Frank Farina played 67 times for his country and wore the colors of five European clubs. But the great challenge of his life has arrived a few years after the end of his playing days. To an impatient people, all that matters about him is that he is guiding Australia to their first appearance in nearly 30 years at soccer's grandest event.
That generations of the country's best players have watched the last six World Cups in their living rooms may surprise people who regard Australia as a sporting big shot-world champion in cricket and the two rugby codes, winner of 27 Davis Cups and, at the Sydney Olympics, 58 medals. It is seldom acknowledged that Australia excels mainly in sports that only a small fraction of the world takes seriously.
Australia's bit part in the world game isn't due to indifference. Twice as many Australian children play soccer as any other sport; in parts of Sydney there are barely enough grounds to fit them all. Four years ago, the Socceroos had only to beat a weak Iran at a packed Melbourne Cricket Ground to qualify for France '98. After leading 2-0 midway through the second half, they blew it-one of the most wrenching failures in Australian sports history. "The pain I felt that night is still with me," says then Socceroo Graham Arnold, now assistant coach to Farina. "I pray that this is our year. Not just for me, but for the past players and coaches who've tried so hard to get there and the thousands of Australian fans who've suffered."
One last foe stands between Australia and what Farina, 37, calls the "Holy Grail." The Socceroos will play two matches this month-the first at the M.C.G. on Nov. 20, the second five days later in South America, against either Uruguay, Colombia or Brazil-for the 32nd and last place at next year's finals in Korea and Japan. Interviewed in his Sydney office, an intense Farina, a veteran of three failed Cup campaigns as a player, smiles rarely. But one question tickles him: What will he do if the Socceroos fall short again? "Leave the country," he offers, laughing. Then, "I honestly haven't thought about it."
It's probably best that he doesn't. Administrators are pumping up the pressure. According to Soccer Australia chairman Ian Knop, "the difference between qualifying and not qualifying is incalculable." Between the bookends of soccer-mad kids and the buzz of World Cup crunch time, soccer Down Under is suffering. "The game at domestic level is virtually moribund," National Soccer League official Remo Nogarotto said recently. Despite the efforts of administrators, the competition is still seen by many as a plaything of minority ethnic groups. Most of Australia's best 200 players are contracted to huge-spending European clubs. Sponsors, television and the sporting public-who for historical and cultural reasons have all long preferred football played with an oval ball-have largely ignored the shell of a competition left behind. Farina agrees that "qualification is the only vehicle that can profoundly change the game in this country."
Appointed coach in September 1999, he has followed his own course. He hand-picked the passionate Arnold to complement his own analytical flair. They changed the team's formation to bring it into line with what most players were used to at their overseas clubs and to emphasize scoring goals rather than stopping them. Compared to '97, they decided, the team needed more and harder games before the qualifiers. The pair set-and met-a target of 30 matches, which have included wins against the world's two strongest nations, France and Brazil, and a world-record 31-0 whipping of American Samoa. In charge of a team ranked 48th in the world and eyeing a list that includes Leeds United stars Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka, Farina says, "This is the strongest Australian squad ever assembled."
But long-time fans bear too many emotional scars to feel confident. "We have outstanding players, but the question mark is whether we have a good team," says Johnny Warren, who led the Socceroos to Germany in 1974 and whose world-weary manner reflects every setback since. While Farina will have a dozen sessions with his squad before the first qualifier, "our higher-ranked opponent will be coming off 18 cut-and-thrust qualification matches," says Warren, "nine of those in intimidating environments." Still, Warren has a "good feeling" about Australia's chances, "though I had that last time." Those who know Farina speak of his many fine qualities. Australian soccer fans will soon know whether he has the special touch needed to end their torment.