Let’s start with a caveat. The remainder of this column might read as blasphemous to some, or an ill-advised effort at tempting fate to others, so it might help to be explicit: I want the Socceroos to qualify for the World Cup.
Whatever my views about mercurial manager Ange Postecoglou, or Australia’s prospects in 2018, I will be shattered if the national team lose to Honduras over two legs in the next week.
As a journalist who covered June’s Confederations Cup – and one with a passion for Russia (I have been four times in the past 18 months) – I have both personal and professional reasons for wanting to return next year.
Yet as the Socceroos’ most important tie in over a decade approaches, I cannot help but draw comfort from the possibility of a silver lining to non-qualification.
Australian football is in crisis. Football Federation Australia, the state associations and A-League clubs are engaged in internecine warfare over governance reform, and the threat of FIFA intervention looms large.
Structural failings, personality clashes and divergent perspectives on the sport’s future have been thrown into stark contrast. It is not pretty.
On the field, the Socceroos have barely scraped through qualifying to reach their present predicament, with insufficient progress from the team’s younger contingent.
The continued reliance on 37-year-old Tim Cahill does not bode well for a Cahill-less future, while the seeming inability of stars Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic to gel in the midfield recalls England’s Frank Lampard/Steven Gerrard woes.
Postecoglou is leaving, although he refuses to say precisely when, and the list of potential replacements is hardly inspiring.
Non-qualification might be the seismic jolt all stakeholders need.
After two campaigns barely deviating from auto-pilot, the road to 2018 has demonstrated that Australia cannot take the World Cup for granted.
Chartering a long-term course for prosperity at both the international and domestic level requires collaboration, not fiefdoms and infighting.
The lustre of the World Cup and its pot of gold provides a slender thread holding together a complex web of institutional relationships. Breaking that strand will be painful, but it may be a necessary step.
Fourteen years since Soccer Australia’s demise, another program of (less drastic) reform may be in order – and non-qualification for the biggest sporting event in the world is a sure-fire way to hasten the delivery of that medicine.
At a more personal level, supporting a participating team at an international tournament is a stressful undertaking. For Socceroos fans, the process is an emotional rollercoaster that inevitably ends in disappointment.
After three consecutive World Cups of early morning fingernail biting and complex group-stage calculations, a Socceroos-free tournament might be a positively pleasant affair.
This World Cup promises to be a particularly engaging iteration. Reigning champions Germany are strong contenders to become only the third team in history to defend their title; with their second-string side collecting the Confederations Cup earlier this year, Joachim Low has an abundance of talent at his disposal. Lionel Messi single handily secured Argentina’s qualification – will 2018 be his Pele 1970 moment?
Tiny Iceland – with a population roughly equivalent to Canberra – has qualified for its first-ever World Cup, alongside fellow debutants Panama. Egypt, perennial African champions but long-time underachievers on the world stage, will also be making the journey to Russia.
Australians love an underdog, and there will be several to choose from in 2018.
Political intrigue will also abound at the tournament. Russia’s organising committee has never fully shaken off allegations of dubious dealings in their successful hosting bid, and have Qatar to thank for diverting the bulk of scrutiny.
Russians go to the polls early next year, and while incumbent President Vladimir Putin is almost certain to win, the political repercussions of a growing opposition movement could ripple into the tournament. For football fans with an interest stretching beyond the pitch, Russia 2018 is certain to be interesting.
A defeat to Honduras could also have an upside for supporters intending to make the trip regardless of qualification.
While Australians were treated to a landmark-heavy itinerary at the Confederations Cup, there is no guarantee the Socceroos will again play in picturesque Saint Petersburg or cosmopolitan Moscow. The sights of Saransk (the smallest host city), for example, are no match for the Hermitage or iconic Red Square.
The flexibility that comes with decoupling travel itineraries from a particular team could make visiting Australians’ time in Russia all the more memorable.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the next week for Australian football.
Non-qualification would be a seismic financial blow for the FFA, while other stakeholders in the ecosystem are similarly unprepared for the consequences.
Several stalwarts would likely retire from international duty, Postecoglou would immediately depart and his national team rebuilding project would go back to square one.
But the round ball game in Australia has a storied tradition of muddling through. If the Socceroos lose to Honduras, both the establishment and individual fans might console themselves with a silver lining.
*Kieran Pender is an Australian writer, who has reported for The Guardian from four continents. This is his debut column for The World Game.