Leckie’s KEEPUP column on ‘Saudi prize fight’

Mathew Leckie

There’s a buzz in the air when a big game is just around the corner. The fans feel it, the players feel it. The sense of occasion, and the magnitude of that occasion, gets sharper by the day.

The Socceroos’ home game against Saudi Arabia on November 11 has everything – first against second in the group, two prize fighters at the top of their game, and the added excitement of us playing at home for the first time in 763 days. Every fan wants to be there, and every player wants to be in that arena.

You’ll recall we had two fairly epic encounters with Saudi Arabia in the qualifying for the last World Cup – there was a 2-2 draw in Riyadh, and a banger of a strike from Tom Rogic got us over the line 3-2 in the home game. There’s a rivalry developing between the two sides, one that’s only strengthened by the fight to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

In these games, fine margins and moments of genius often make the difference. In that 3-2 win in 2017, it wasn’t just Tom Rogic’s strike that stood out – Tomi Juric scored two opportunistic goals, one of which I was able to set up.

Yet Saudi Arabia finished above us on the table, sending us into the lottery of the play-offs, even though we only lost one game in the final round of qualifying. That’s what I mean about fine margins. The strength of the teams in this final round of qualifying is obvious, and the group tables can look very different game by game.

Mathew Leckie and Tomi Juric celebrate a goal against Saudi Arabia on June 8, 2017

Every advantage matters, which is why the work by our staff and by the government to make it possible to play the game on Australian soil is so very important. The history of recent qualifying campaigns underlines the value of home advantage: hearing Australian voices around you, sensing the support, enjoying the familiarity are all factors that can lift your performance.

COVID-19 has played havoc with our games, leading to that ridiculously long gap between home fixtures since we took on Nepal in Canberra in October 2019.

So I’m not sure there’s been quite enough credit for the 11-game winning streak Australia put together over the last round of qualifying and then this one, considering 10 of those games took place outside this country.

Certainly it has put us in a strong position, even after losing to Japan last month. Japan played out of their skins because they knew their whole qualification campaign was on the line, but we have shown our strength game after game – we don’t need to have any doubt.

On a personal level, I’m loving being involved in these games after missing the last two camps. The reality of having to quarantine each time made it an impossible decision; every call up for your country is an honour, and not one I ever take for granted, but with a young family I felt I couldn’t be away from them for three weeks out of four, two months in a row.

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Aaron Mooy congratulates Tom Rogic for the winner against Saudi Arabia in 2017

I had to put my family first, but watching from home wasn’t easy. At my age, you feel a responsibility to set the best example you can in camp, show in the way that you prepare and the way you train what standards are expected at this level. Having grown with so many members of that team, not being involved was a peculiar feeling.

I’m certain the atmosphere in Parramatta will be electric, one of those nights that you recall for years. The stakes couldn’t be higher. There’s a massive step to be taken towards the 2022 World Cup.