Paul Marcuccitti

Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who attended the play-off match against Uruguay live in Melbourne. Here is his story.

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Did somebody mention 1974?

    It takes more than 7 hours to drive to Melbourne from where I live. A cheap airfare was out of the question given that the date of the Australia-Uruguay qualifier was fixed less than 3 weeks before the match (thanks FIFA). But I had to go. Like most Australian soccer fans, I'm desperate to see Australia qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1974.

    Did I mention 1974? While I took my turn in the passenger seat of the car, I read a few newspaper previews of the match. It seemed as if no soccer writer in the nation could produce an article that didn't mention, at least twice, that we hadn't qualified for the World Cup since 1974. The post-match press was just as bad "...the 1-0 victory gives Australia a tremendous chance to reach the World Cup finals for the first time since 1974..."

    Enough! We get the picture! Every soccer fan in Australia knows this depressing fact only too well!

    We also don't need much reminding that Iran scored twice in the last 15 minutes of the decisive qualifier in 1997 when Australia seemed to have the match, and a ticket to France 98, in the bag.

    A lot is at stake for Australia as it battles with Uruguay for the 32nd and final place in next year's World Cup. Admittedly, you could say that about most nations trying to make it to Japan and Korea. But if England or the Netherlands or, dare I say it, Uruguay fail to qualify for a World Cup, the overall popularity of soccer is undiminished in those countries. Did you see the all-singing, all-dancing Premier League take any backward steps when England missed out on the 1994 tournament? Of course not.

    Australia is different. Soccer here is dwarfed by Australian Rules football and two rugby codes. Our National Soccer League is barely semi-professional and most of its 13 clubs are in financial trouble. Soccer Australia, the governing body of the game in this country, is itself relying on World Cup revenue in order to steer clear of financial difficulty.

    There's plenty of good soccer on the television these days and a lot of it features talented Aussie players strutting their stuff in Europe. Nothing, however, could give the sport the exposure it needs like a "Socceroo" appearance at the World Cup finals. Put bluntly, every failure to qualify sets Australian soccer back another four years.

    Does it all sound a bit pessimistic? I was certainly nervous as I made my way to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, yet my first sight of fellow Aussie supporters was quite an uplifting one. Just outside a pub (well it would be wouldn't it?), hordes of green and gold clad fans sang, chanted and banged drums in a manner that would, no doubt, befit the streets of our South American guests. There was plenty of optimism here and why not? The stakes may be high but, make no mistake, this Australian team is the finest in the nation's soccer history. In fact, for the first time in a World Cup qualifier, every player in Australia's starting eleven is a European-based professional.

    I like the MCG. I've seen cricket, Australian Rules football and soccer played there. The atmosphere generated by a big crowd in this majestic stadium takes some beating. By the time I had found my seat, I was in the right frame of mind. My father and I had run into people we knew outside the ground. You can see the excitement on their faces; you could sense the expectation. We have to succeed this time!

    Of course, this being Australia, there has to be a bit of showbiz somewhere along the line. Mind you, I expected better pre-match entertainment than a local band singing ghastly complaint rock. Only the small group of Uruguayan supporters seemed to be enjoying themselves as the lead singer asked, "Annie are you OK?" ad nauseam. Emma Bunton, of Baby Spice fame, had been in town recently. I would have preferred to hear her sing. I certainly would have preferred to see her.

    Even the fans provided better entertainment. Anyone watching last year's Olympics would think that Australian sport fans were limited to the ubiquitous but uninspiring chant, "Aussie Aussie Aussie. Oi oi oi." Not this lot. The roar that accompanied the arrival of the Australian players' warm up on the pitch evolved into a stadium-wide rendition of "Ole ole ole ole. Aussies Aussies." Again, it's a song that may be more at home in downtown Montevideo but there was no doubting the flavour of the crowd - a sea of green and gold.

    There were plenty of banners too. One of them carried the words "F... You FIFA" (OK, I inserted the dots). It wasn't the most polite message, and it was quickly removed, but there's no doubt that Australian soccer fans feel they are continually getting shafted by the governors of the world game. For years, Australia has been given a tricky, sometimes convoluted, World Cup qualifying route. Even the timing of this match was controversial. Also, a couple of weeks earlier, FIFA was suggesting that availability of players for Australia's Friendly against France be limited to one player per club. It was absurd. The France match was Australia's only preparation for these qualifiers and Middlesbrough, Leeds and Glasgow Rangers each have two first-choice Aussie players on their books. The French were even less impressed - particularly because there is a 50% probability that a member of the French national team plays for Arsenal (or so it seems). FIFA eventually backed down but, by the time it did, it was too late to avert another public relations fiasco.

    Anyway, I wasn't pondering soccer politics an awful lot by the time the crowd sang the national anthem. The crescendo of 84,000 fanatics continued until kick off. The critics are right, I thought sarcastically, soccer's definitely got no future in this country.

    This was never going to be a pretty, free-flowing game. I'm sure no one turned up expecting it to be. But there was always going to be action and drama. On those counts it didn't disappoint.

    Uruguay, of course, is an excellent team. The discipline of the visitors, combined with the freakish talent of Alvaro Recoba, made this a difficult assignment for the Socceroos. Within a couple of minutes, Recoba nearly handed his country a dream start with a goal-bound lob from near the half way line. Fortunately for the Aussies, goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer was alert to the shot and caught it with barely a centimetre to spare. From where I was sitting, I had a perfect view of Schwarzer's goal - and I can confirm that the ball was very, very close to crossing the line.

    Australia responded by forcing a corner which was taken by Stan Lazaridis. Defender, Craig Moore, who nine days earlier had scored from a corner in Australia's 1-1 draw with France, thundered a header towards goal which Fabio Carini did well to save.

    Though it was still early in the first half, these two chances remained the best for each side until half time. Australia certainly had the better of the opening 45 minutes, evidenced by the fact that all 8 corners until half time had been forced by the Socceroos. But the Uruguayans, led at the back by the superb Paolo Montero, defended expertly. It's easy to see why they conceded a miserly 13 goals in 18 qualifying matches against their South American opponents. Their work rate and discipline all over the pitch is of the highest order.

    The Socceroos had really taken the game to Uruguay. Brett Emerton was particularly threatening on the Australian right. Though he was frequently tracked by 2 defenders, Emerton won a succession of corners. Getting a quality cross into the Uruguayan penalty box in open play, however, was proving difficult. Harry Kewell, the pin-up boy of Australian soccer, was also proving his worth in the first half. At about the 30-minute mark, Uruguayan defender, Dario Rodriguez, brought Kewell down and received the first card of the game.

    It hadn't been a spiteful first half. The Rodriguez foul and another Uruguayan player blatantly feigning injury a few minutes later were the only unsavoury incidents until half time. To be honest, I had expected the visitors to employ spoiling tactics more frequently than they did.

    I had only two minor criticisms of the Socceroos. I thought Uruguay was given too much space on the ball when they held possession in the middle of the park and I also thought our boys gave the ball away too many times. The second criticism might be a bit harsh given how few opportunities the team has to play together and, in truth, the ball was lost a couple of times because some Aussie players weren't quite on the same wavelength.

    Fortunately, the band that provided the pre-match "entertainment" didn't return at half time. The Beatles cover band that we got instead was a marginal improvement. These guys looked just like the real thing. In fact, they were so authentic they had a left-handed bass player. A few more people around the stadium were gettin' jiggy with it but, of course, they were all the same age as my father.

    Aussie coach, Frank Farina, made a substitution for the second half which turned out to be a match winner. Stan Lazaridis came off and was replaced by striker, Paul Agostino. Until then, Mark Viduka had been a lone striker. Harry Kewell now moved to the left.

    Australia forced a couple of corners in the first few minutes of the second half but then Uruguay enjoyed its best spell of the game. For the next quarter of an hour, it was the men in light blue who threatened. De Los Santos missed a free header and Recoba brought a fantastic save out of Schwarzer from a shot inside the box.

    Australia eventually regained the initiative as Kewell really started to relish his new role on the left wing. Agostino hit the frame of the goal from one of Kewell's crosses and in another attack, Australia couldn't find the back of the net after a goal-mouth scramble.

    Unusually, I never had that sinking feeling that we weren't going to score. I put that down to the terrific attitude of this team which has spirit as well as talent. Frank Farina is determined to succeed where many before him have failed. It's no wonder clubs in Europe and Japan are keen to secure his services - and pay him several times more than the pittance he gets in his current job. (Yes, he earns about 3 times what I earn but it's peanuts in the world of professional soccer.)

    The MOMENT came 12 minutes from time - and after Uruguay had made two substitutions. With sublime skill, Kewell left two defenders for dead on the Australian left and his low cross was perfect for the advancing Paul Agostino. The goal was at the mercy of the big striker but he never got a chance to convert. I'm still not sure whether it was Rodriguez or Montero who pulled Agostino down. By this stage I was too busy celebrating the award of the penalty.

    I have only ever played soccer at amateur level. But whenever I've captained a team, I've stuck to the theory that you let your cockiest player - the one who believes he just can't miss - take penalties. Anyone can score a penalty when there's no pressure. But in a situation like this, you need a bloke who isn't short of self-confidence. Hence, I wasn't surprised when Kevin Muscat, one of the bad boys of Australian soccer, stepped up (though a few people around me were).

    It was a cocky player's penalty too. Muscat hit the ball straight at the 'keeper expecting Carini to dive out of its way. Uruguay's custodian obliged. Had he stood still, Carini would have caught the ball in front of his face but I guess a goalkeeper looks like a goose if he stands in his place and the penalty taker puts the ball either side of him.

    It must have been sweet for Muscat. Since the Friendly match against France, he had been berated for a tackle on Christophe Dugarry which left the Frenchman injured. Some even suggested that Farina shouldn't pick him. Now he's a national hero and, with his delirious team mates giving chase, the Aussie defender duly ran to celebrate with his fellow Melburnians.

    Five minutes later, Muscat was back doing what he's more renowned for - he got booked for a double-footed challenge. Not surprisingly, Uruguay did their best to equalise in the last 10 minutes. In the last minute of the 90, a Uruguayan header was just wide of the goal. Unfortunately, I couldn't pick up the player who nearly scored. Fortunately, he didn't score.

    During injury time, Australian midfielder, Josip Skoko went down. The Uruguayans, who themselves had twice feigned injury to the jeers of the home crowd, complained bitterly to Italian referee, Graziano Cesari. No sympathy and quite rightly so. I hope FIFA cracks down on this ridiculous practice at next year's World Cup - the sport doesn't need it.

    A couple of minutes later, Cesari put an end to proceedings and Australia's captain, Paul Okon, was the first to realise and raise his arms in triumph.

    Going in to the game, I thought 0-0 might not be a bad result as the Uruguayans would not have a precious away goal. After Uruguay's spell of dominance early in the second half, I changed my mind. The second match of this tie will be extremely tough for Australia and, even with their advantage, I think our boys might have to score. Holding out for 0-0 against Recoba - and possibly Dario Silva - will be extremely difficult in the passionate Centenario stadium. Just about every Australian interviewed after the game said the job was only half done. No doubt about that.

    But at least Australia laid one ghost to rest - the inability to win decisive World Cup qualifiers at home. We didn't even manage that in ... you know ... that year when we last qualified. The decisive match in that campaign was on neutral territory.

    Much is made of Australia's Leeds connection and quite rightly so. Kewell and Viduka are the stars of the team. But I think it's also time to trumpet the Glasgow Rangers connection as Craig Moore and Tony Vidmar were colossi in Australia's defence. They combined with Muscat and the underrated Shaun Murphy to keep the Uruguayans to just a couple of clear chances. Vidmar even produced one of his party pieces where he slides to the ball, traps it with both feet, drags it away from his opponent in the same movement and then stands up and plays it. I don't know where he learnt it but it's a real crowd-pleaser. The fans appreciated every similar piece of Aussie skill and there was no shortage of them.

    Uruguay will be hoping Dario Silva has recovered from a dislocated shoulder in time for the second leg. For all their cohesion and defensive discipline, their attack looked a bit blunt. The little magician, Recoba, was involved every time the visitors threatened but he needs a few mates. A fit Silva would give the forward line the boost it needs.

    I promise another perspective from Down Under, albeit not such a lengthy one, whether or not Australia succeeds at the Centenario on Sunday. Just think - if we make it, no Australian will ever again have to read that we haven't qualified since 1974.



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