Campaign starts tonight
MELBOURNE (AAP) - The idea of almost 100,000 Australians turning up to watch the Socceroos play Greece in a match that counts for nothing might once have seemed absurd.
But this is Melbourne, third biggest Greek city in the world and Australia's first city of sport, the Greeks are the surprise champions of Europe, and the Socceroos are bound for a festival that will decide the champions of the world.
Times have changed.
"It looks like we're going to have to build bigger stadiums in Australia," said Melbourne-born Socceroo midfielder Marco Bresciano, six months after a sell-out crowd of 82,000 in Sydney roared Australia home in the final World Cup qualifier against Uruguay.
A football renaissance is taking place down under, and this is how a nation is saying farewell and good luck in Germany to its newest sporting heroes.
Those heroes will be led onto the MCG tonight by Mark Viduka, 30, another Melbourne boy who has made big strides in Europe but is about to make the biggest leap of his career.
"It's an honour for me to lead this team of people and my country," Viduka said.
"The captaincy adds that extra responsibility to me as a player; I just love it.
"And Melburnians are the best fans in the world,
As for Australia's chances in Germany, he said: "I have been in the game a long time, and I've seen things some people said were impossible. The sky is the limit."
Australia's squad includes wingback Stan Lazaridis, born in Perth of Greek parentage, while Greece's attack will be led by Manchester City's Giorgos Samaras, who has strong Melbourne connections and might well have turned out wearing green and gold national colours.
Defender Lucas Neill described Greece as the 'perfect preparation' for Australia's World Cup campaign.
"They'll be really bitter they didn't make the World Cup, and they'll be out to make a statement," he said.
"Obviously they'll have a lot of backing from the Greek community in Melbourne.
"But we've got places to play for (in the World Cup)."
There can be no bigger incentive.
In that sense, Australia's World Cup does not start against Japan in Kaiserslautern on June 12.
Really, it begins against Greece in Melbourne tonight.