Cathy Freeman once said that, for her, running was like breathing. When she took her mark to run for Australia in the 400-metre final at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the nation held its collective breath. For many Australians, sport is both theatre and church; Freeman’s race marked a revered and highly anticipated event at the pinnacle of her career.

Freeman had experienced intense pre-race media attention, not only as a talented athlete but as an accidental ambassador for reconciling Australia’s race-divided history with its present (a role The Guardian said ‘might have seemed to be adding lead weights to her running shoes’.

As the Olympic website headline asked at the time: ‘Has any athlete ever had to deal with the amount of expectation piled on to the shoulders of Cathy Freeman?’

Freeman won, but while fans were euphoric, the main emotion on Freeman’s face as she sat down on the track was of unburdened relief.

Former Olympian Sebastian Coe (who was, incidentally, apparently instrumental in securing the Queen’s participation in the 2012 London Olympics’ James Bond film) reportedly once said: ‘Sport is theatre, and through it we can see the human condition cut to the bone’. Sport is a microcosm of, and gives us an armchair view of, the theatre of life – its obstacles and its triumphs. Like Freeman, swimming great Kieren Perkins would attest to this. He went from barely qualifying for the 1500-metre final at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, to earning a place as national hero when he won gold from the ill-favoured lane eight.

Not until Perkins appeared on an episode of ABC’s Australian Story in 2014 did he reveal that he had suffered a panic attack caused by his poor heats performance, and considered ditching the final and ‘disappearing into obscurity’.

His teammate, rival and friend Daniel Kowalski was grappling with expectations too. He’d been asked what it was like to be the most hated man in Australia because he had the potential to beat the country’s golden boy of swimming.

‘The great moments in sport come when they’re least expected. That’s what makes them great,’ one of the commentators said as Perkins closed out the celebrated race. ‘A great Australian is swimming away from this field. He was down and out yesterday, and suddenly he stood up… Forget the time, this is all about courage. You’re seeing the best of the best. You are a superstar, Kieren Perkins. Savour the moment, Australia.’

Soon after the race, Perkins made his way over to embrace Kowalski, who had come second.

Arts critic Michael Billington has written that at its best, all sport is a form of drama, producing incredible tension and catharsis. The difference (as described to him by former head of sport at Thames Television Bryan Cowgill) is that ‘if I go and see Hamlet, unlike a soccer game, I know the result in advance’.

Such tension and catharsis is apparent in Australia’s collective support for the national men’s football (soccer) team, the Socceroos, currently playing its way through the 2015 Asian Cup. The team was given a free pass by the public and the media during the 2014 World Cup because the coach and combinations were new and inexperienced, and the team was coming up against the world’s best. Literally – their group included then-world champions Spain and runners-up the Netherlands.

Although the Socceroos were bundled out with nary a point, except for a few successive minutes where nerves prompted shaky defence and goal capitulation, they gave their opponents a substantial scare.

But the 2015 AFC Asian Cup is a different story. Host nation pride is on the line and fans have great expectations. The Socceroos are undertaking the collective, sporting equivalent of the hero’s journey. The 2006 World Cup was their call to action, a compelling invitation to step into the world and embark on an epic quest.

Since then, the Socceroos have been bogged down in a relentlessly wearing and wearying second act, mired in interminable poor form from which it seemed doubtful they would emerge – much like Frodo taking for-freakin’-ever to walk to Mordor.

Coach Ange Postecoglou terms this short-term rebuilding, is the pain we had to have. ‘I’m making these decisions and I’m making them for a reason and that’s probably costing us in terms of performance and in terms of fluency,’ he has said. ‘But it is what it is and I take responsibility for the outcomes because I’m making these decisions. In my mind we’re still making progress.’ It’s clear from the general sense of impatience that fans want to see the team’s rejuvenation, without needing to sacrifice results and match expectations. Regardless, there is hope that the current Asian Cup will see the Socceroos reach the third and final act: the part where the heroes quash their dastardly inner demons and external opponents.

The Socceroos’ Asian Cup opening match start was shaky. Kuwait took the early lead through the Socceroos’ nerve- and miscommunication-induced sloppy defending. The first few minutes recalled the tournament-derailing early patch in the Socceroos’ opening match against Chile in the 2014 World Cup. Then, in a comeback you couldn’t have scripted, featuring the archetypal heroics of the veteran and one-man goalscorer, the returning injuree, the captain and the newbie, the Socceroos came from behind to win.

‘Talisman’ Tim Cahill ignited the game when he clawed back a goal for the Socceroos. Young gun Massimo Luongo, who set up the first goal, scored the team’s second. One of the shortest players on the pitch, he headed in the ball, shadowed by Cahill, who was shaping up to head it in had Luongo missed it – the master and the apprentice in tandem flight.

Robbie Kruse, who returns to the national team after missing the World Cup through a knee injury, was awarded a penalty. Captain Mile Jedinak surveyed the stands pensively before taking the penalty, as if marvelling that the formerly subdued crowd were now crackling with anticipation and energy. He saluted them, and they him in return, once he put the penalty shot away. James Troisi scored the Socceroos’ fourth and final goal.

Pop singer Robbie Williams named his third music album Sing When You’re Winning in homage to a popular football chant of the same name. The lyrics, ‘Sing when you’re winning, you only sing when you’re winning’, might be an observation on the behaviour of Australian football fans.

The Socceroos’ opening game win, with its attendant tension and catharsis, has inspired in us a sense of celebration, relief and renewed expectations. These were heightened with the Socceroos’ second (and quarter final berth-securing) victory, which involved a masterful dismantling of Oman and a 4–0 scoreline. Of course, the tournament’s outcome is unpredictable, unlike a Shakespearean tragedy whose every line has been unpacked. What we can be certain of is that sport’s theatrics will inevitably display the human condition cut to the bone.