The Iran Game 20 Years On – Recounting the Memories

29 November 2017

Twenty years ago, has it really been that long? With Australia about to play in its fourth successive World Cup, it’s a stark contrast to the days of Oceania when Australia’s World Cup prospects were almost so forlorn that most fans did not dream.

Australia vs Iran 1997 World Cup Qualifier

After emerging as Oceania’s winners, Australia would be shunted to all parts of the globe and made to play sudden-death playoffs against battle-hardened losers from other confederations as our first and final hope of qualifying – and that was typically after an earlier, slightly less daunting playoff. For the 1998 World Cup, this treacherous path seemed not so bad when Australia was finally given its wish of going through Asia by needing to beat Asian’s 4th best team. Comparing that to Scotland, Israel then Colombia and Canada then Argentina, the dreaming could really start.

As it is now known, that seemingly easier path proved a fool’s gold. It was not the challenge of Iran that undid Australia, it was the nature of the fixture. Football’s magic is because it’s so uncertain, and in a sudden-death game, that uncertainty can be cataclysmic. Add to that FIFA’s absurd away-goals rule that magnifies the impact of a goal far beyond its norm and inhibits a home team from attacking too much, then you have an even greater recipe for chaos.

The Iran Game proved a watershed moment for the sport. With such a strong spectre of qualifying, the mainstream media was heavily focused. The sport had seen nothing like it and appeared to really come of age. More importantly, it would convert a mass of people to the magic that only this sport can provide. Little were we to learn that that magic cuts both ways, leaving Australia disappointed, and ironically making qualification through Asia and the playoffs after two further attempts, far more appreciated. Pivotally for this website, it was its birth. So much so that eventually there were 5 parts spanning 3 years dedicated to this one night. Now there’ll be six.

Those parts to the Iran Game can still be viewed in the “Action” section in their exact original wording on the archived site. They’ve never be revisited for corrections, punctuation and even writing style. In twenty years, so much as changed there too.

The intent of the Socceroo Realm was only ever for personal recount, even for catharsis and self-healing. Longer term, it would serve primarily as a journal and for the enjoyment of writing. It evolved to providing general news, until now, where it is solely analysis and opinion. The early and mid-2000s was its peak in terms of traffic and communication, until the proliferation of mainstream websites like theworldgame, Fox Sports, newspapers and even A-League clubs – all with so many pages – have seen the Socceroo Realm hammered from its permanent top 10 in Google and Alta Vista (of the time) in searches for “Socceroos”. A search now and it’s nowhere on the first 5 pages. Being slow to get onto Twitter and Facebook hasn’t helped. Still, there’s a dedicated readership, and that’s forever appreciated.

Now to the Iran Game. For something different I’ll present a chronological list of memories that are still vivid and often recounted either in whimsical thinking or discussing with friends.

* When first asked about the match at the MCG, Robbie Slater called the idea “a joke”. The main concern was the cricket pitch; there were no drop-in pitches back then as now. Many players, and fans, had that concern. A minor concern was actually getting the crowd, considering soccer was very much a minor sport. Did Soccer Australia exaggerate the potential? Prices were reasonable at $40, $60 and $80-100 for bronze, silver and gold, respectively.

* With preparations under way and cricket pitch getting plenty of water, Paul Trimboli – as a local Socceroo – gave it a thumbs up in a TV news report.

* Ticket purchase. A friend (Bob) and I went to Chadstone Shopping Centre to purchase them. We were happy with silver and picked our seats in line with the penalty box to the city end, in the Southern Stand, reasonably low on the top deck.

* Australia were to play either Iran or Japan and neither of those teams relished that chance. They played a cut-throat play-off in Malaysia (Johor Bahru to be precise) that Japan eventually won 3-2 in extra time. Australia was straight off to Tehran.

* Before the identity of the fourth-placed Asian team was known, it had already been announced that Australia would play at home last. This was greeted as a great advantage. First, the axiom that knowing the outcome required, the team could play accordingly and be more in control of achieving the result. Second, and more importantly, was the travel. While Japan appeared the lesser challenge and more comfortable logistically, it was now seen as more desirable to play Iran. They were now forced to fly all the way back to Iran, play a match, then fly to Australia. Surely fatigue would be a big problem. They had also crumbled in their group stage when, as group leaders, lost two and drew one of their last three games. Then lost to Japan in the play-off. They appeared demoralised.

* The first leg in Teheran didn’t go as hoped. Deep down the consensus that this was Australia’s big chance and that they’d be too superior was initially validated when Harry Kewell scored early. From then on, it was an unnerving struggle. In fact, Iran quite easily could have won and seemed energised and reassured by returning straight to the comfort of home. Would it have been better that they came to Melbourne first and been hammered? Two friends (Bob and Z) visited my house to watch. They had never met before.

* With the Socceroos squad now in Melbourne, all players gave approval to the MCG field, several being surprised it was good, including Slater.

* To confirm the huge mainstream interest in this game, at a team photograph, one of the players remarked “ooh, sponsors!”. It might have been a Toyota sign resting in front of them.

* With Australia only needing nil-nil to qualify, confidence was high. Knowing this, would the team play accordingly? The consensus seemed not to play for the draw, especially when at home. Personally, I felt reality would set in, and the result would be eked out, either 0-0 or 1-0.

* Game day was spent at home and imagining the prospect of qualifying for an actual World Cup. Wow. Some of the trepidation from the game in Iran had  been alleviated. The feeling was that Australia really had no excuse. I had my Socceroos shirt on, circa 1993 that Australia wore against Canada and Argentina, being the moment the sport captured me.

* I met friends at the ground almost 2 hours prior, the Bob and Z who watched the first leg, and some friends of each of those who were all friends of mine. What a day for such a group of 6 to first form a bond.

* The atmosphere in the ground at this early stage was amazing. A large group of Iranian fans were there trying to compete with Australian fans. Intermittently, Australian fans would have enough and totally drown out the Iranians. Then the vibrant normality would restore.

* As someone that doesn’t much like the national anthem, Jane Scali gave an amazing rendition. To this day, it’s the best ever. Whether it was the crowd and the occasion that helped, it also affected her as there was a distinct energy flow between crowd and singer that just intensified as the anthem progressed. Z, who is of Greek origin, sang in full gusto. I didn’t bother, preferring to soak in the occasion.

* Early stages of the game were marked by Robbie Slater steaming down the wing, Aurelio Vidmar missing chances, Craig Moore missing a great chance from a corner, Ned Zelic shooting from range, and an Iranian playing tripping over the ball. It all seemed in control. Iran only providing one moment of anxiety, and that foray on goal was easily snuffed.

* Finally, the goal came, and it was Harry Kewell. It took some time to confirm this given the distance from goal we were and the general scramble in the penalty box. All I saw was Alex Tobin rush in and presumed he scored. The crowd went nuts as Tobin carried the ball back above his head. For me it was more a relief than anything.

* At half time Bob asked my thoughts and said “Iran won’t score”. He said, “So we’re through”. I said “No”. That answer summed up the huge trepidation still ahead despite the obvious that if Iran don’t score Australia are through.

* The most poignant analysis in discussion about the game at half time was that if Australia scores again, they must score another quickly. Because given the away-goals rule after the 1-1 result in Tehran, the second goal is largely meaningless. Iran already needed to score 2 goals at 1-0 down. At 2-0 down, they still only needed 2 goals. Only their urgency would change.

* Early in the second half, Aurelio Vidmar finally scores his goal, a tap-in after a header by Craig Foster that rebounded off the cross-bar. During this scrimmage, Z grabbed my hand in support! As the crowd went nuts, I just stayed calm and yelled out, “We need one more, we need one more”.

* Next thing you know, there’s a stoppage after an idiot invades the pitch and pulls part of the goal-net down. I felt this was good because it gave the team a chance to relax and consider the match situation after the goal. The job was by no means done. Johnny Warren also said as much on the TV telecast. By the end of the game and in the media the next day, that sentiment had swung that the invader was now blamed for the loss. Nonsense.

* Iran noticeably lifted their urgency. A few moments of danger seemed to be snuffed easily, providing some comfort. Of discomfort, Australia were tiring and looking unlikely to add to their score.

* Iran’s first goal was only mildly discomforting, mostly because it came from a scrimmage so it seemed they got lucky. We just knew now that the match would not enter extra time.

* Iran’s second goal will live long. First, there were nuggets in defence with their arms raised trying to claim offside. Second, Mark Bosnich was easily beaten. It all happened so quickly. Khodadad Azizi ran off towards the Iranian supporters. I might have said “oh shit”. Mostly I remained calm knowing that there was plenty of time left – at least 15 minutes.

* As time passed, it never really looked likely. Coach Terry Venables seemed not to be making any changes, or making strange ones. Like, why was it Tony Vidmar on for Steve Horvat? Ernie Tapai was also waiting.

* Graham Arnold came on late and was passionate in trying to give the team a gee-up. Did he recognise their forlorn attitude? Arnold had the best chance, a scurried shot that went straight to the goalie through a crowd of players.

* Final whistle and all I see is Stan Lazaridis lying on the ground. He’d be there for at least 10 minutes before security would remove him.

* Queen’s “We Are The Champions” rang around the ground. For such a triumphal song, it’s one that forever will mean sadness. It still does.

* I finally sat down, raised knees onto the seat in front, buried my head in them, cried. After about 5 minutes, Z patted me on the head to console me. Not long after that we left. We left like zombies. It was so surreal. Few people spoke.

* We ended up a pool house in Port Melbourne where Bob got so trashed that he was locked in the toilet for ages puking. I didn’t get too carried away.

* That night I cried before bed. Waking up Sunday morning, one more time. I called in sick for work on Monday, too emotionally wrecked.

* On the news on Sunday was part of the press conference. Soccer Australia chief David Hill said Australia “gave it one hell of a lick”, and words tantamount to anyone not converted to the sport by the drama that night never will.

* Terry Venables blamed the static defence, that he always instructs the players to be moving forward or back. It seemed Tobin and Horvat were doing that, except not in unison, and in opposite directions to one another.

* A few weeks later, a cricket match is on TV, and still eerily remained a hint of the centre circle across the middle of the pitch. That was the last tangible connection to this day.

Ticket to Australia vs Iran World Cup Qualifier, MCG, Melbourne, 1997

The actual ticket used

Ticket to Australia vs Iran World Cup Qualifier, MCG, Melbourne, 1997

This ticket was probably found on the internet somewhere at the time.

Regrets

Only one. Australia never played Iran again, even now that they are in Asia. Through Asian Cup qualifiers, Asian Cups, the 2006 World Cup and six World Cup qualifying pools, Australia has avoided Iran. Not even an international friendly could be fashioned. With all players on that day now retired, the time for a “re-match” has long passed.

What really went wrong?

Isolating it to events that can be controlled, two grave errors:

1) Terry Venables replaced Milan Ivanovic with Steven Horvat as sweeper for this tie. The result of which saw all three of Iran’s goals caused by defensive calamity, mostly at the hands at Horvat. While Tobin was the nugget trying to run Iran offside, he should never have held such authority. It was Ivanovic’s job, and Horvat was out of position. Aurelio Vidmar also said, in the SBS “After The Mourning After” documentary, that Australia would have qualified if Ivanovic was playing. In Tehran, Horvat bizarrely tried to play offside from a throw-in. To make matters even worse, Horvat was one of many players starting that were returning from injury or not playing with their clubs. Aurelio was another, hence his rustiness in front of goal, and Ned Zelic might have been another. You can get away with that further up the field, especially if lacking other options. You can’t in defence.

2) Dreadful tactics. Australia was already losing impetus to score the third goal, so the decision much earlier should have made to close the game down. Venables only began making the move at 2-1, and before Tony Vidmar could be brought on, it was 2-2. Bizarrely, Vidmar still came on when strikers were needed.

Legacy

A 2-0 lead these days is regarded as “a dangerous score”. It’s nonsense because in most games if a team reaches 2-2, it’s a draw, or it might go to extra time and then a shootout. In the Iran Game, 2-2 was a win, because the second goal that Australia scored was meaningless. So 2-0 is only a dangerous score for a home-team in a two-leg playoff that finished 1-1 in the first leg. Since the Iran Game, there hasn’t been such a game of 1-1 after the away leg and Australia leading 2-0 in the home leg. In fact, other than the two recent ties against Honduras and Syria, Australia has avoided such playoffs altogether.

Three years after the Iran Game, SBS showed a documentary called “After The Mourning After”. It was a retrospective of the match, mostly through interviews with players. The two most notable quotes were Robbie Slater seeing “some nugget” with his hands up when describing Iran’s second goal and Craig Foster admitting at 2-0 that his mind wandered and was dreaming of France.

That nugget was Alex Tobin. Ironic that Fox Sports’ A-League Player of the Year award is called The Alex Tobin Medal. Should it be the Nugget Award? “Nugget” has entered the parlance of myself and friends when describing erroneous defending. “Doing a Foster” has not entered the parlance for teams that concede 2 goal leads and lose through poor concentration. Not yet, anyway.

The biggest legacy, of course, is “The Iran Game”. It’s almost a trademark now, and very much part of the Australian lexicon.

 

-This is a slightly modified version of an article originally written 5 years ago as “The Iran Game 15 Years On – Recounting the Memories”

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