Australia will launch their attempt to reach new heights in football by toppling champions Japan and winning their first Asian Cup when they kick off the tournament on Friday.
A sell-out crowd is expected at the 30,000-capacity Melbourne Rectangular Stadium as Ange Postecoglou’s men take on Kuwait on day one of the 16-nation extravaganza.
An eventual victory for Australia would put the country on top at both club and international level after Western Sydney Wanderers won the AFC Champions League in November.
And it would provide a further boost for football among the Australian public, which traditionally prefers the rugby codes, Australian rules and cricket.
Four-time winners Japan are one of their main rivals, despite a match-fixing case swirling around their coach, and Carlos Queiroz’s Iran also look like top contenders.
South Korea are looking to end a 55-year title drought, but the draw has been unkind to 2011 semi-finalists Uzbekistan who are likely to face the Koreans or Australia if they reach the quarter-finals.
Among the minnows, Palestine have overcome major hurdles to qualify for the first time, and North Korea are trying to escape the group stage for the first occasion since 1980.
Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation in 2006 but have yet to lift the region’s most coveted trophy, after being edged out by Japan in a gripping final in 2011.
– ‘Tougher opponents’ –
During Postecoglou’s rebuilding, the side have slumped to 100th in the FIFA rankings, Asia’s 10th-ranked team, despite some eye-catching play at the World Cup last year.
But the coach said his players were itching to get started on what could be a defining campaign for football in Australia.
“To be honest, the boys can’t wait for Friday night,” Postecoglou said.
“We’ve been on the road for 12 months and to walk out to a sell-out crowd on Friday night, it’s going to make the boys feel a couple of feet taller. I can’t wait to get the match started.”
The Socceroos will be favoured to navigate Group A, despite the presence of South Korea, and make it to the knock-out stages starting on January 22.
Form suggests the hosts will play Iran in the semi-finals, with the prize of a repeat of the 2011 final against Japan — and a chance for sweet revenge.
But tournaments are rarely so predictable and Australia are already concerned that they will find it difficult to play their preferred high-tempo, attacking game.
“At the World Cup, obviously it was flowing games and attacking games,” said veteran Mark Bresciano.
“This time around we’re going to be coming up against other countries that play in a different style and are going to try and stop us playing that attacking football ourselves.
“We are going to try and play the best of our ability and create as many opportunities as we can. But we know what we’re going to be coming up against. For us, they are going to be tougher opponents to play against.”
Australia’s opener against 1980 winners Kuwait heralds the start of a 32-game fiesta which gets into full swing with a triple-header on Saturday: Uzbekistan v North Korea, South Korea v Oman, and Saudi Arabia v China.
Games are being played in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra and Newcastle, with the final at Sydney’s 83,500-capacity Stadium Australia on January 31.