Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate
soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.
Read earlier columns
Pinned up on my office wall is my favourite newspaper front page of all time. It’s the 17 November 2005 edition of The Sydney Morning Herald. The day after Australia qualified for the World Cup finals, the headline declared: World Cup here we come.
Beneath the headline is a photo (also a favourite) of the nine Australian outfield players in the 10-yard circle just after John Aloisi’s penalty hit the back of the net (which clinched the Socceroos’ penalty shootout victory). The ecstatic players are beginning to run so that they can celebrate with Aloisi and goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer.
Sadly, one of those nine isn’t going to the World Cup.
Of course, it’s not an uncommon occurrence. Players get injured; sometimes they fall out of favour.
Often an injury seriously impacts on a team’s chances – you can read Mike Gibbons’ recent column about Wayne Rooney for a commentary on that subject.
Rooney’s absence would be a blow to England’s hopes in a few weeks’ time but at least Rooney, a young man, will get more chances to wear the three lions in future World Cups.
Australia has just lost the services of Tony Vidmar – and he’ll never get another chance.
If you’re not Australian, you might see Vidmar as a journeyman. After leaving Adelaide in 1995, he joined NAC Breda in the Netherlands. He then did a full sweep of Great Britain starting in Scotland (five successful years with Rangers), then moving to England (Middlesbrough) and finally Wales (Cardiff City). He returned to Breda a year ago for what has turned out to be his last season in Europe.
Australian fans know Vidmar as one of the Socceroos’ most loyal servants. He has worn the green and gold in 75 full internationals. Only two Australian players have won more caps and neither of them were ever overseas-based professionals – they didn’t have to spend anywhere near as much time travelling to represent their country.
Tony Vidmar will be 36 years old in July. He has been a part of four World Cup qualifying campaigns and the first three ended in failure. Germany was to be his first and last World Cup finals.
But yesterday, cruelly, the Aussie defender was forced to withdraw from the Socceroos’ World Cup squad because of an irregular heartbeat.
Yes, a lot of great players never make it to the World Cup. Yes, there are a lot of hard luck stories. Vidmar isn’t the first player to have his dream shattered and he won’t be the last.
This, however, is one of the most unfortunate cases I know of. An ambition, that had seemed so unlikely, was just weeks away from being realised. It can never be realised now.
Australian fans are feeling Vidmar’s pain and it’s because of his role in our journey to the World Cup finals – a goal that was so elusive for so long.
He first participated in World Cup qualifiers in 1993. (Mark Schwarzer is the only other current Socceroo that played a part in that campaign.) Vidmar was involved in one of Australia’s most memorable moments against Argentina when his cross found his brother Aurelio who scored the goal that levelled the score in the first leg of that playoff.
The year 1997 was the year of Australia’s disaster against Iran. Vidmar played in the first leg in Tehran (a 1-1 draw) but Terry Venables (Australia’s manager at the time) omitted him from the starting team for the return match in Melbourne. Vidmar watched Australia lose its two-goal lead from the sidelines and then, with the score at 2-2, he was brought on. It was an odd move by Venables – introducing a defender when Australia suddenly needed to score to avoid elimination.
In 2001, Vidmar played both matches against Uruguay. He was excellent in the Socceroos’ 1-0 home win and certainly not to blame for the 0-3 loss in Montevideo. The image from that day that will stay with all Australian fans is that of an inconsolable Vidmar being led away from the pitch in tears after the match.
Last year, the veteran defender was finally rewarded. For some time, critics had suggested that Vidmar was past his use by date with the national team. But Guus Hiddink selected him and the Dutch coach’s faith was repaid. Vidmar played all 210 minutes in Australia’s epic qualifiers against Uruguay and, as the records show, Australia only conceded once.
The two Australia-Uruguay matches of last November were Vidmar’s finest hours in the green and gold. He was outstanding throughout. I’ll always remember watching him stride, in such a business-like manner, to the penalty area to take the Socceroos’ third penalty in the shootout and the way he reacted after he calmly slotted the ball into the bottom corner of the net. He wouldn’t have been one of the players expected to take a spot kick. We didn’t know it then, but it was his last kick in international football.
Vidmar also played in Confederations Cups and he was a member of the 1992 Australian Olympic team that finished fourth in that year’s football competition.
Perhaps this story just proves that, despite the glories it promises and delivers, sport can be incredibly cruel.
Vidmar could have easily decided to retire from international football after the disappointment of Montevideo in 2001. Instead, he dedicated himself for another four years. But although he played a crucial role in the Australian team’s journey to the Promised Land, he will not be able to enter it.
There are some similarities between Vidmar’s misfortune and that suffered by Ray Baartz in 1974. Baartz, a striker, was one of the Socceroos’ finest players on the only other occasion that Australia qualified for the World Cup finals. In a pre-tournament friendly against Uruguay, Baartz was chopped across the throat by an opponent. The resulting injury ended his career and he watched West Germany 74 from the sidelines.
Ray Baartz is remembered fondly by Australian fans. I’m certain Vidmar will be to – he never let us down.
And Tony Vidmar will always have that magic night in Sydney. It might not be a great consolation when he sees his team mates playing in Germany without him, but he did ensure that he would have a cherished place in Australia’s football history.
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