Paul Marcuccitti

Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.

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All you zombies hide your faces

    Australian soccer fans have a fairly nocturnal existence. Most of the matches we watch on television are played at times when the sane sections of the community are asleep.

    A Premier League match that kicks off at 3 pm in England will commence at midnight or 2 am (depending on what time of year it is) in Sydney and Melbourne. A European match played on a weeknight might kick off some time between 4 am and 6 am our time.

    We're all quite used to it. When tournaments like the World Cup or European Championship come around, we get into a routine of sleep-deprivation. At times like this, any Australian in the workplace can pick out which fellow employees are soccer fans - just look for the virtual zombies consuming the sort of caffeine quantities that would have an Olympic athlete banned from competition.

    In my home city, the local time was 5.30 am when Uruguay and Australia kicked off the return leg of their World Cup play-off in Montevideo. Having not dared to go to sleep before the match, I'm looking forward to a big rest.

    Australian soccer will also be having a big rest. It's probably news to no one now - we lost again.

    I suppose I should be careful when I say "we lost again". The 3-0 defeat in Montevideo is, in fact, only the 3rd World Cup qualifying match that Australia has lost in the last 3 campaigns. We lost twice in the 1994 play-offs - 2-1 in Canada and 1-0 in Argentina - and we didn't lose at all in our attempt to qualify for the 1998 tournament.

    Maybe that record ought to be enough to suggest to FIFA that our qualification route is reviewed. More on that subject later.

    Fortunately, I was able to fill the early morning hours by watching Liverpool-Sunderland and Arsenal-Manchester United. The latter of the two English matches finished less than an hour before the commencement of the Gunfight at the O.K. Centenario. It was a long enough gap for the nerves to set in.

    Even my dog seemed to realise how big a match this was. As kick off drew near, the little guy jumped up next to me and watched the game as intently as he watches the scraps from the dinner table.

    Did I mention that the nerves had set in? Once I saw the pictures of the packed stadium in Montevideo with the fans roaring as they released an endless stream of paper, I was a complete wreck! I could feel the pressure from the other side of the world. How were our players feeling?

    I even started to wonder if I was kidding myself in thinking that we had a good chance. Look at it this way - Australia has qualified for the World Cup once, Uruguay has WON the tournament twice.

    Australia started with the same eleven players that started the first leg of the tie but my worst fear about the Uruguayan line-up was confirmed - Dario Silva was back in the team.

    In my piece after the first match in Melbourne, I suggested that Uruguay's attack looked blunt and that Silva would give it the boost it needed.

Me and my big, bloody mouth!

    Within a quarter of an hour, Silva had scored to level the tie on aggregate. His was already the fourth Uruguayan attempt on goal. A minute earlier, Alvaro Recoba hit the post directly from a corner. Australia's only chance to that point had been a sharp one inside the box for Brett Emerton after just sixty seconds. The Feyenoord man failed to make good connection.

    Silva's goal was a simple one but it showed precisely what the Uruguayans had been missing in the first leg. Running on to a long ball, Silva held Shaun Murphy off expertly to screw a tight shot past Aussie goalkeeper, Mark Schwarzer.

    Australia looked for a quick reply and, in the 17th minute, a sharp Harry Kewell header from a Stan Lazaridis cross brought a fine save out of Uruguay's 'keeper, Fabio Carini. I don't think I've ever seen Carini play before this tie but I can see why he's on Juventus' books. I don't think he put a foot wrong in either match.

    In the 22nd minute, Federico Magallanes put a header wide and two minutes later a Kewell free kick flew just over the bar at the other end. Soon we were back at the other end again where a scramble in the penalty box very nearly resulted in another Uruguayan goal. An outstanding Shaun Murphy clearance from under the crossbar kept the tie level.

    The Aussies seemed to be under siege in the first 30 minutes. Only Kewell's two chances, and a couple of other forays, temporarily halted the advancing light blue tide. Australia had really struggled to hold possession.

    The last 15 minutes of the half weren't so bad though Schwarzer did have to produce a superb save to deny another effort by Magallanes. Indeed, Australia made two good chances in the last couple of minutes before half time. Mark Viduka had a shot blocked after some good work by Kewell and Harry had another effort blocked in injury time.

    At half time, I felt that the Socceroos would qualify if they managed a goal and that they'd be eliminated if they didn't. I really doubted that the score would remain at 1-0 to Uruguay throughout the second half and extra time which, of course, would only be necessary if there were no more goals in the next 45 minutes.

    Uruguay certainly had all guns blazing in the first half. Of course, I expected nothing less. Silva had given the team a real edge up forward and they were all shooting on sight. As in the first leg, I felt that Australia had given Uruguay too much space in the middle.

    The Uruguayan boss, Victor Pua, had selected a very attacking team. The normally cautious tactician had to find a formula to score goals but could Australia exploit Uruguay's need to push forward at the other end? On the evidence of the first half it looked unlikely.

    The first 20 minutes of the second half were a pleasant surprise. Australia finally seemed to settle and play some good football. During this period, Josip Skoko shot just wide of Carini's goal and Kewell fired a difficult chance over the bar. Mark Viduka had an even better chance a minute later but he headed over from a long Paul Okon throw. It wasn't exactly a gilt-edged opportunity to score but on another day he might have found the back of the net.

    The only real effort by Uruguay in this period was a long-range effort by Gianni Guigou which left Mark Schwarzer untroubled. Sensing the need to bolster his attack further, Pua brought on Nacional striker, Richard Morales. In the 70th minute, Morales gave Uruguay the lead for the first time in the tie when he headed a dipping Recoba free kick into the back of the net. The amount of dip and swerve that Recoba can achieve never ceases to amaze me.

    No extra time now. The Socceroos simply had to score in the last 20 minutes. I hadn't given up hope because we had created a few chances and we just had to take one.

    Aussie coach, Frank Farina, brought on Paul Agostino as he did in the first leg. This time he replaced Australia's goal-scorer from the Melbourne match, Kevin Muscat, who had received his customary yellow card in the first half.

    The next chance, however, was another Uruguayan one. Pablo Garcia attempted to kill Australia off after some more excellent work by Recoba but his shot was narrowly wide.

    In the 79th minute, Murphy headed brilliantly from an Emerton corner. Carini again saved well. Two minutes later, Murphy made way for a striker, John Aloisi, and Australia played the last ten minutes with just two defenders on the pitch.

    In the meantime, Pua had made a couple of substitutions to help protect his nation's lead. I can understand him doing that but one of the players he brought off was Dario Silva - a decision that might have proven short sighted if Australia had scored and forced Uruguay to get a 3rd. Unfortunately we never did.

    The last Aussie chance came in the 88th minute. After Kewell did some more fantastic work on the left, his centre nearly found a lunging Aloisi in the box but he couldn't connect.

    Cruelly, the last nail in Australia's coffin wasn't the final whistle but a 3rd Uruguayan goal. With the Aussies pressing forward, a Uruguayan counter in the 90th minute produced another goal for Morales. Again, Recoba was the supplier. I put my head in my hands and, when I managed to look at the television again, I saw Farina's head drop. It was all over.

    A couple of minutes later, the UAE referee, Mr Ali Bujsaim (who was excellent, by the way), brought proceedings to an end and I had that all too familiar sinking feeling. More depressing, still, was the sight of Aussie defender, Tony Vidmar, being led away in tears.

I felt his pain.

    Like me, Vidmar is from Adelaide. I remember watching him play for Adelaide City, in Australia's National Soccer League, before he went to Europe. In a similar World Cup play-off in 1993, he supplied his brother, Aurelio, with one of Australia's most famous goals - against Diego Maradona's Argentina. Vidmar is one of the best full backs this country has ever produced. This was his 3rd campaign to reach the finals of the World Cup and, at 31 years of age, perhaps he thinks it's his last.

    Hang in there, Tony. You're an evergreen type and there's plenty of international soccer left in you.

    I am reluctant to criticise the Australian team or Frank Farina in the same manner that some other armchair experts around the nation have. Yes, they again failed at the final hurdle but this was a tough assignment. It wasn't just tough because we had to play Uruguay. It was tough because our opponent had 18 qualifiers against quality opposition before they faced us. We had none. In Oceania, New Zealand is as tough as it gets for the Aussies and, over two matches, we hammered the Kiwis 6-1 on aggregate. What kind of preparation is that?

    Extra quality games together - qualifying games - might have given the Australian team the kind of extra coherence needed to convert more chances against top-class opposition. Even when we were 2-0 down in Montevideo, a Socceroo goal would have had us back in front on the away-goals rule. The failure to score, not the failure to stop Uruguay scoring, was the main problem at the Centenario.

    Already, Frank Farina has called for the Oceanic winner to gain direct entry to the World Cup. I agree but it's almost certainly not going to happen. The current set up is unfair not necessarily because of WHO Australia has to play; it's unfair because our fate always comes down to a sudden death play-off. Every country outside Oceania has the opportunity to qualify for the World Cup via a league system. If Oceania doesn't gain direct entry next time, we should be given the same opportunity. The obvious place to join a league system would be Asia and I have some suggestions in mind but they'll have to wait for another column.

    With the friendlier time zones of Korea and Japan, it'll be easier for me and all the other Australian zombies to hide our faces during next year's soccer festival. As always, we'll enjoy it immensely but, deep down, the absence of the Socceroos will bring more than a tinge of sadness - again.



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