Australia toiled to a 2-1 victory over minnows Kyrgyzstan in Bishkek, but the match represented more than just a World Cup qualifier: it was a snapshot of the significance of the world game writes Joey Ratcliffe.
It all seemed too easy after one minute, when Mile Jedinak’s free-kick found it’s way over the goalkeeper to give Australia a 1-0 lead. But ten minutes into the match, the Kyrgyzstanis had had more possession and more shots, including a Vitalij Lux strike that struck the side netting after a well worked manoeuvre down the Central Asian’s right side. The pre-game predictions of a comfortable and comprehensive Australian victory weren’t proving true.
Kyrgyzstani playmaker Edgar Bernhardt was pulling the strings and providing or supporting with his teammates, especially tricky wide-man Anton Zemlianukhin.
To the die-hard football fan, this might have been one of the most intriguing football matches in history. This is what football was about.
Imagine Brazil visiting Australia for a World Cup qualifier; that’s what the scenario was for Kyrgyzstan.
You could argue the world was now a better place for the Socceroos visiting Bishkek. Football, history, geography and passion was shared and embraced. It was Australia’s first match on the road to FIFA’s next World Cup, but it was also the first viewing of a nation so intriguing one was almost more enthralled by the crowd, the venue, and the unknown players.
The pitch had been of much debate in the lead up to the game, but the fans became the attraction. 18,000 jeering football fanatics filled the stands, booing Australian players who made more money than their entire national team combined. Australia were the tall poppy, and Kyrgyzstan were holding the underdog status we usually hold so dear.
17 minutes in a chant went up: “Kyrgyzstan! Kyrgyzstan! Kyrgyzstan!” It felt like a footballing nation had awoken inside the stadium surrounded by grandiose, snow-capped peaks.
Through all the early stages of the match Australia were 1-0 ahead thanks to a kind bounce from Jedinak’s free kick. But it never mattered, as the true appeal to the match was the expansion of football.
Australia, the apparent underdogs in world football, were now the superpowers at the mercy of a crowd baying for an upset.
In the 22nd minute, a spill by Mat Ryan in Australia’s six-yard box sent hearts to mouths as the pitch almost haunted the Socceroos like it had the Kyrgyzstanis in the second minute, but this time it amounted to nothing.
For most of the first half, Australia were unable to play their Postecoglou-style football and wide players Matthew Leckie and Nathan Burns had all their chances restricted by intelligent defensive structuring. Tim Cahill was barely sighted. The minnows weren’t as simple in their football style as the name would suggest.
Matthew Leckie eventually made his way around questionable defending by Daniel Tagoe, but the subsequent set piece was not lucrative enough for marksman Tim Cahill.
The qualifier was not as easy as the fixture list suggested and a single loss would automatically derail the Socceroo’s entire World Cup campaign. Even if Kyrgyzstan were minnows, victory was necessary.
As much as football was the winner in an incredible fixture, Russia 2018 was the reality. Australia had to win at the foot of the Alatau Mountains in a nation squeezed between China, Russia and a feast of nations never given the respect they crave in football.
By half-time, not one Australian player had stood out. Not one Australian player had taken the opportunity to say, ‘this is my time’.
Australia appeared to be a team stuck in its structures playing against a team with their backs against the wall and relying on will and passion. How the tables had turned. Australia’s legs looked lazy and heavy. The Kyrgyzstan energy was constantly vigorous. The second half would, almost certainly, determine the immediate World Cup qualifying paths of the Asian nations.
And the crowd deserved a goal.
Even in the second half, Ingoldstadt’s Leckie looked the most likely to score for Australia but Bernhardt and Zemlianukhin were ever-present and always creating chances, upstaging their more recognised foes.
From a long throw by Valeriy Kichin, an athletic Mirlan Murzaev back-heel was not enough to break the green-and-gold defences; but it was yet another warning shot.
15 minues into the second half Australia finally made some ground, but it was only momentary as the next best opportunity came through a Kyrgyzstan counter attack. Second phase play from the ensuing corner led to a save from Mat Ryan.
Murzaev was a constant threat for Kyrgyzstan on the counter and was only subdued by last ditch Australian defense.
Against the run of play the Socceroos doubled their lead. Mark Milligan intelligently found FC Utrecht’s Tommy Oar with the outside of his right foot and the winger finished with aplomb.
A player, so often critised by fans and pundits alike for his Socceroos performances, delivered on the international stage in an arena that he was needed the most. Finally the perceived gulf in class was made apparent as Australia made the most of one of their few quality chances.
It was 2-0, but the beauty of the match was still not lost, even if the game felt all but over by then.
As much as football is a results game, World Cup qualifiers like this are about the soul of the game, and the true beauty of football is about connecting the world despite the myriad of political and cultural barriers.
Simplistically, football is about the way we play – typically Australian with heart and enthusiasm – and Kyrgyzstan was a worthy opponent.
One of the best-worked moves of the game – started by Ruslan Amirov in the Kyrgystan half – was poorly finished by the same player at the Australian end.
A shot by Viktor Maier in the final two minutes forced a save by Ryan that eventuated in another corner. Captain Azamat Baimatov’s eventuating goal may have been somewhat questionable considering the overt use of the arm, but the performance was worthy of a goal for the home team.
The full time whistle didn’t come as a relief to the home crowd, but, their side’s performance was more than worthy of a tournament qualifier that is meant to represent the entire world.
The World Cup: the tournament that every other sport envies because it lives up to its name.