20 Years of the Socceroo Realm & the Iran Game post that started it all

03 May 2018

A significant milestone just occurred in March when the Socceroo Realm turned 20 years old. Yes, 20 years old! It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. Inspired by the infamous “Iran Game” of 1997, where Australia had World Cup qualification for France 1998 stripped away from them in the last 15 minutes, it’s almost certainly the longest continuous blog about the Socceroos and Australian soccer in general on the internet. In fact, it was born at the time when the internet was only just gathering mainstream appeal, where internet time was charged by the hour, and if you used more than 100MB a month you were a heavy user!

The Dream Is Dead - Australia vs Iran 1997 World Cup Qualifier MCG Melbourne Newspaper Headline

For many years, the Socceroo Realm was highly ranked on search engines for “Socceroos” and accrued much traffic, with the biggest boosts coming from the 1999 U17 World Cup in New Zealand where Australia lost to Brazil on penalties, the World Cup qualifying series vs Uruguay in 2001 and 2005, and, the busiest time of all, the 2006 World Cup itself. Australia’s long-awaited return to the World Cup in 2006 would also prove to be a double-edged sword, for as much as the blog prospered during that period, the proliferation of media outlets that would now extensively cover the sport also meant the Socceroo Realm would be soon drop in internet search rankings. Not that it ever really altered my personal behaviour. Initially meant as a cathartic experience to get over the Iran Game, and then to add some extensive analysis not provided by anyone anywhere, even on TV, writing has always been about fun, and it remains so. Having readers makes it satisfying.

There’s even been famous readers, notably Johnny Warren, who was “caught” a few times quoting almost verbatim some comments, most notoriously the “bad day” summary after the first Uruguay series. Now in the days of social media, it’s thrilling to get former Socceroos retweeting or commenting on a post. Speaking of social media, that’s been a double-edged sword too, as the immediacy and brevity of it, notably Twitter, often supplants the need for a post at all. Typically a post is about wrapping several thoughts into one nice article, and social media reduces the need for that. At least for a blogger. Journalists will still spit out a 1000 word article without really saying anything substantial!

The future of the Socceroo Realm will mostly mirror its most recent years. Social media will provide instant thoughts and analysis, while the blog will look at broader aspects of, say, a qualifying period or a big event. Gone are the days of match reports as they can be read from countless sources anywhere. Besides, there’s simply too many matches these days. In the days of Oceania, World Cup qualifiers were an event. Now they are only a piece of a broader one.

Also gone is the old website on the alphalink domain – my personal web-space since 1997. Moving house last November and changing ISPs meant it would soon vanish, and finally it has. Sites like WordPress make hosting and publishing so much easier, and updates can be made anywhere in the world, any time, and on any device. While has evolved and has a new home, all the original content remains on my computer and will occasionally feature as a “Blast From The Past” post. With that, the very first post on the Socceroo Realm, as exactly written at the time…

The Iran Game – What Went Wrong – Part 1

29 March 1998

This is the first part of a two-part prognosis with this part essentially focusing on what happened on the pitch. It is generally considered that the first leg was a great result and the tie was lost in the home leg. Also, the home leg is what most people remember vividly and is also the game where Australia reached what should have been an unassailable position, only to falter. Therefore, I will focus primarily on this game in the search for answers.

Jahor Baru, Malaysia: Third placed Asian playoff, Iran v Japan, 15 November, 1997
After seeing the playoff between Iran and Japan, I was convinced neither off these teams could compete with Australia. Japan has never been a good performer against Australia, whereas Iran has troubled occasionally. I thought Iran would win and it was only some weak defending that let Japan in. Iran led 2-1 and conceded a header to the shortest man on the pitch in Shoji Jo. Then in sudden death extra time, Ali Daei missed an open goal. Okana eventually scored from a rebound off a speculative low drive.

Both teams were ragged and weary after an arduous campaign and combined with the devastation of losing another chance, would be ripe for the pickings. Get them here and hammer them, I say. Mistake one: Australia should have played at home first. More on this later.

Tehran, Iran: First leg Oceania/Fourth Placed Asian playoff, Iran vs Australia, 22 November, 1997.
Before the playoff, my gut feeling said that Australia would either win 2 or 3 nil and end up trashing Iran over the two legs, or lose if Iran could stick close. After Viduka missed a simple header early and eventually Kewell scoring within the first 20 minutes, my former scenario seemed to be bearing out. Iran seemed to be paying Australia too much respect and once they were 1-0 down, then realised that the game was now in their own destiny, and simply had do something. Tony Vidmar got cautioned soon after and Iran immediately capitalised on a tackle-shy right side, and with the adrenilin of playing before a fanatical home crowd, turned the game. From this point, Australia was always on the back foot soaking up pressure – well I might add – with Slater having to defend constantly and providing no real forward drive. Iran exploited the wing with nearly all their goal scoring opportunities coming from here. Simply, a substitution had to be made far sooner than it did. Slater is no defender, but was resigned to one. He should have been pushed forward to somehow counter the attack, or the team re-shaped and/or substitutions made with the gun-shy T.Vidmar substituted. The equaliser eventually came late in the half, much to mine and the team’s disappointment. A soft goal, from a throw-in where Horvat failed to track his opponent after trying to play him offside single-handedly (?). Madavikia fired in a low cross which Azizi turned in.

It was not until a third-way through the second half that Lazaridis came on and gave some curry back to Iran. Australia had a few good shots of their own now and the game was 50-50.

Iran dominated the play overall and forced a few brilliant saves from Bosnich, though did not really missed any guilt-edged opportunities. The referee even seemed to favour the Australian’s with an Iranian offside definately call wrongly, with one other iffy one too. Iran might have been unlucky not to win 2 or 3-1 given the pressure, but it is all about scoring goals and even Viduka did missed a sitter early on. Maybe a 2-1 would have been right. Bosnich said after the game that he would have taken the result (1-1) if offered before the game, which suggest that during the game, they expected to win, especially after the early dominance. Like he, I expected a win too. If he is indeed sincere about the draw, then in this light, credit to the Aussies as it was a real cauldron of imtitidating and pressure football. This is what World Cup football is all about and 1-1 was a great achievement.

Personally, I was disappointed with the Tehran result, and the fact that Iran cold trouble Australia so much. I had to try and put it into perspective that 1-1 away is great and means Australia should go through. Given the home-ground advantage, I knew that Iran would play well but thought that they would lack the class to penetrate the Aussie defence, and conversely, Australia would be able to sneak in a goal or two. Never the less, I was not as confident as I hoped to be.

Melbourne, Australia: Second leg Oceania/Fourth Placed Asian playoff,
Australia v Iran, 29 November, 1997
It is now April, four months later, and I have just watched the game again and with the result in the bag, dead, buried and accepted, and nothing emotional to cloud my viewing, I was able to analyse the game objectively and here are my thoughts

Two things are still vivid in memory and really highlight rollercoaster ride of the night and illustrates the drama that transpired perfectly.

First was Aurelio Vidmar’s defiant fist to the crowd at the corner flag, just below where we were sitting. It showed to us (in the stand) that, yes, we are through: we have got them beat. Also, it showed a minor show of relief in that Vidmar missed a couple of good chances early on.

Second was Stan Lazaridis’s emotional state after the whistle blew. He lay prostrate on the turf for ages, maybe about 15 minutes. After the players left, he still lay, and I sat down and…. Anyway, a police officer eventually helped him up and as he left, so did we. No one spoke a word while we walked out. Later, outside the Great Southern Stand, I noticed a young lady still crying and being consoled by an older lady: maybe her mother. She wore an Alex Tobin shirt, which I found curious as the defender and captain is not regarded as a ‘glamour’ player. It turned out to be his wife and I wish I had said something.

Back to the game. It took over nearly 2 and a half hours to watch 90 minutes of action because I was constantly rewinding and slow-moing the action. This was the fifth time I have seen it. The domination was even more pronounced this time as Iran had their first meaningful shot on goal mid-way through the second half! Ali Daei did not shoot at all during the entire game! Their lead striker!

Craig Moore - Australia vs Iran 1997 World Cup Qualifier MCG Melbourne

Craig Moore. After drifting in on a far post corner, although a tough angle, he had an open goal but could only side-foot the ball across the goal for Khakpour to clear. He was also involved in the confusion that lead to Iran’s first goal, but was not involved in any of the crazy offside plays.

The concession of the 2 goals was, disturbingly, due to the rigidity of the back three in that they did not mark the strikers and instead were more inclinded to push up. And this is with a ‘sweeper’ system, which, if my rudimentary knowledge of game allows, goes against all modern footballing conventions. This tendedncy to push-up was responsible for all three goals conceded in the tie and was something I have never seen before in an Australian team. The fact that it was Vidmar who tracked back, with Moore following, to tackle Azizi for the first goal, with all the recognised defenders further upfield highlights this. We all know about the second goal, and in Iran, Horvat pushed up himself which gave the space for Madavikia to get the cross in to assist the equaliser. Venables denied instructions of this sort; I am not convinced though.

Horvat – coming back from injury too – was a controversial replacement for Ivanovic and was at fault for the Tehran goal. Tobin called for the offside for the second-Melb goal in what could be only be a decision described as sheer madness, or panic. Tobin is too good a defender to hopelessly misjudge a situation like that. Ivanovic had been a mainstay in Australia’s defence in all the other qualifiers and lead up games and did the job admirably and to drop him was simply wrong – even the media raised the peculiar issue. The only reason I can see for Horvat being in the team was the pace factor, even though it should not be all that a factor when playing sweeper. Interestingly, with Ivanovic, Australia kept Brazil scoreless in the Confederation Cup several weeks later with him controlling the defence. The offsides came, but they were well judged and Australia was never caught square. Vindication for an intelligent player and a poor selection decision by Venables to omit him against Iran.

Like Iran did in Iran, Australia totally dominated the game, but even more so. There really was only one team on the pitch with Iran unable to suppress the constant chances Australia created. Whilst numerous, most were only half chances, though. However, there were three blatant misses, but then the second goal did have an element of luck about it.. Maybe they SHOULD have been 3 up (2 at the half), but no more. Of course they COULD have been 10 up. Vidmar (early, should have nutmegged or rounded the goalie), Kewell (hit a defender on the line, he had more time to place it) and Moore (missed a fairly open net off a far post corner) were responsible for these obvious misses.

The critical third goal (that did not come) was the reason we lost on the field, such is the nature of the away-goals rule. One-nil, Iran needs 2 to win. Two-nil, Iran still needs 2 to win. Two-nil was a numerical advantage that only prevented extra time but gave the team a false psychological advantage. This probably lulled the team into a false sense of security, when in effect, there was very little advantage at all. One-nil would have kept the boys on their toes, and would have prevented Iran from risking all. I am convinced Iran’s objectives were to weather the storm and pinch it at the end. Even maybe concede 1 goal and rely on pinching the game in extra time or via penalty shootout. Iran had to score regardless in normal time, so conceding a goal would have meant nothing but putting the game into extra time where anything could happen.

Aurelio Vidmar - Australia vs Iran 1997 World Cup Qualifier MCG Melbourne

Aurelio’s depair at missing some early chances during that ferocious onslaught. His expression summed up the night really.

Back to the critical third goal which would have given Australia a real advantage. Viduka was a leading culprit when he intercepted a poor goal-kick but sprayed his lob wide. He had heaps of time and could also have laid off a pass to Kewell, who would have been in the clear. Later, Kewell made a break down the left wing and put a low cross way to early which was cleared by Sadavi, narrowly avoiding an own goal. Kewell should have checked and played the cross later which would have wrong footed Sadavi and allowed an easy stick in for Vidmar. Viduka also had a good chance a bit later but shot too close the goalie after doing the hard work in turning a couple of defenders.

This was the last flurry: concentration slipped, composure was diminishing on the final passes and maybe complacency was setting in; and this is when Venables should have shut shop and made some substitutions. I know personally at the time that I felt the third goal would not come and I started looking a the clock. But then, there was no way I could (or anyone for that matter) foresee Iran even scoring one goal, let alone two. I recall mentioning to Bob (a friend) at halftime that Iran won’t score, and they should not have. Iran did scramble one, then got another with the help of a panic stricken Australian defence. I was again looking at the clock, but this time, for other reasons.

Mark Viduka - Australia vs Iran 1997 World Cup Qualifier MCG Melbourne

Viduka’s anguish as a penalty claim goes unheeded seconds before Australia’s second goal. In the end it did not matter, but here again, Viduka’s expression really summed up the night. Not to mention the lenient refereeing.

At 2-2, Australia had three real chances. A Viduka header that went way wide. An Arnold shot, that went to the keeper and finally an Arnold free-header that was poorly placed. Granted, Viduka’s header was difficult and if Arnold was more accureate with his attempts, they most likely would have hit Iranians such was their quantity in the penalty box.

The Referees did play a significant role in the outcome. The first Iranian goal was offside. Azizi got tackled as he burst through the Australian defence and lay in an offside position, albeit passive and not interfering with play. The ball bobbled about and a rebound from a half-clearance fell into his path which he duly cut back, thus becoming active and interfering with play. No one around us picked this up but then we are not paid referees. None of the Australians on pitch picked it up – though Trimboli on the bench did – but it was patently clear upon seeing the video tape. This refereeing error was simply paradoxical in the outcome of the game. A correct call here, and Australia may have got their substitutes on before anymore scares, or at least woken up from their defensive slumber.

Also, although he was consistent, the referee was far too lenient as the Iranians persistently fouled the Aussies. Indeed, Khapour hacked down Lazaridis half way during the first half and should have been sent off. Instead he only got a yellow. And the card Kewell got for receiving a knee from the goalie was a joke. The goalie lay in supposed agony and deserved an Oscar, and the referee seemed to just guess what had happened and penalised the real victim. Actually, this was the turning point of the game where everything started going wrong for Australia. Simply, for a World Cup qualifier, the referee was far too lenient and allowed the Iranians to get away with murder. They even hugged him when the whistle blew – what does that say?

Fifa can hang their heads in even further shame for allowing Iran to convince them annul all yellow cards incurred in previous games. The argument was that the playoff constituted a separate series and therefore should not carry. What a joke! Australia has always played these playoffs and cards have always carried and no other countries who were consigned to playoff games had their cards annulled either. Four players including Azizi (who was the main tormenter and goal scorer in Tehran), key defender Khakpour, and goalkeeper Abezadah. Thankfully Bagheri’s red-card suspension still remained though, but alas, Fifa’s intervention still allowed some of Iran’s best players to play in the first leg.

Ticket for Australia vs Iran 1997 World Cup Qualifier MCG

An actual as-yet-unused ticket to the game. Note how Australia’s opponents were not even known at the time (it was actually only 1 week before the series when they knew). This says a lot for Fifa’s organisation and qualification process. It also contributed largely to Australia’s ill-fated campaign with the obviously poor preparation forced upon it among other things. Most of which will be examined closely in the second part of “what went wrong”. Sadly, this ticket will be a momento for all the wrong reasons.

In a nutshell, why did Australia fail? Based on what you have just read, the referees were overwhelming influences on the result in the second game and Fifa may have effected the first game with their weak-minded decisions. Of course we will never know this and the Tehran game was considered a good result anyway. Of the game in Melbourne itself, poor defending (tactically and team selections) and maybe poor finishing were the problems. I am loathe to attack finishing because scoring goals is one of those intangibles in the game: sometimes they go in, sometimes they don’t. Defending, however, is not and there should be no excuse in getting that blatantly wrong. But personally, I feel the main failure was off the pitch and regardless if Australia even managed to qualify, or not, as it turned out, these mistakes must never be repeated again.

Why???????????
Stay tuned for part two.

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