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
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
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
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
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
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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