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Australia v England Will Be Just Another Friendly. Unless We Win

Early start tomorrow for Socceroos fans.

26/05/2016 10:05 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:53 PM AEST
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Getty Editorial
Tony Popovic and Harry Kewell celebrate the first goal during the International Friendly match between England and Australia in 2003.

In cricket it's the pinnacle of the sport, in rugby it's a heated contest at Twickenham, but in football what relevance does a clash with the old enemy hold?

Football supporters, since a cold night in 2003, have held onto one single result as the marker between England and Australia on the pitch. The 3-1 result was akin to a sporting miracle, with a shorn messiah in Harry Kewell scoring the second goal.

A complacent England side, and a manager who didn't grasp the magnitude of the occasion, meant the result would reverberate on both sides of the world the next morning.

There were platitudes from the Prime Minister of Australia and scorn on Fleet Street -- the result which would forever hold a place in footballing mythology.

Yet, the contest in the wee hours of the morning on Saturday will not have the same white-hot feel of so many clashes between the nations on the scorching deck of the WACA or the hallowed turf at Twickenham.

Part of it that there just aren't enough football clashes between the two nations to create a sporting rivalry, nor for characters such as Stuart Broad to become pantomime villains -- there's no danger of familiarity breeding contempt.

Instead, realistically, it will be just another friendly used by both nations to tweak their squads ahead of more pressing business. Unless Australia wins, of course.

Since 2003, Australian football has started to tread a very different path than the one it was on back then. In those less-than-heady days, we were still part of the damp squib that was the Oceania Federation. The odd contest against New Zealand and a quadrennial round of playoff heartbreak aside, there were no big contests by which to measure ourselves.

The old enemy, then, was the natural footballing yardstick. Everything in Australian football was geared towards the English game. Our mentality and our football was very much based on the fare from the cold North, despite the huge levels of influence disparate migrant communities had on the domestic code.

So when the clash against England came around in 2003, it wasn't just an 'Ashes' clash but a chance to prove ourselves against one of Europe's elite sides. But 10 years in Asia has advanced the conversation, even if our Anglo legacy remains in the background.

We now have big games on a regular basis, they just happen to be on the far-flung fields of the United Arab Emirates and Tajikistan rather than Sunderland, where Saturday morning's game will take place.

In 2003 the England match may have been the ultimate proving ground for Australian players, but now Australian players are given the chance to play in big matches almost every month or so.

The ultimate marker of how an Australian side may be remembered isn't how they did against England but how they did in the countless World Cup qualifiers or even at the World Cup itself.

Thanks to regular World Cup appearances and regular Asian football, the Socceroos simply have bigger, more important fish to fry.

That all being said, the friendly does take on an extra meaning for domestic players.

The team which walks out at the Stadium of Light will involve a smattering of A-League players -– players from a league which is derided by those who think English football is 'proper' football and the local product is just a pale imitation of such.

In 2003 it was hard to argue against that point given the slow death spiral of the NSL was underway. But in 2016 defenders of the local game can legitimately point to an increasing standard of football on the pitch.

Undoubtedly, A-League players will be sick and tired of hearing that they're not 'proper' footballers -- so may just be keen to prove a point against players who are seen as proper footballers.

Once again the Socceroos go in at long odds, but what happens if they win? Again.

The 2003 squad was full of talent playing in the top leagues of Europe, but the local products in the side for Saturday's clash give the match an extra dimension.

England will be the proving ground, but not in the sense it once was.

A win will provide validation rather than triumph, and it's not so much a clash between old and bitter enemies as a chance for the new brigade to show what more than a decade in Asia has achieved.

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