Robbie Kruse had expected to represent his country at the 2014 World Cup.
At the time playing in Germany with Bayer Leverkusen, the Australian winger was enjoying competing in one of Europe’s major leagues. He had settled well following his transfer from Fortuna Dusseldorf. He was pushing for a regular spot in Leverkusen's starting line up.
At international level, Kruse was thriving, too. He had become arguably his side’s most influential player. He had played an integral role in Australia’s qualification for the 2014 World Cup. A place in Brazil seemed assured.
Then Kruse tore his ACL towards the end of a routine training session at Leverkusen. It was six months from the global finals. The injury would rule him out for longer. In a flash, Kruse’s World Cup dream was extinguished.
“Doing so much to get the team there and having to watch and not be at the World Cup was a huge blow for me,” he says now. “Not only for me, but for my family also.”
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Three years on, the disappointment drives him. Kruse has long since returned to the international fold, racking up his 57th cap last month in the final Group B qualifier against Thailand. Used as a second-half substitute, he helped his side to a nervy 2-1 victory, although even still the road to Russia remains anything but straightforward.
Australia finished third in the group and therefore face Syria twice in the coming week in what they hope to be the first of two play-offs. Perform well in Malaysia on Thursday - given the civil war in their country, Syria cannot play qualifiers at home - and then again in the second leg in Sydney five days later, and Australia secure a decisive play-off with a country from the Concacaf section. Kruse would again be close to a World Cup. Memories of 2014 have only deepened his determination.
“Lately I’ve been using that as a lot of motivation to get my move back to Germany,” said Kruse, who this summer ended a brief but difficult time in China by signing for VfL Bochum, a club in the Bundesliga II. “That was my main idea: to put myself in a position to play every week in a really good league and then be able to go to the World Cup.
“That’s been in the back of my mind in most of the games. With missing the last World Cup, you always think about what could have been. I was in a really good place in my career and sometimes think, if I had’ve gone there, I could’ve had a really good tournament and it might've taken me a bit further at that time. But obviously it wasn’t to be.
“But with this next World Cup I can do that now. The dream of every kid is to go the World Cup, and to have played 60-odd times for my country and not go to one would be extremely disappointing."
The first step to achieving that comes at the Hang Jebat Stadium in Melaka. As reigning Asian champions, Australia enter the two-legged clash as clear favourites, pitted against a Syrian side who, like Kruse, have yet to appear at a World Cup.
Last month, Syria required a last-gasp draw against Iran to extend their improbable bid. Predictably, a side playing against the backdrop of political turmoil at home made headlines around the world.
Kruse understands completely the significance for Syria. As such, it makes Australia’s quest that little more daunting.
“It’s been a really good story how well Syria’s done to get to where they are. Full credit to them,” he says. “They have maybe everyone outside Australia going for them. It’s going to be an incredibly difficult path for us, and the momentum and the passion they play with can take them a long way. But it’s up to us to nullify that.
“They have excellent players individually, and are well coached tactically, like all countries around that region now. So we’ll have to be on our guard, for sure.”
Kruse knows the conditions - Melaka will be stiflingly humid - provide another factor to contend with, as does the expectation that Australia will end Syria’s run and prolong their own. That brings with it added pressure, but he and his teammates are vastly experienced. Some, such as Kruse, are in fine form for their clubs, too. Last month, Kruse scored three goals in four matches for Bochum.
“Of course there’s pressure,” he says. “But we have the calibre of players to deal with it. Throughout the first and second qualifying stage we’ve been favourites in probably every game we’ve played. But that’s the way it is: we won the 2015 Asian Cup, we had a decent performance at the Confederations Cup this summer. We’re expected to win the game.
“But football’s not like that. So we have to really be on our game to produce a good performance, particularly away, so we head home, where we’re predominantly really strong, with a good result and then we’ll be in a good position to get through. Because we’re at the stage now where it’s do or die.”
Given past experiences, that sense of finality should spur Kruse.
“The past year or two has been difficult for me, but my form for Bochum has given me a huge amount of confidence,” he says. “Now the main thing, though, is to actually qualify for the World Cup. That’s been the focus for me and of all the players. We’re all extremely passionate about doing that. Hopefully we can get the job done.”
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