PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil (AP) — Back-to-back defeats have done nothing to dent the confidence of an Australia squad that arrived at the World Cup as the lowest-ranked team and with pundits predicting a complete wipe out.
The Socceroos are out of contention already, ahead of their last group game against 2010 champion Spain, but the gutsy manner of their defeats to the Netherlands and Chile suggests there's enough talent in the inexperienced squad to expect brighter outcomes in future.
Netherlands thrashed Spain 5-1 in its opening match and deployed the same formation against Australia, but had to ensure some nervous moments before coming back to win 3-2.
Before the tournament, coach Ange Postecoglou stressed the need for his Australia squad to play exciting, attacking football and lay the foundation for a new generation of players. So far, so good.
"We dominated for much of the game," midfielder Matt McKay said of Wednesday's encounter with the Dutch. "Who would have thought that going into the game other than ourselves? I reckon that a lot of Aussies will be very proud about the way we went about it. "
The average age of the squad going into the tournament was 25. Among the youngsters, there is a scattering of veterans from Australia's 2006 World Cup appearance, where the team made it into the knockout rounds — losing to eventual champion Italy after a contentious late penalty — thanks in large part of a coterie of players with experience in top-flight English football.
Chief among them is Tim Cahill, who has scored in each of the games so far in Brazil, but who will miss out against Spain because he has picked up two yellow cards. His goals, including a stunning left-foot volley against the Netherlands that is a contender for the strike of the tournament, inspired a fight back in each match.
"We came here to play football, and as nation I think we have earned the respect of the world," he said. "I'm proud of this team, the kids. It's one of the best soccer teams I have ever been a part of."
The Australians had a horrible opening 20 minutes at the tournament, conceding two quick goals against Chile, but settled down and rallied to get back to 2-1, narrowly missing chances for equalizers in a dominant second half, before conceding a stoppage-time goal.
After the Spain match, the next challenge for Australia is the Asia Cup in January, which it is hosting for the first time.
The lessons picked up at the World Cup can only help in the team's bid to win that competition after losing in the final against Japan in 2011.
"We have one match left here. Once that is done and dusted, we will look to the Asian Cup," defender Alex Wilkinson said. "The World Cup has given all the players experience of playing in a big competition. This is invaluable."
The experience for the younger players is particularly valuable considering 34-year-old Cahill, who was among the junior members of the squad when he scored in his first World Cup match against Japan in 2006 and has become Australia's all-time leading scorer, is unlikely to be there to guide them in 2018.