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: Second half



    We had reached half time in the second leg of the Australia-Iran playoff of 1997. The winner would reach the finals of France '98; the loser would not. Australia, at home, leads 1-0 in this decisive match (and 2-1 on aggregate).

    I was, of course, well aware that if Iran equalised, we could be in for extra time and, if that wasn't heart wrenching enough, a penalty shoot-out. I didn't want to think about it. A few minutes into the second half, Aurelio Vidmar finally registered with one of his salvos and cancelled any possibility of extra time. 2-0 to Australia. Jolly good show, chaps!

    My brain was already computing. I knew that, ironically, Australia now had to win to qualify. It sounds daft but it's true. A 0-0 draw would have resulted in an aggregate score (over the two legs) of 1-1 and the Socceroos would have advanced thanks to their away goal. But with a lead of 2-0, the match could only be drawn with a scoreline of 2-2 or 3-3 etc. And that would mean Iran having the most away goals.

    We were still well on top and it would have been wrong of the team to try and bottle up the 2-0 lead by playing defensively. There was still over 40 minutes to go. Scoring twice in a short space of time is possible but a third Aussie goal would have broken the Iranians.

    As the Socceroos continued to play purposefully and confidently throughout the next 20-25 minutes, I did something I should never have done and started thinking about the metaphorical champagne on ice. My mind raced through the happiness I'd feel when the final whistle blew as I finally, finally saw my country qualify for the greatest event in sport. I thought about the draw that would soon take place to decide which group Australia would be in. I wondered how well the team would perform at France '98. I knew that the match was far from over but an Iranian comeback was so unlikely that it didn't seem that I was detaching myself from reality.

    Soon, however, came the incident that many Socceroo fans will forever blame for helping turn the match around. A man ran onto the field behind the goal Australia attacked in the second half. He threw himself onto the goal's net and dislodged it from the crossbar. The police took him away and the net was reattached but the overall result was a disruption of at least five minutes. Five very long minutes. Later it emerged that the man was Peter Hore, Australia's best known attention seeker. Just a few weeks earlier, Hore had run onto Flemington racetrack during the closing stages of Australia's biggest horse race, the Melbourne Cup. Most famously, he had disrupted the funeral of Michael Hutchence, the former lead singer of Australian pop group INXS. Hore had tried to jump from the choir loft before being restrained. I wouldn't wish death or severe injury on anyone but, in my darker moments after the Iran match, I wondered whether the mourners who restrained Hore unwittingly provided a disservice to the nation.

    The long delay gave the players the chance to regroup, something that could not have otherwise happened during the second half. This was always going to be more beneficial to the Iranians who could - and probably did - discuss ways of getting back into the match. The Aussies, unchallenged until that point, possibly never imagined that they needed to do anything different in the minutes that remained. It's funny really, if the Socceroos had ground out their 2-0 lead in an ultra-competitive match, they would almost certainly have been right on their guard in the closing stages. Until the arrival of Peter Hore, the only thing I could describe as "ultra-competitive" was a debate going on a couple of rows behind me about whether Aurelio Vidmar had a better hairstyle when Australia played Argentina four years earlier.

    The build up to Iran's first goal included a clear offside. Despite the angle I was on, I saw it immediately and it was later confirmed by television replays. It never ceases to amaze me that perfectly placed officials make mistakes so regularly. And how costly this one was. I knew that 2-1 meant trouble and, in an instant, I went from dreaming of France to fearing the worst. There was plenty of time for Iran to get another and all those old doubts came flooding back. You'd have to imagine that, equally, doubt crept into the minds of the Australian players. All that dominance, all those chances, and suddenly only one more Iranian goal would turn the green and gold to dust.

    I don't like blaming individuals for things that go wrong but, for my money, the main Australian culprit for Iran's second goal has, in the sea of post-mortems, escaped scot-free. No one has suggested that goalkeeper Mark Bosnich, a hero of the first leg, should have saved Khodidad Azizi's clever shot and I wouldn't either. But I do blame him for the shallow goalkick which allowed the Iranians to pick the ball up in a dangerous position and launch a lightning attack against our wrong-footed defenders.

    Bosnich's kicking ability, or perhaps inability, was the subject of much discussion when he commenced the 1999-2000 English season at Manchester United (after moving from Aston Villa). I had already lamented the fact that his feet weren't nearly as gifted as his hands.

    I just knew it was over. The Iranian fans were seated directly behind the goal that Azizi buried the ball in. This was the same end I was at and, in my more elevated position, I couldn't help watching them celebrate. I remember a guy in a suit at the front of the group. He looked like he might be an official or perhaps some sort of community leader. When that goal went in, he turned to his fellow Iranians like a conductor to an orchestra. I'm not sure that he really needed to prompt their joyous symphony but I'll never forget the look of sheer delight on his face.

    I knew how anguished my face looked - it was obvious from the anguish on the faces around me. Yes, the score was 2-2 and there was time for our boys to score a winner but by now I was back to resigning myself to Australian soccer's tragic script. To their credit, the Socceroos fought on and created two or three chances before the match ended. The last of them fell to Graham Arnold who had come on as a substitute but his header went straight into the hands of the 'keeper. My head went into my hands and stayed there until the final whistle.

    Manuel, one of my friends that had travelled to Melbourne with me, was sitting on my right and, in those last tortured moments, I told him (in between a few expletives) that I felt awful, almost sick. He was just as despondent but the cheeky sod hadn't quite lost his sense of humour and (having bet on a 3-2 win to Iran) he reminded me that, if nothing else, big financial rewards were coming his way if Iran scored another goal.

    We didn't hang around long after the match ended. The MCG's eerie stunned silence was more than I could take. I took one last look at the field of battle and saw an Australian player prostrate, a corpse which had fallen to the artillery of the Iranian fort's desperate protectors. The next day's newspaper confirmed that the slain soldier was in fact the artist, Stan Lazaridis. Probably no one in a green and gold shirt had given more than he had that night and he lay on the pitch for fifteen minutes before a policeman decided that the body needed to be removed. It was a sad but fitting elegy.

    Normally when you walk away from a sporting event, you hear the fans around you talking about the game that was. Most of the people near me were mute as they left the stadium. I wanted to get back to our motel room as soon as possible to see if it could provide some sort of sanctuary. Unable to speak, I also found myself unable to face anybody so I studied my shoes intensely. I must have looked particularly forlorn because my friend Jeremy said, "You look like you're about to cry. I don't think I've ever seen you cry."

    I didn't cry then but back at the motel, I disappeared quietly into the bathroom, shut the door and had my little weep. I wasn't ashamed that I had been moved to tears but I didn't feel particularly inclined to share them with anybody either. It's amazing how many grown men have admitted to crying that night.

    On the way to the motel, I had bumped into a couple of guys I knew, Chris Lines and Chris Papps. Both are from Adelaide and I had gone to school with them and played in soccer teams alongside them. Lines is now a fine sports journalist. I hadn't seen either for several years but there was none of the normal "G'day mate, how've you been?" It was obvious that we'd all been at the game. Papps asked me what I thought and I could only shrug. He nodded knowingly and summarised, "There's just nothing to say, is there?"

    Against my better judgement, I let Manuel talk me into going out for a drink after we'd returned to the motel. I'm a teetotaller so I was never going to drown my sorrows in the traditional way. A few mineral waters later, I felt just as depressed as I had immediately after the game. It was to be a night of celebration, the beginning of a new era for the Socceroos. It became a sad metaphor for the sport in Australia and the scale of the disaster has been magnified by posterity. I suppose, in the end, we did witness history. But nearly six years later, there's no comfort in being able to tell people that I was there.

    I visited my parents not long after returning to Adelaide on Sunday. I had called them from the MCG on my mobile phone after Kewell scored just so they could hear the noise around me. When I saw them, I could think of nothing more inspired to say than "we lost". My father and I didn't talk about the game much which was unusual - we must have discussed hundreds of other matches. My mother had recorded the game for me so she pointed towards the videotape and invited me to take it. I declined. There was no way I could watch the match again. I had already seen enough replays of the vital moments on news services and that was bad enough. The tape should have had pride of place in my collection but in the end Mum probably buried the match footage under countless episodes of The Young and the Restless. Three years after the Iran match, a special was shown on television which, apparently, relived the game and interviewed many of its participants. I couldn't watch that either. Time had clearly not healed the pain.

    In 1993, Australia had to play off against Argentina for a place at the following year's tournament in the United States. We weren't given a chance but the Socceroos drew 1-1 in Sydney and lost 1-0 in Buenos Aires - a pretty good effort when you consider the more dilettante nature of that team. A couple of weeks after the second leg in Argentina, I was in Europe visiting relatives and friends. I had been so proud of the Australians' performance that I took a video of the Sydney match with me so I could show people in traditional soccer nations just what we were capable of and how well we had played against the country that had won the World Cup less than eight years earlier.

    Not only could I not watch the Iran game again, I could hardly even talk about it. Nor, until now, have I written about it. Australia (and/or Oceania) has been the subject of four of my articles on this website but I had written a total of less than three lines about the Iran match. The saddest part is that if the last 15 minutes had not produced those two shock goals, it would have been regarded as one of the best ever performances in the history of the Australian national team - possibly the best ever.

    Debates about how it all went wrong were always going to take place and fingers were always going to be pointed. There is no single reason why we blew it when qualification seemed all but wrapped up. Hore's intervention, the missed offside and Bosnich's goalkick were all important. If just one of those crucial events hadn't occurred, the Aussies would have probably kept their lead intact. Most importantly, the Socceroos had created so many chances in the total domination of the first 70 minutes but only scored twice. It should have been more.

    Terry Venables copped some criticism for the failure but it's utterly misplaced. Australian teams had never played anywhere near as beautifully and skilfully as they did under his guidance. He took the Socceroos to a new level - just as he had lifted England a few years earlier. After the Iran series, the team was still undefeated under his leadership (after all, both matches against Iran were drawn and we went out on the away goals rule). In the following month, Australia reached the Final of the Confederations Cup after defeating Mexico and Uruguay and drawing with Brazil. Venables deserves credit for Australia's style of play and the way it was able to impose its style on Iran and dominate for so long. He can hardly be blamed for the players failing to capitalise on more opportunities.

    Along with Venables, David Hill (the then boss of Soccer Australia) would also be targeted. Hill had made enemies in his attempts to make Australian soccer into a more marketable product. I knew there'd be some knife sharpening - within minutes of the final whistle at the MCG - among those in the sport who wanted to keep it in the dark ages and who, consequently, objected to Hill and his methods.

    Predictably, Hill would be gone within a year. I suspect he would have remained at the helm longer if the Socceroos had made it to France '98. But the failure to qualify would be used as an excuse for a lot of petty squabbling and the ultimate loser was the sport itself. Imagining a parallel universe can be a limited exercise but if we'd made it, Soccer Australia would have gained a financial windfall, more public interest would have been generated in the game and the old guard of Australian soccer administrators (if indeed you can call them administrators) might have disappeared. The legitimacy of qualifying for the World Cup finals might have also given Australia a better route to Korea/Japan 2002 but instead we were asked to face a South American team again.

    In the years that followed the Iran match, the useless old administrators came back, the governing body that they "administered" went heavily into debt, the national team returned to its haphazard life and perceptions of the sport in this country reached a low point. The sport's tremendous potential in Australia remains untapped. That's the biggest tragedy.

    How different could things have been if we'd emerged victorious on 29 November 1997? It's difficult to say, but I can't believe that the game would be in such an unhealthy state.

    The hopes and dreams of Australian soccer fans in 1997, and the years leading up to it, unravelled as the Socceroos' lead did against Iran. It was a sporting disaster of such magnitude that even the nation's anti-soccer brigade dare not taunt us about it for fear of starting World War III.

Only a qualifier? I think not.

Will we ever recover?


 

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