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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It's only a qualifier: First half



    My calendar has confirmed that it is indeed September 2003. I am not dreaming. And I'm not lost in a time warp.

    Just over 14 months ago, Ronaldo put the finishing touches on Brazil's successful World Cup campaign and yet, a couple of weeks ago, he helped launch the Brazilians' 2006 campaign with their first goal in CONMEBOL's monstrous qualification series. Good grief, the preliminary draw (for World Cup qualifying) hasn't even taken place yet!

    Did you really think that the World Cup occurred every four years? If you did, think again. The gap between the end of the finals in one World Cup and the beginning of qualifiers for the next has been crunched to just over a year and over 90% of the matches played in the name of Germany 2006 will be "qualifiers" not "finals". Most importantly, qualifying matches will see the demise of 167 of the 199 teams that have entered this extraordinary competition. Only 31 will actually see their dreams end in Germany.

    If you're a fan of Andorra, Mongolia, Lesotho, Belize or Tonga, qualifiers ARE the World Cup. No disrespect, but your team won't be strutting its stuff on the world's biggest stage in 2006. (Anyway, who wouldn't be looking forward to the impending southern African derby between Lesotho and Botswana?)

    I am from Australia and I'm 29 years old. I have memories of six World Cups. My country didn't qualify for the finals in any of them. Sure, I still enjoyed those finals, but if the Socceroos don't make it soon, they might have to join the list in the paragraph above this one.

    Don't ever let anyone get away with a statement like, "it's only a qualifier". No one can take qualification for granted anymore - France can't, Brazil can't and even Mexico probably can't. For many countries, reaching the finals is an achievement in itself. Australia could and should have made more appearances in the finals but since its only successful qualification in 1974, it has been a tale of woe for the green and gold.

Wait a minute. What am I talking about? Woe?

    Descriptions like "heartbreak" and "utter devastation" would be closer to the mark. In fact, one short word can drive an Australian soccer fan to despair. Every Australian sport fan knows that four-lettered word and what it means.

Iran.

    Mention the word "Iran" in any soccer-related conversation to an Australian and it means 1997. To be precise, 29 November 1997. It means inexplicable occurrences, drama, shattered dreams, tears. It means Australian soccer in the wilderness.

    I've had plenty of disappointments from watching the World Cup finals but no match has ever left me as depressed as that Australia-Iran qualifier did. (OK, with the possible exception of the 1991 FA Cup Final - but that's another story.)

    When I think about Iran, that match, I wonder if the damage it did could ever be undone. It was more than just a result which cost Australia qualification for the 1998 World Cup finals. It became a symbol of the game in this country. So much of what we think and feel about Australian soccer is and was summed up on that night - defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, ultimate failure and recrimination.

    I travelled from my native Adelaide to Melbourne for the Iran match confident that I would be seeing my country finally reach that holy grail of international soccer. A week earlier, Australia had drawn 1-1 in Iran. It was an outstanding result. The Socceroos could easily have lost but the defence and goalkeeper Mark Bosnich kept the Australian goal intact enough times to put the team in the box seat for the home leg. The 1-1 draw in Tehran meant that the Iranians could not qualify if they did not score in the return match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. A 0-0 draw would have been good enough for the Aussies.

    At the time, I believed that the MCG match would be a tight, low-scoring affair. I also believed that even though Iran had been the stronger team in the first leg, the Socceroos would, in turn, be more threatening in their home leg. Surely we were on our way to the 1998 World Cup in France? Surely we would break the drought which hadn't seen us qualify since 1974?

    I had arranged to go to Melbourne well before the match in Tehran had been played. Australia could have been three goals down or three goals up after the away leg but I was going to be at the MCG regardless. Unusually for me, I was quite confident even before the away leg.

    My personal circumstances possibly contributed to my upbeat mood. I had started a new job - a new career - just a week before the game in Tehran.

    And it seemed like Australian soccer had come a long way since the Socceroos' last qualification attempt four years earlier. Then, Australia had a more convoluted route to the World Cup finals. It involved winning the Oceania Confederation then defeating the team that finished second in CONCACAF and, finally, we had to get past the fourth team in South America. It was tough going and as is so often the case, the Socceroos made it as far as the last hurdle before falling.

    But the 1998 World Cup was an expanded tournament. Whereas 24 teams had participated in the finals of the 1994 edition, 32 would be going to France. All the extra places helped give the Oceania winner a better deal. That deal was playing the team that had finished fourth in the Asian Confederation.

    The number of overseas based Australian players had been increasing throughout the 1990s so there was a real feeling that the 1997 team was the best yet. Half of the players in the 1993 team were playing club football in Australia. When the Socceroos faced Iran four years later, there was only one player in the starting eleven who wasn't playing professional soccer outside Australia and that was Alex Tobin, a veteran with over 70 full international appearances under his belt. To underline this increasing status, Australia had achieved some impressive results in 1997. Not only were the Oceania qualifiers won in the most convincing manner yet, the Socceroos had won friendlies in Macedonia, Hungary and Tunisia. No superpowers there but playing away is never easy and Tunisia had, after all, qualified quite convincingly for France 98.

    The national team's improvement seemed to be matched by positive developments off the field. A former boss of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, David Hill, had taken charge of the Australian Soccer Federation (which he renamed Soccer Australia) and he had done his utmost to improve the viability of the game - no easy task. Hill was also instrumental in recruiting Terry Venables when the job of Australian national coach became vacant. Venables had won major trophies with Tottenham Hotspur and Barcelona and a year earlier, he'd led England to the semi-finals of the 1996 European Nations Championship. England was staging the tournament but given its failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup finals and a poor showing at the 1992 Euros, the '96 performance was a definite improvement.

    Hill and Venables both knew a thing or two about public relations and promotion and the result was an increased level of interest in the sport. Seeing all the posters and banners around Melbourne advertising the Iran match had left me in no doubt that it was the biggest show in town.

    My first real memory of anything relating to Australian soccer was being taken, by my father, to see the Socceroos play Chinese Taipei at Hindmarsh Stadium, Adelaide in 1981. Later I understood that this match was a World Cup qualifier, that Australia was more or less already out of the running and that our campaign to reach Spain in 1982 was a bit of a low point in the national team's history. The 16 years that elapsed after my first taste of the Socceroos seemed to be a period in which Australian soccer's lot was steadily improving. There had been some controversies and difficult times for the sport but there was a sense that 1997 was part of a crescendo that would see the Socceroos ultimately taking their place at France 98 among unprecedented levels of support from the Australian public. Some pundits were even speculating about how far the team would go when it reached France.

    Ahhh, the hype. How could I forget it? It's hard to quantify but, four years later, it didn't seem that the Uruguay series achieved quite as much. Even cautious and realistic (some might say boring) me couldn't help being caught up in the "we're on our way" atmosphere that swept Australia's sporting public in November 1997. In this environment, I boarded my Melbourne-bound plane the night before the game with a couple of mates, Simon Bird and Manuel Chrisan. We were off to see history, weren't we?

    From Adelaide, Melbourne is a great place to make a quick dash to. I've made nine or ten "quick dashes" to the Victorian capital. They have all been around three or four days long and each included a sporting event. And not just soccer - the MCG also hosts plenty of cricket and once I even demonstrated my ecumenicalism by attending an Australian Rules football match there.

    1997 was one of my quickest dashes. Get in on Friday night, match on Saturday night, back on Sunday. Little time for messing around; get the job done. It's as if I was part of the playing or coaching staff myself! Maybe the Aussie players, like so many of their fans, also sensed that it was just a case of getting the job done. For much of that extraordinary night, it seemed that they would.

    Another friend, Jeremy Lawson, was already in Melbourne and waiting for us at the Lygon Lodge Motel in the trendy suburb of Carlton. Despite the sporting disaster that unfolded the following evening, I've since booked that motel on all my Melbourne trips. I'm not big on superstition, omens and the like but on my subsequent stays at Lygon Lodge, I have never failed to inadvertently recall November 1997.

    If I did believe in omens, I should have been freaked out within an hour of arriving in Melbourne. Our taxi driver must have mixed Lygon Lodge up with something else. We were on Lygon Street alright, but only after the cabbie drove off did we realise that we were at least a couple of kilometres away from the motel. Walking the distance was no skin off the collective noses of a few young, reasonably fit blokes, it was just lugging our bags that provided the nuisance value. Privately I thought that I'd be more than happy for this cock up to be the worst thing that happened all weekend. If only.

    I tried to enjoy the Saturday in Melbourne but it was hard, no impossible, to think about anything apart from the big game that evening. A few hours were killed at the art gallery. It was hosting a "Dutch Masters" exhibition which included dozens of original Rembrandts. In truth, I was thinking more about the artistry of Stan Lazaridis. Still, the almost lifelike portraits were well worth waiting in line for.

    Melbourne's Casino was relatively new at the time and that was the next stop. Manuel and I arrived at the gigantic screens devoted to televising sport and we perused some of the markets that were being offered for the Socceroos' match. I'm a real punter and my sports betting account sees a lot of (admittedly small) wagers but I was never going to lay money on Australia-Iran.

    Manuel, however, worked out that a $20 investment on Iran winning 3-2 would, if successful, pay for his airfares, his share of the motel room and still leave him in the black for the weekend. I told him that we were unlikely to lose, that there was no way the game would be that high scoring and, most irrefutably, that he was mad. I was politely ignored and the unpatriotic bet was placed. Manuel assured me that he still really wanted the Aussies to win and that it was just the juicy odds that attracted him. I assured him that I was prepared to have him locked up for treason.

    I love the walk to the MCG, especially when there's a big crowd. And what a night this was. The expectancy. The hysteria! Was I in Melbourne or Rio de Janeiro? After we found our places in the Olympic Stand, I felt like a speck in the midst of a green and gold ocean. Waiting for kick off was almost unbearable. The stadium's sound system must have played "The Final Countdown", the well worn mid-eighties hit for Swedish pop group "Europe", at least three times. It was hardly a favourite of mine but it seemed right for the occasion, a complement to the supercharged atmosphere generated by over 85,000 fans.

    We had great seats. Even though we had a diagonal view of the pitch and were, effectively, over the top of one of the corner flags, we were in the higher tier of the stand, nicely elevated and in the front row. With no one in front of me, I found myself grabbing the fence, leaning over it and virtually screaming out the words to the national anthem. I don't normally carry on quite like that, honestly!

    Within a minute, Australia could have taken the lead. Aurelio Vidmar had the chance but he couldn't convert. Any fears I had about a tight match with limited scoring opportunities evaporated very quickly. How else can I put it? We were simply all over Iran and creating chances galore. Stan Lazaridis - the very player whose delightful wing play was racing through my mind while I was looking at Rembrandts - was utterly unstoppable. Robbie Slater, Craig Foster and Harry Kewell were also advancing the paranoia of the Iranian players.

    A couple of our boys were worrying me though. Aurelio Vidmar didn't look sharp. He hadn't been playing any club games in the preceding weeks and it showed. I wasn't too sure about Mark Viduka either. But a Kewell goal duly arrived, just as I was starting to fear that it might be one of those nights where a team dominates but can't score. We were seated behind the goal Australia was attacking in the first half and from where I was, I could see that two Socceroo players were unmarked at the far post while the cross that produced the goal was on its way. There was almost no way we wouldn't score. Not that the near certainty of the goal stopped me from celebrating wildly when the net finally bulged. Simon Bird is very slight and it was his misfortune to be sitting next to me. I was so excited I lifted him up in the air. Simon was taken by surprise (I can't understand why) and in the ensuing chaos I nearly lost my balance. Had either of us gone over the fence, the fall could have been fatal. It wasn't quite a near thing but, just in case, I decided that if we scored again, I would just raise my arms in the air and yell out "jolly good show, chaps" or something to that effect.

    The score was still 1-0 at half time but we could have had several more. The Iranian players had been forced to defend their goal like an undermanned medieval army protecting a crumbling fort. Of all the salvos, only Kewell's had caused damage but the green and gold army was, nonetheless, poised for victory.

    Of course, the real drama was still to come. Stay tuned for the second half!


 

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