Kaiserslautern's streets were overrun with ruddy-faced and jubilant Australians. One among many was Paul Trimboli, many times a Socceroo, now a fan in a fan's shirt, in a beer queue. "How good was that?" he grinned. The same rhetorical refrain was heard over and over, in the stadium, in the streets, on the airwaves, doubtlessly across Australia.
It was noteworthy that the vanquished stayed on, too, the Australians in clusters, the Japanese in couples. They were disappointed, yes, but this was the World Cup, of which US secretary-general Kofi Annan said recently that he wished he could bring people together so effectively and in such good spirit.
Besides, Australia and Japan are both too innocent in soccer terms for hate and segregation to be part of their approach yet.
The Fritz-Walter stadium stood at the top of the hill overlooking the town, where a castle should stand and probably once did. It looked like a castle, too. It added to the feeling that Australia was going this day not just to play a soccer match, but to storm a Bastille, consisting of weight of history, burden of expectation and, oh, Japan, little considered until this moment. It was Sartre who once said: "In football, everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team."
For a long time, neat and nimble Japan was a severe complication. Mark Schwarzer might or might not have been fouled as Japan scored its goal, but it looked to me as if he went at the ball expecting to be fouled, even hoping for it. The occasion demanded that he make his presence more forcibly felt. But there is no game quite like soccer for instantly turning a man from hero to villain, and back again.
The substitutes were the difference. Between them, they made and scored all the goals. Josh Kennedy was the catalyst, Tim Cahill and John Aloisi the scorers. Cahill is an intriguing figure, slightly built, diffident in public, ethereal on the pitch, sometimes culpably reckless, not even a striker, technically, but always there when goals are to be scored. He cannot explain it, nor can anyone else teach or learn it; it is instinct.
Hiddink's nerve is astonishing. He actually complained that Australia panicked too soon, resorting to speculative long balls when, to his mind, there was still plenty of time left. It was minutes.
Hiddink has chic and aplomb. He can bluff in at least three languages that I have heard, and dead-pan and amuse in them too. Today, he stands vindicated in his boot-camp methods. As the sun beat down in the second half yesterday, the game physically changed — the Japanese contracted before our eyes, and the Australians grew.
Australia needed and had luck, but Hiddink gives you to believe that even luck is part of a grand plan. Like Cahill on the park, he makes things happen.
Now the caravan moves to Munich, lengthening and growing in volume as it goes, for a date with Brazil. Brazil scarcely will be quaking in its boots. But in another sense, this will be Australia's easiest game. No one budgeted on putting one over Brazil anyway, so the Socceroos will feel a freedom they did not against Japan and will not against Croatia. The Allianz stadium will be full, and the goodwill of the nation, even from a distance of 15,000 kilometres, has become a palpable force.
The biggest game in Australian soccer history is over; now for the biggest game in Australian soccer history. That is how it is at the World Cup.