Australia missed out on the World Cup finals yet again. Matthew Hall watched them succumb to mild paranoia – and a better team – in Montevideo
Three strikes and you’re out, and a triple lash from Uruguay in Montevideo was enough to send Australia crashing out of the World Cup without qualifying for the finals for the seventh time in succession. The first and last time the Socceroos made it to the finals was in 1974. On the past five occasions Australia have been eliminated in sudden death play-offs, against Scotland, Israel, Argentina, Iran and now Uruguay. Conspiracy theories, administrative blunders, plain bad luck and the comeback of Diego Maradona have all contributed to past failures.
This time, however, there can be no real complaints. Australia were beaten fair and square. They were inexperienced and naive and lost to a team that had no doubt about its destiny. Uruguay’s team bus got stuck as it attempted to negotiate the driveway into Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario but that was almost the only thing that went wrong for the South Americans.
“I honestly thought we would score in Uruguay,” said the coach Frank Farina after the match. “We had a few good chances but we didn’t take them. We needed to score and we didn’t. We just didn’t have it.”
You can say that again, Frankie. The result is devastating for football in Australia. Soccer Australia, the governing body, is a financial disaster and was counting on the $6 million (£4.25 million) guaranteed from qualification to save its bacon. After years of financial mismanagement that verged on corruption, a new administration, elected in August, is now in danger of collapse. There is simply no money.
The domestic competition lurches from crisis to crisis with fewer than a handful of teams of interest to the general public. Had Australia qualified, a plan was in place to shut down the league and relaunch it with an American MLS-style set-up. It may even have worked. Now we will probably never know.
While the European clubs bleat about “meaningless friendlies”, Australia do not have any meaningful competitive games for another four years. Then, the Socceroos will no doubt be drawn to play off against the fourth-placed African side to qualify for Germany and the same old doubts will rise again. As a tear-jerker, it’s possible that Australian kids who have spent the past month worshipping Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka won’t get to see their heroes in the flesh again until 2005.
After the second leg’s final whistle, travelling from the stadium to the city centre by taxi was made almost impossible. Montevideo’s main roads were clogged to standstill as the fans sang ¡Soy Celeste! (I am sky blue), the catchy Uruguay theme song, until dawn. “Uruguay’s economy is stuffed and the people have little money, so qualifying for the World Cup is a massive boost for the people and the country as a whole,” said the taxi driver, with one hand firmly pressed to his car’s horn.
Several of Australia’s stars, almost all of whom play in the Premiership, First Division or Scottish Premier League, failed to stand up and make themselves count in Australian soccer’s hour and a half of need. Feyenoord’s Brett Emerton, long touted as the next big thing, showed he has a way to grow yet. Paul Okon of Middlesbrough, loved by Terry Venables but less so by Steve McClaren, struggled to find space for his elegant passing in a crowded midfield.
The decision to play Harry Kewell as a striker backfired badly. Mark Viduka had no service and no one to play off. 1860 Munich’s Paul Agostino, who created many problems for Uruguay when he came on as a second-half substitute in the first leg in Melbourne, wasn’t introduced in Montevideo until late in the game. Australia’s best periods were with two strikers and Kewell wide on the left. The talk has been that egos rather than common sense helped pick the team, up front at least.
Mark Schwarzer was not at fault for any of Uruguay’s goals and while Craig Moore was outstanding in defence, his partner Shaun Murphy, who plays for Sheffield United, found out that marking the likes of Dario Silva on a sunny Sunday in Montevideo is a different proposition to keeping an eye on the best strikers the First Division can offer on a rainy Saturday afternoon in England.
Farina’s immediate future is now in doubt. Before the second leg, Soccer Australia’s deputy chairman Greg Woods came out in support of him being offered a new contract, but the Woods view is not necessarily shared by other SA board members. After a run of impressive results (if not always fluent performances) this year, Farina has been subject to continual rumours linking him with lucrative coaching jobs in Japan and some smaller clubs in Europe.
However, despite beating Scotland last year, France and Brazil at the Confederations Cup in June, and earning a deserved 1-1 draw against France in a friendly before the World Cup play-off, Uruguay’s 3-0 win was emphatic – Australia’s most convincing defeat in World Cup games since the 1960s. Not since North Korea beat them 6-1 in a play-off in “neutral” Cambodia for a place at the 1966 finals have the Socceroos been so outclassed.
The irony is that this current crop of national team players were supposed to be the Golden Team, graduates of a vibrant youth system that has seen Australia perform impressively at almost every World Youth Cup since 1991. Farina said he had built a team big on spirit. This appears to be true, but spirit alone was not going to be enough to overcome equally inspired, but technically superior, opponents.
Australia were perhaps beaten psychologically the minute they stepped off the plane from Melbourne. A fired-up mob of locals pushed and shoved the players as they moved from the arrivals hall to the team bus and several members of the delegation and the squad were spat on. TV pictures of the fracas were relayed back to Australia. The tabloid media, which does not rival Britain’s for shock value but will always have a good go if xenophobia is involved, beat the hell out of the incident. Animals! and Bloody Disgrace accompanied pictures of the former Wolves midfielder Steve Corica ducking for cover.
The Australian delegation, in its wisdom, went into a Montevideo lock down. A request was made to FIFA to shift the game to a neutral venue (Buenos Aires? Fiji? London?), the players were not allowed to leave the team hotel and non-Australian media were banned from the daily press conferences. This didn’t leave Agence France Presse, Associated Press, Reuters or the man from the BBC with the best impression of Australian hospitality.
To underline how absurd the situation became, even Australia’s prime minister, John Howard, a man whose global vision extends to winning a recent election on an anti-refugee platform and declaring the late Sir Donald Bradman as the greatest sportsman of all time, stepped in by declaring the push-and shove equivalent to an international diplomatic incident.
Sections of the Australian media had predicted Montevideo would turn into a “cauldron of hell” for the visiting Australians on the day of the game. Much was made of so-called escape plans and the high-level security but, in reality, Uruguay and its people rank among the friendliest on the planet. Families, young couples, groups of men, and young children continued celebrations long into the Montevideo night. “Did you expect to win?” was the most intimidating reaction to an Australian that I encountered. Well, yes and no.
The streets approaching Montevideo’s city centre were filled with children playing with footballs after the match, re-enacting the goals scored by new national heroes Dario Silva and Richard Morales. Australian kids will have to wait at least another four years before they get to play a similar game. Australians are used to the regular four-year cycles, but this one will seem particularly long.
From WSC 179 January 2002. What was happening this month