Lose your opening World Cup game and you face an uphill struggle to extend your stay beyond the group stages. It may be a cliché, but it’s the message both Australia boss Guus Hiddink and Japan coach Zico have been relentlessly drumming ahead of today’s match in Kaiserslautern.
They were right to be worried. But the first uphill struggle came even before the kick-off.
Yes, it’s not just a cliché, but a tortuously forced reference to the equally-tortuous clamber asked of everyone making their way to the stadium from the Hauptbahnhof.
Kaiserslautern seems a rather compact little city, with streets quickly clogged by the exuberant Aussies and Japanese ambling along… and along… and along.
And then up, up and away. And still not a glimmer or glimpse of the stadium appeared above the “Fussball-Fest” filling the alleyways with merchandise stalls and the air with chants of “Ole, ole, ole…Aussie, Aussie / Nippon, Nippon…” (delete as appropriate).
You could barely incline your head one way without banging into one inflatable kangaroo or another.
One group of Aussies even seemed to show slight confusion about what this World Cup is all about, by swinging around an inflatable David Boon.
Come to think of it, that may just have been David Boon.
Finally, the minimalist signs to the stadium seemed to suggest we were finally there.
Only to reveal an intimidating set of spiral staircase pointing the way, only still the stadium remained out of sight, out of reach.
Finally, the peak was reached, ready to join the chaotic queues for the media centre and doled-out tickets, continuing a trend of very unGerman, unruthless inefficiency.
I can understand the home country wanting to do away with outdated stereotypes, but still…
All were eventually rewarded for their patience, however, with an absorbing game and a dramatic climax.
The sides seemed well-matched for most of the game, the brute strength of Mark Viduka up-front for the Australians admirably met by the solid assurance of Japanese captain Tsuneyasu Miyamoto.
Celtic’s Shunsuke Yakamura in midfield, dropped for the 2002 World Cup in his homeland, was making up for lost time by pulling all the strings for Japan.
He offered deft control, sharp changes of pace and tackles which looked gossamer thin but succeeded in winning the ball back every time.
He was free to roam thanks to the gritty probings of Takashi Fukunishi and craftiness of Hidetoshi Nakata, only allowing Harry Kewell glancing contact with possession.
The opening goal was a bit of a fluke, however, and the first significantly controversial call this tournament.
Nakamura delicately worked himself a little space on the right wing, cutting in to chip a hopeful cross into a crowded penalty area – only for the ball to loop over everyone and drop daintily into the net.
The Australians were incensed, claiming goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer had been unfairly bundled over.
Yet replays suggested he was already on his way down without contact from Atsushi Yanagisawa – even if the muscular Naohiro Takahara did then blunder in with arms raised.
A ‘keeper of Schwarzer’s strength and experience shouldn’t really be blowing over quite so lamely, though.
Not surprisingly, Hiddink started to make changes soon into the second half – most notably introducing prolific goalscoring midfielder Tim Cahill.
More eye-opening was the fact he replaced Parma’s Marco Bresciano, who had seemed the most progressive of Australia’s midfielders in the first half, coming close with two mid-range efforts.
Somehow, Bristol City’s Luke Wilkshire managed to remain on the pitch for 70 minutes – though you’d have been hard-pushed to notice. Clinging to the right-flank touchline, he must have touched the ball five times, maximum.
It even looked like Kewell, Viduka et al, when finding themselves facing the right wing, would espy Wilkshire and promptly turn back on their heels the other way.
Far from looking like an authentic World Cup competitor, Wilkshire had the air of a little lad in the park, desperate to join in the bigger boys’ game, hoping they’d ask but too shy to speak up.
Japan’s relentless charging and mopping, especially as Australia introduced a four-man attack, finally began to wear them down.
Yet even as they visibly flagged, it looked like they might just hold on – especially as ex-Pompey ‘keeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi was in inspired form.
Time and again he stretched his tiny frame to beat away fierce free-kicks, snapshots and volleys.
Perhaps he got too carried away, for it was one spectacular parry from a John Aloisi free-kick that unfortunately led to his downfall.
As the resulting throw-in launched the ball back into his area, Yamaguchi went inexplicably walkabout – going to punch, yet missing.
As he tumbled head over heels, taking a clump of Japanese defenders under him, that man Cahill was quickest to notice the ball emerging from the melee, and swept it into Yamaguchi’s unguarded net.
The manic celebrations on the Australian touchline suggested they had won their first World Cup, rather than simply scoring their first World Cup goal in three tournaments’ attempts.
Cahill then got lucky again, this time in his own penalty area, as a late and ball-missing, man-playing challenge on Yuichi Komano went unpunished.
Three minutes later, he was back in the action – teed up by Jason Culina and Aloisi after a weak header by Yuji Nakazawa, and sending a 22-yard drive past the this-time-blameless Yamaguchi, ricochet-ing off both posts and over the line.
Aloisi, another ex-Pompey flop, cruelly but fairly exploited Japan’s crumpling limbs and morale by easily stepping over Komano in injury-time to sweep a third past Kawaguchi.
And that, all of a sudden, thanks to a seven-minute turnaround, was that.
A pity for the Japanese, but at least we avoided yet another 1-0, a scoreline in danger of becoming a frustating pattern already.
So… the Aussies think they can play football now too, do they? We’ll see about that.
At least the US lost comprehensively tonight, 3-0 to the ever-dangerous, free-scoring Czechs, with A*senal newbie Tomas Rosicky scoring two contenders for goal of the week.
Hmm. That’s a worry for another season (though, of course, John Jensen and Junichi Inamoto both scored impressive goals in major tournament, too…)
Still, for the time being – for all those who hope to keep the one prime sport of football, at least, free from Aussie and US dominance: this early leg ends a creditable score-draw.