathew Leckie and Robbie Kruse and the vision of Celtic star Rogic.
In truth, Australia travels far more in hope than expectation. But as Mark Schwarzer wrote in these pages earlier this week, the performance matters as much as the result.
Games against Denmark and Peru follow in quick succession, with the hope that van Marwijk has instilled enough belief in the Australians for them to carry the fight to all three opponents.
Not since 2006 has Australia qualified for the knockout stages. A fresh page of history is waiting to be filled in.
But it hasn’t meant a thing with the bookies, with the Socceroos written off by punters, with a France upset equalling the record for their longest-ever odds to win a World Cup match.
Ange Postecoglou’s depleted side which faced Spain in the final group match of the 2014 World Cup is the only other time Australia has been at $13 to win, followed by $11 to topple star-studded Brazil in 2006.
Switzerland pulled off the greatest boilover since 1998, with the $15 outsiders upsetting Spain in 2010.
Saturday night’s $1.22 favourites France would be the shortest-priced losers since that $1.25 Spanish side’s defeat.
The Socceroos must draw inspiration from 2016 Premier League winners Leicester City, who started the season at $2001, with punters having little faith in Bert van Marwijk’s side, with an underdog World Cup win rated a $301 long shot.
The Socceroos are $5 to reach the Round of 16 and $1.18 to be eliminated at the group phase.
“Despite the long odds, there have still be plenty of patriotic punters getting behind our team, with the Socceroos far and away our worst result to win the tournament,” TAB’s Nick Quinn said.
Tim Cahill is $2.75 to join world soccer’s immortals by scoring at a fourth World Cup.
Brazil has overtaken Germany as $5 favourites to win the World Cup.