Heartbreak in Sydney for Jane Saville Photo: Channel Seven
A Google search for the term “plucky Aussies” returns no fewer than 2360 results. We are a nation with a seemingly eternal chip on our shoulder, forever needing to prove that we belong on the global stage.
Australia’s most fabled sporting triumphs are moments in which the glass ceilings of athletic pursuits have broken open. Ashes and Bledisloe Cup victories are enjoyed, but it is the America’s Cup, Tour de France and Masters breakthroughs which will endure. These are boxes ticked on the Aussie sport ‘to-do list'.
In 2003, Johnny Warren - the late godfather of Australian soccer - lamented his sport’s tolerance in a fit of frustration, "I'm sick of us saying, 'When are we going to qualify for the World Cup?' When are we going to win the World Cup?... Call me a dreamer."
Ashton Agar showed youthful exuberance at Trent Bridge Photo: Getty
When two years later, John Aloisi’s penalty sent Australia to the 2006 tournament in Germany, Warren was posthumously lauded for his ambitious statement. We had qualified again after a 32-year drought (a period which should force rejoicing New South Wales fans to put their own wait for Origin triumph in perspective), and a nation’s sights could be reset towards grander goals.
Eight years on though, from the Socceroos’ barnstorming run to the last-16-and almost beyond - Australia again has lowered the bar for achievement. This is understandable - after all that "golden era" of talents couldn’t last forever - and as such the national team’s ultimately fruitless toil received almost universal praise.
Planted in a group which a New York Times study attributed a 0% "luck factor", the pass mark for this campaign was comfortably covered by a gritty recovery against Chile, a couple of Tim Cahill goals, and the achievement of not breaking any undesirable World Cup records along the way.
One was hard-pressed to find a single person who was not upbeat following the performance in Porto Alegre.
It seems timely then to contemplate some of most other honourable losses in recent Australian sporting history. Here are some defeats which left us feeling proud rather than peeved.
First Ashes Test at Trent Bridge, 2013
It is a widely accepted notion in sport that defeat is much more palatable when hope for the future can still be pulled from the wreckage. As was the case with the predominantly callow Socceroos against the Dutch, so too was Australia’s loss to the old enemy in the first Ashes rubber last winter granted a silver lining by the showing of Ashton Agar. With minimal expectation placed on the Australians against the metronomic English, a 14-run defeat was far from catastrophic. Within six months, an Agar-less Australian line-up would have a long and hearty last laugh.
Daniel Ricciardo at the Australian Grand Prix, 2014
Again it was a relative newcomer whose surprise podium finish at his first attempt at stepping into the Red Bull seat vacated by the tormented and polarising Mark Webber. Combined with the surprise factor, Ricciardo’s endearing personality, outshining public enemy Sebastian Vettel, and eleventh-hour disqualification all led to this result being viewed in positive light. Like the cricketers’ effort in Nottingham, Riccardio’s drive proved to be a portent of much better things to come.
Jane Saville in the 20km walk, Sydney Olympics, 2000
As unheralded walker Jane Saville approached the soon-to-be-infamous tunnel into the Olympic Stadium, Bruce McAvaney quipped on Channel Seven’s commentary how excitingly this looming athletics victory for Australia had been - a bonus for a nation previously transfixed on the cat-suit-clad Cathy Freeman. What transpired next of course is history, Saville callously disqualified so close to hometown glory. Asked what she needed in the immediate aftermath, her hysterical response of “A gun to shoot myself,” tugged at the heartstrings. Weeping with our distraught athlete, Australians remained proud of how close she had come.
Lleyton Hewitt, circa 2006 onwards
It is nearing 12 years since Lleyton Hewitt won Australia’s most recent men’s singles Grand Slam title. For a player who had climbed to the number one ranking by 20, and with four appearances in Slam finals by the age of 24, one could mount a case that he has failed to meet expectations. Of course this view is tempered almost entirely by the emergence of Messrs Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Much like his American contemporary Andy Roddick, Hewitt was unfortunate to be born into an era of men’s tennis replete with all-time greats. Nevertheless, Hewitt’s battling spirit has won him undying respect from the overwhelming majority of Australian sporting fans. Once a brat, his name is now synonymous with honourable fight but inevitable defeat. Even at 33, he remains a consistent tour professional, and Australia’s highest ranked male.
Australia v Italy, World Cup Round of 16, Kaiserslautern, 2006
Before there was Porto Alegre pluck, there was Kaiserslautern courage. Australia had the Azzurri on the ropes, before Fabio Grosso’s final-minute flop consigned the Socceroos to a gut-wrenching if not unexpected defeat. As the cases of Saville and Ricciardo show, when a loss can easily be attributed to the dastardly act of someone else, it becomes much easier to rejoice even in unfulfilled dreams.