. A slice of luck never hurt anyone either. Our other reason to be apprehensive was that we were essentially entering the enemy's lair - Stuttgart has the largest Croatian population of any German city (all 40,000-or-so of them), and it was reported that up to 100,000 total Croatians may descend on the city for the game. Quantity is not normally an issue, but they are also renowned as avid, fanatical supporters - bringers of flares, weapons and potentially punch-ups.
Still, we weren't going to let that deter us
. We found a designated parking area not far from the city, and naturally opted for the 4 euro parking rather than the 60 euro "camping" parking. Personally I couldn't see much difference between them - both were on a harsh, bare landscape of bitumen and dirt, and neither were anywhere near a toilet or bathroom facility. It seems the vital difference is that they were separated by a fence, and possibly the other side had power but that wasn't something we needed. Oh, the other difference is that we were supposedly prohibited from staying there overnight, but we always knew that was always going to happen, and that more than likely we would be in a condition that they would be unwise to attempt moving us on. Snags once again wanted to do the "right" thing (whatever that is), but was quickly yelled into submission by the remaining cheapskates in the van.
We boarded the "free" train into the city to find the Fan Fest area, only to find that in fact we were in Croatia. Well, not exactly, but it was damn hard to deduce anything else from the throng of tablecloth-wearing Croatian supporters cramming the streets. This was the first time Aussie supporters had been comprehensively outnumbered, and it just happened to be by huge, hairy, scary-looking blokes. Surprisingly, they chose to watch the game from a vantage point on some stairs adjacent to the Fan Fest rather than actually inside the Fan Fest
. This was most likely because entry involved being felt-up by a large German security man, who would no doubt find a stash of 20 flares down your pants. Believe me when I say the security padding-down at Stuttgart was the most thorough I experienced in Germany. The other surprising discovery was that all the Croatian songs were totally lame. And when I say "all", I of course mean the one actual song/chant that they had. I expected more than three words repeated ad nauseam, but was secretly pleased that we were still ahead in this field with beauties such as "You're shit, but your chicks are hot", "Italy, you know how to buy a referee" and "You are a wanker".
Before the game we met up with Ben, Nico, Traut & Johanna to consume some beers for a change. When kick-off finally came, it was quite apparent that a number of the Croatian supporters were actually Aussies! One of the less subtle indications was a couple who had cut both teams' shirts down the middle, then stitched the odd halves together - seemed there were a number of Croatian supporters who wouldn't be that unhappy no matter the result.
The game was a fighting blockbuster. After conceding an early (2nd minute) goal from a brilliant free kick suddenly Fan Fest was alive with red flares. They did extremely well to smuggle them in
. The Socceroos fought back in the fashion we'd come to expect from them - disciplined, physical and fair. When we drew level from a penalty (handball in the box) it was pandemonium. When Croatia pulled ahead to 2-1 it was only through the staggering inadequacies of our keeper, Kalac, who appeared to have lost all knowledge of his profession. Then and now we could not figure out why such an arseclown was picked ahead of Schwarzer, but he was proving a real entertainer as he continued dropping the ball, miss kicking and generally handing out heart attacks to a stadium full of Aussie supporters. We will not be seeing him any time soon in the international arena. Luckily for him, Kewell came to the rescue by slotting home the equaliser and our ticket to the next round with 11 minutes to spare. Sure, he may have been slightly offside but we were bloody due for some luck to come our way!
The referee deserves some credit too, as he managed to hand Simunic 3 yellow cards, as well as missing a handball in the box and Viduka being hacked down for a sure penalty. Interesting to note, that because of his monumental screw-up with the yellow cards, if we had not progressed to the next round then the entire game would need to be replayed (due to a precedence). As the final whistle blew, Cahill buried another goal but had it disallowed.
So that was it, we were through to the Round of 16. This was signalled by a wall of beer thrown by Croatian supporters behind me - better luck next time! Somehow it seemed improbable that we were through - we had only been in the lead for a total of 2 minutes out of all of our group matches, but it hardly mattered. The next concern was getting out of Stuttgart alive, but our impending doom proved to be an anticlimax as all the Croatian supporters vanished without even a whimper. They realised their team had been outplayed. They realised 7 of our players were of Croatian descent and that 3 of their players were born in Australia. Most of all, they realised that they blew their chances by not defeating Japan in their earlier group match.
As we celebrated into the night it ticked over midnight and I was reminded it was my birthday. Brilliant present, thanks to all involved...
With the knowledge our World Cup aspirations hung in the balance there was a little apprehension in our group. No-one wanted to get our hopes up because really we weren't overly confident of securing our place in the next round. The plan was more along the lines of: stay positive, cheer like hell, and also pray a little bit for the referee not to butcher us