Under performers

Australia have once again failed to qualify for the World Cup. Mike Ticher questions what will become of football in the country after their latest elimination

Australia have lost to some curious teams in their efforts to qualify for previous World Cups – Kuwait, Indonesia, Fiji – but France ’98 was surely the worst beating they had ever handed out to themselves.

Leading 3-1 on aggregate against Iran at the Melbourne Cricket Ground with 14 minutes to go in the decisive play-off , they contrived to let in two goals in four minutes to go out on away goals. “You could taste the baguettes,” wrote one journalist in a teary farewell to his expense account. “You could smell the Gitanes. You could see the Eiffel Tower shimmering in the mid-summer heat.” Australian soccer, the gawky younger brother to the nation’s in-your-face rugby and cricket teams, is a strange psychological beast – insecure, eager to please and often overly respectful of foreign opponents. Heaven knows what effect this setback will have on its fragile ego, since for the first time ever the Socceroos were actually expecting to qualify. Confidence that they would finally make their first finals since 1974 had been building steadily – at times even slightly manically – ever since FIFA’s decision to give them effectively a two-game qualifying schedule against the fourth-best Asian team.

After years of bemoaning the iniquities of play-offs against strong South American and European countries, this time Australia strolled through against the Solomon Islands, Tahiti and New Zealand, playing just six games of extremely dubious quality, and barely needed to undergo the tortuous process of bringing the bulk of their first-choice squad back from Europe. The anticipation inspired by the draw was of course massively bolstered by the arrival of Terry Venables as coach. After some initial grumbling about the inverse relationship between the amount of time he spent in Australia and the amount of money he received, the local media largely swung around behind him. His presence, together with the experience gained by the vastly increased number of Australians playing at the top level in Europe, gave rise to the assumption that Australia finally had a competitive, if not world-beating national set-up.

By the time Iran met Japan in Malaysia in the play-off for the third Asian qualifying place, confidence was verging on complacency in some quarters. “Australia will walk it, whoever they play,” proclaimed 1974 Socceroo striker Adrian Alston, once of Luton and Cardiff, now trading in hackneyed bluster as a TV pundit. In truth, the match seemed to bear him out. It took Iran two minutes to notch a peach of an own goal, luckily ruled out for offside, and ten to have their goalkeeper warned for time-wasting. Possibly given heart by the fact that Japan’s blue-and-white strip reminded them Scotland, the Iranians survived in knockabout fashion until a golden goal five minutes before the end of extra-time put the almost equally shoddy Japanese through. That yelp of delight you may have heard came from the direction of FIFA headquarters.

Afterwards the new Iranian coach, Valdir Vierra, wandered around asking journalists if the first game against Australia was at home or away. Appointed only two weeks previously as coach of the under-23 side aiming for the 2000 Olympics, the Brazilian was hurriedly promoted after Iran blew automatic qualification by losing three of their last four group games. The engaging Vierra pointed out that he spoke 10 languages, none of them Persian, and was gracious enough to admit that his side barely deserved to win in Melbourne. He had never seen Iran’s star striker Karim Bagheri (one of three players with German teams), but put him in the team for the second leg “on the advice of 50 million people” after his first-leg suspension. That kind of flippancy was clearly frowned on by an ungrateful Iranian FA, who swiftly sought to enlist the equally useless multilingual talents of Bora Milutinovic after qualification.

Such ad hoc arrangements prompted another of Australia’s 1974 World Cup stars,Johnny Warren, to write that Iran were “totally disorganised, demoralised, leaderless and in absolute disarray”. The Sydney Morning Herald boldly asserted: “The truth is the Socceroos are superior to Iran in virtually every department of the game.” Which was true. The only problem was that Iran were a team, while Australia, through little fault of their own, were not. The Iranians had criss-crossed Asia for months before arriving in Melbourne, playing six games in Damascus and Tehran in June, then home and away against China, Saudia Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar before the play-off with Japan in Malaysia – 15 games in all.

Australia, with no confederation championship to contest in between World Cups, had not played a truly meaningful match against tough opposition since they lost 1-0 in Buenos Aires in November 1993. Their collective experience is restricted to friendlies, and even then the squad is essentially split in two between the home-based and overseas players. Physically exhausted they may have been, but having come from behind in several of their group games, the Iranians had the psychological resources to recover after going behind to a Harry Kewell goal in Tehran (“the silence that 130,000 people can make is quite stunning” said idiot-savant commentator Paul Williams) to draw 1-1.

In Melbourne too, Australia had the skill, but not the nous to keep possession and kill the game at the crucial moment. This time the silence of 75,000 people was broken only by hysterical celebrations from the 10,000 Iranians on hand.This time around there could be no excuses, no debates as to whether or not the team had got the best result possible, as there had been after the narrow but unadventurous loss to Argentina four years previously. Instead the reaction was one of shock and bewilderment at how Iran, comprehensively outplayed in Melbourne to the extent that they did not force one corner, had nevertheless arrived inside one of Sepp Blatter’s plastic balls in Marseille.

Failure to qualify is a more devastating blow in some ways for an isolated, middle-ranking football nation than for a traditional European power. Whereas in England the success of the national team is threatened by the burgeoning financial muscle of the clubs, in Australia the feeble domestic league is in dire need of investment and support from the national federation, not to mention the lifting of the game’s profile which qualification would have ensured.

A couple of weeks before the decisive game in Melbourne, I went to a national league fixture in Sydney, notionally a passionate derby, which nevertheless drew the customary 5,000 crowd. The half-time entertainment included a blindfold penalty competition – as apt a metaphor as any for the future of the NSL without the publicity generated by participation in the World Cup.

It has not gone amiss either that qualifying countries receive a guaranteed £1.5 million from FIFA, roughly the same that Australia had spent on their qualification bid, and money they can ill afford to toss away. Worse, the Socceroos will be effectively mothballed for a couple of years, with few fixtures likely to appeal to sponsors and commercial TV networks. The massive potential indicated again by the huge crowd at the MCG will doubtless remain unexploited for at least another four years, unless perhaps Australia can persuade the Asian confederation to accept them as semi-permanent guests, rather like the US has done in South America.

None of which, of course, was deemed to be Terry Venables’ fault. True to form, he was offered another contract within minutes of failing to achieve the only worthwhile task set him on his venture down under. At least Australia can console themselves with the fact that they’re not so different from the rest of the football world after all – the team lands on its arse, Venables lands on his feet. Roll on 2002.

From WSC 132 February 1998. What was happening this month