When does an underdog need to stop behaving like an underdog?
That’s the question Australia are asking themselves as they prepare for their fifth Fifa World Cup finals and one which is no doubt posed by many other teams in Russia.
The official Fifa World Rankings show the Socceroos are ranked only 40th in the world, which suggests they will not be among the frontrunners in the race to be world champions.
Football snobbery means many neutrals will reach the same conclusion, especially as no team from outside of Europe or South America has ever come near winning the trophy.
But the Australians have more experience than many other teams in the finals and are ranked higher than Morocco, Egypt, Nigeria, Panama, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia — and hosts Russia.
That’s what makes assessing their targets more complicated.
Having been there before and experienced the last three tournaments in Brazil, South Africa, and Germany, what should Bertvan Marwijk’s side be aiming for?
“That’s something we have been thinking about because this is not a team with no experience that hasn’t been there before,” says goalkeeper Matt Ryan, who plays in the Premier League with Brighton.
“Our last World Cup together we were all relatively young as a squad and we were disappointed with the way it went in Brazil.
“We had a change of coach a couple of months out from the tournament and he came in and changed a lot.
“He had a clearout and got rid of a few older players and brought in fresh faces. We hadn’t been long together.
“It was important for us to get to the World Cup again and keep the progress going. We don’t feel we should go there and be satisfied to stay for a couple of weeks, we aren’t the underdogs some people suggest we are.”
Australia first made the finals in 1974 when a team made up entirely of amateurs failed to score a single goal but nevertheless held Chile 0-0 in a landmark result.
Fast-forward 32 years and the Socceroos were a different prospect in Germany in the 2006 finals, reaching the last 16 before losing narrowly to eventual champions Italy.
In South Africa they were unfortunate to go out with a record of one draw, one loss and one win (against Serbia), only missing out on the knockout stages through goal difference.
And in Brazil they had a difficult time, losing all three matches in a tough group that featured Chile, the Netherlands, and Spain.
Qualifying this time wasn’t easy, either.
It took a dramatic play-off match against Honduras to reach Russia, where they play France, Denmark, and Peru in Group C.
“It was a buzz to qualify, especially the way we qualified with a lot of drama and going through the knockout stages,” says Ryan.
“When we didn’t go through the group there were thoughts of not qualifying and being on holiday in the summer instead of at the World Cup and that was something which didn’t sit comfortably.
"Thankfully we did what we had to do to get through and so watching the draw was exciting.
“It’s a tough group but we are confident. I’m very excited for our nation and we want to reach the last 16 and take it from there. We have a bit of self-confidence about us.
“It’s the most prestigious tournament in football, the apple at the top of the tree, and it’s a challenge. But in Australia we love a challenge! We’re not going there just to make up the numbers.”
The only worry for the Aussies is that, after the problems in Brazil, history has repeated itself.
Manager Ange Postecoglou resigned at the end of last year, claiming his four-year tenure had taken too much out of him, and has been replaced by former Netherlands and Borussia Dortmund manager van Markwijk on a temporary basis (he will be replaced by Graham Arnold after the World Cup).
But they do have plenty of experience, including veteran midfielder Tim Cahill who has played in the last three World Cups.
“We know what to expect,” Ryan insisted. “So we’ll be ready.”
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