Football provides shining light in dark days Down Under

The Rio Report

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It wasn't that long ago that grave-faced representatives from each of Australia's major sporting codes stood on a stage, heads bowed and arms folded reverently, as the "blackest day in Australian sport" was announced.

Rugby league and Aussie Rules were at the forefront of the revelations made in an Australian Crime Commission report that claimed performance enhancing drugs, match fixing and ties with the criminal underworld were rife throughout professional sport Down Under.

At the same time, Olympic sports were also under fire, with swimmer James Magnussen and friends in trouble for their drug-fuelled high jinks in London, and deep rifts were uncovered within the underperforming Australian team.

Aussie cricket too has been suffering. For so long a source of pride internationally, it currently finds itself in somewhat of a freefall in the post-Ponting era, a situation that bottomed out with David Warner's lamentable bar room attack on his England counterpart Joe Root.

And all the while, the reliable stream of other unsavoury off-field incidents involving top league, union and AFL players has continued to flow and regularly fills out front pages from Sydney to Melbourne and back again. Drink-driving, brawls, sexual assault, rape and criminal damage are just some of the allegations directed at top players over recent weeks.

All in all it's fair to say it's not been a great first half of 2013 for Australian sport. Dark days indeed.

But on Tuesday night, led by Australia's national football side, there was a sense that the great Aussie fightback had begun. A 1-0 win over Iraq at a soggy Olympic Stadium in Sydney ensured Holger Osiek's Socceroos will contest a third World Cup on the bounce in Brazil next year. How those 80,000 sodden fans celebrated.

Already, in purely footballing terms, it had been suggested that the crucial qualifier was the biggest match in history of the game Down Under. While that rather smacks of hyperbole, it surely rivalled the nerve-jangling play-off against Uruguay in 2005 in terms of importance.

Yet put into the context of the annus horribilis 2013 has been so far, the game took on an even greater significance, almost as if Australia was looking to the Socceroos to inspire and help drag the rest of the nation's sports out of their respective holes.

Perhaps it was fitting football should be the sport to lead the way out of this crisis, even though it is not truly part of it. Football Federation Australia CEO David Gallop may have been at that infamous press conference, but football remains largely untouched by scandal Down Under, not only regarding what was brought to light by the ACC, but also in terms of daily tabloid fodder.

While we Europeans are used to seeing misbehaving top-flight footballers plastered all over the front pages of our newspapers, in Australia it is rare that an A-League player gives away column inches to a star from another sport.

Maybe that is due to their relatively lowly celebrity status, which is pretty much fifth-tier, given cricket, league, union and AFL stars are deemed more glamorous and interesting by the public. Perhaps it's down to the fact Mark Bosnich is no longer a going concern. Or maybe it's just that the new generation of footballers simply don't misbehave. Whatever, it's having a positive effect on the game nationally.

Soccer is booming Down Under. The A-League is attracting big names from around the globe - the arrivals of Alessandro Del Piero, Emile Heskey and Shinji Ono sparked huge interest last season - attendances are healthy and the rise of Western Sydney Wanderers was one of the stories of the year, anywhere in the world.

And with the national team grabbing headlines for only the right reasons, it's easy to see why the sport is growing. Football is an increasingly popular option for kids in school, parents not wanting their offspring to run the risk of injury in the more physical codes of union, league and AFL, or indeed their kids to choose the wrong role model.

A whole new generation of players is coming through and the current make-up of the Socceroos team is testament to this, with the likes of Tom Rogic, Tommy Oar and Robbie Kruse set to take over the mantle from old-timers Tim Cahill, Lucas Neill, Mark Bresciano and Mark Schwarzer after Brazil.

There is little to fault the direction in which football is going Down Under. It may be a 'dark time' for Aussie sports at the moment, but football is shining a bright light onto the path towards recovery and it could yet have provided the inspiration needed for the nation to emerge from its current sporting malaise.

And let's not forget that there is a busy period ahead of us: the Ashes are still up for grabs, the British and Irish Lions are yet to play a Test against the Wallabies and, a little further down the line, who'd be brave enough to back the current England side against a bunch of fired-up Aussies in a World Cup match?

Mike Hytner in Sydney

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