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Sympathetic - just this once

Something strange happened late on Monday afternoon. A feeling washed over me (and many others judging from conversations I had the following morning whenever talk turned to events in Germany), an emotion as unnerving as it was unfamiliar.

I sat staring at my TV screen having just seen Italy progress to the quarter finals of this most compelling of World Cups courtesy of an at best dubious penalty, the last kick of an entertaining game.

It took a while to register but I finally pinpointed just what it was - I was feeling genuine sympathy for a vanquished Australian sports team. I had been urging them on, I suddenly realised, for the past hour, desperate for at least another 30 minutes of football as reward for the verve and resilience they had shown at times in this match, and more consistently in their groups games. These are indeed strange days.

The tag of gallant losers; plucky underdogs who gave it a real go but ultimately came up short may not be one that sits comfortably with the Australian sporting psyche.

It is a theory that has rarely been tested but something the thousands who gathered in public squares in the middle of the night in Sydney, Melbourne and beyond must now accept as their creditable inheritance for a football team returning to the world stage after a 32 year hiatus. Seems I am not to be alone in heading in to unfamiliar territory.

I must offer some context. I am English and so have spent much of my life empty handed whenever the two nations' sporting rivalry has been played out and the bragging rights have found a home.

Raised in a time when Australia's rugby and cricket teams - a few recent events notwithstanding - held the Indian sign over England, I was taught through bitter experience to feast greedily on Australia's defeats, for you knew that a famine would soon be upon you.

But now that has changed, at least until Ashes hostilities resume in earnest in November.

Because there has to be a winner there has to be a loser. But there are different ways of doing both at a World Cup; something brought into sharp focus by Monday's action where, from two matches played, the only team that actually lost a game of football were the ones entitled to feel most proud of themselves.

The way in which Fabio Grosso threw himself over Lucas Neill's prostrate body to dupe the referee into awarding the penalty that settled the game was unedifying.

Few, still, could argue that Italy were not the better team and definitely had the clearest opportunities to score, but a hard-working Australian team made one of Europe's football aristocrats and realistic potential World Cup winners sweat.

Who knows what might have happened had they gone for the jugular earlier, when benefiting from a numerical advantage, and brought John Aloisi into the game much sooner than the 82nd minute.

It is to be hoped that the manor of defeat does not arrest the growing public support for the game in a country where it is vying for space with other established sports. You can almost hear the AFL and Rugby stalwarts pointing to the effete gamesmanship of the Italians as proof that football is not a man's sport. It is little more than a generation since the game in Australia was referred to widely as 'wogball', a disparaging reference to its largely ethnic roots in the country, and remains, to a degree, marginalised.

Australia's nascent football culture - strong enough though its foundations appear to be judging by the estimated 25,000 green-and-gold-clad Aussies bringing vocal support to their team in Germany - does not need any further obstacles to contend with.

As well as putting on a dogged show, the Australians also provided one of the most enthralling games of the tournament so far. The dramatic 2-2 draw with Croatia that sealed passage to the second round even survived the best efforts of another Englishman, referee Graham Poll, to sabotage it.

Australia may still be considered a developing country in footballing terms but the country that invent the game, England, and that which gifted us the concept of the World Cup in the first place, France would do well to take a leaf out of the young upstarts' book as they continue to bore their way through the competition

The second round is probably as far as the collective footballing talents of the country could realistically be expected to go. The passionate support they generate will just have to come to terms with the alien concept - anathema to Shane Warne's contention that Australians are such winners they have self belief written into their passports - that sometimes a victory of sorts can be gleaned even from a defeat that took them nowhere near the ultimate prize and, elsewhere, will quickly be forgotten as a curious footnote to the most recent chapter of football history.

Australia - the also-rans who brought plenty to the party but couldn't stand the pace. I only hope the same can be said this winter.

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