| Australian players savour the moment in Sydney on Wednesday, after beating Uruguay to clinch a berth in World Cup finals next year. (AFP)
Sydney: Australia ended 32 years of heartbreaking defeats on Wednesday to beat Uruguay on penalties and qualify for next year’s World Cup in Germany.
Striker John Aloisi scored the decisive penalty after goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer pulled off two brilliant saves to send the capacity crowd of 83,000 into wild celebrations.
Australia, who had suffered a series of agonising losses in their previous World Cup playoffs, won the shootout 4-2 after the home side won 1-0 after extra time for a aggregate 1-1 draw.
It was the first time that a penalty shootout victory has led directly to a place in the World Cup finals.
“Tonight we have realised a dream not only of the players but for everybody associated with soccer in Australia,” defender Lucas Neill said.
“We’ve all had fun picking our favourite team (to support) in the World Cup but now we can choose Australia. It’s something you dream about all your life.”
Australia’s Dutch coach Guus Hiddink, who steered the Netherlands and South Korea to the World Cup semi-finals, said his team had achieved something special.
“We only had a few weeks together, it wasn’t very long,” he said.
“But this is a great bunch of guys, they really wanted this and worked hard for it.”
Uruguay, World Cup champions in 1930 and 1950, had won the first leg of the playoff 1-0 in Montevideo on Saturday but were outplayed by an Australian team who squared the tie at 1-1 with a first half goal from Marco Bresciano.
Neither side was able to score in regulation or extra time, forcing the match into the agony of the shootout.
Harry Kewell, Neill and Tony Vidmar all converted from the spot to give Australia a 3-1 lead after Schwarzer pulled off a one-handed save from Dario Rodriguez.
The crowd fell silent when Australian captain Mark Viduka pushed his shot wide but roared back into life as Schwarzer saved Marcelo Zalayeta’s attempt and Aloisi slammed the ball into the back of the net to end Australia’s long wait.
“We thought it was going to happen. We’ve been dreaming of this for 32 years,” said Aloisi.
“You couldn’t ask for a better finish, with 83,000 people here to watch us and 20 million people in Australia following us. I just can’t believe it,” added the Alaves forward.
The Australians had began nervously in front of a sell-out crowd at the Olympic stadium and were lucky not to concede an early goal when the South Americans pushed forward in the hope of a quick kill.
A header from defender Diego Lugano just missed the far post, then Inter Milan striker Alvaro Recoba squandered a golden opportunity to score when he found himself in space with only Schwarzer to beat but missed the target.
Uruguay goalkeeper Fabian Carini pulled off two fine saves to deny Vidmar and Jason Culina but was powerless to stop Bresciano from breaking the deadlock in the 34th minute.
Hiddink replaced Tony Popovic after he was booked for a reckless foul on Recoba and his replacement Kewell made an immediate impact.
The Liverpool striker combined with Viduka to get in behind the defence and lay the ball off for Bresciano who slammed it into the net from close range.
Uruguay, playing the 20th match of their World Cup qualifying campaign, missed another great chance early in the second half when the unmarked Richard Morales headed the ball safely to Schwarzer. They spent the rest of the half defending against waves of Australian attacks.
Bresciano drove a volley over the bar after Viduka nodded the ball back to him outside the box then Kewell drilled an angled shot straight at Carini after finding himself in space before time ran out.