Russia 2018 – Australia vs Peru Review, What Went Wrong, Tournament Player Ratings

28 June 2018

This World Cup was always more about hope than expectation, and that hope was only ever a tentative one. A solid performance in the 2-1 loss to France provided a small spark of hope that Australia could beat Denmark in their next match and set a strong course for the next phase. That spark quickly extinguished when Denmark scored early, only for it to reignite when the Socceroos equalised not long after. Alas, no. Despite dominating much of the game, Australia were unable to get a winner, so were faced with the double jeopardy of beating Peru and hoping France beat Denmark.

Entering the final game against Peru in Sochi, it was almost a continuation of the Denmark game. Australia dominated early, failed to convert opportunities, and then went behind on 17 minutes. Four minutes into the second half, it was another goal for Peru, and any flickering hope we had now changed to putting us out of our misery and ending this campaign that always seemed forlorn. A late Peruvian shot hit the post to avoid a more embarrassing 3-0 loss. Not that an Australian win would have mattered, as France and Denmark only needed a draw to qualify first and second, and 0-0 was the not so unexpected final score.

Aaron Mooy sums up Australia's disappointing campaign after 2-0 loss to Peru - World Cup Russia 2018

Aaron Mooy sums up Australia’s disappointing World Cup campaign after their 2-0 loss to Peru in their final game at Russia 2018. Image: fifa.com/Getty

In fairness, Peru were the second best team of the group and should have progressed. They dominated much of the action against Denmark and France with 27 shots on goal, and shot a penalty over the bar against Denmark. They lost that game that they should have won, meaning their match against Australia was only for pride. In victory, they looked as despondent as Australia did. Not only were Peru more deserving to progress, and more lethal when required, they also out-played Australia strategically. In contrast to their two frenetic opening games, knowing Australia had to win, Peru let Australia do all the running, and picked them off the break.

Peru’s opening goal was simply a lob over the top that was passed across the box for a running Andre Carrillo to hit first time into goal. Calls of offside were dismissed as Trent Sainsbury got a foot to the ball to annul the possible offside. It was Peru’s first real chance of the game, whereas Australia and several opportunities, and continued to create them. The best being a low cross by Robbie Kruse that saw Mathew Leckie just fail to connect while under pressure by two defenders, Tom Rogic shooting meekly at the goal-keeper after skipping past four Peruvian players, and an Aziz Behich volleyed cross that failed to find an open Tim Cahill.

World Cup Russia 2018 – Group C final standings

World Cup Russia 2018 – Group C final standings

A disappointing end to a totally disappointing campaign. Even the qualifying campaign was disappointing, with the team constantly conceding goals and having trouble to score goals. It came down to an intercontinental playoff against Honduras, in which, after 0-0 in Honduras, Australia won 3-1 in Sydney, thanks to a free kick and two penalties by Mile Jedinak. In Russia, it was all too familiar. Conceding goals, and the only two goals scored were penalties to Jedinak. While the lack of a killer edge up front was clearly obvious, facts are the perennially leaky defence could never be fixed. Ignoring the less relevant fact Australia hadn’t kept a clean sheet at a World Cup since the 0-0 against Chile in 1974, the more relevant fact is through the entire World Cup cycle for Russia 2018, defence has been a problem. The glaring reality is if Australia could have denied France one of their goals and Denmark their goal, they’d have made the next round.

In hindsight, there doesn’t seem much more Australia could have done. The most glaring situation was when Tim Cahill not brought on against Denmark when they were ripe for the picking. When Andrew Nabbout was injured, it’s fair to say most people were surprised that Tomi Juric came on instead. This was at a stage when Denmark, with France as their final game, were clearly happy with the 1-1 score, and were playing tentatively. Australia was in desperate need of a big moment and Tim Cahill is our big moment player. It wasn’t until Peru that he got a run – not long after Peru went 2-0 ahead – and it was all too late by then. To his credit, in that limited amount of time, he had a shot blocked after a corner, and would have had a goal at his fourth World Cup had Behich crossed better.

It would be unfair to criticise Bert van Marwijk too harshly as he arrived with only a limited amount of time with the squad, and would have judged his playing selections by his own measure. Cahill played barely any club football in 6 months so it’s not right to compare the Cahill we’ve known all these years, or even a year ago, with the Cahill of now. Remember, Ange Postecoglou had been phasing Cahill out of his starting teams long ago, and indeed, it was Postecoglou deserting Australia with mission incomplete that compromised the team’s preparation. Van Marwijk’s first match was a 4-1 loss in Norway in late March, and fears coming to Russia were a smashing by France. That the team produced three creditable and competitive performances, and put themselves in a positions to win, is a huge tick for van Marwijk, and easily offsets the non use of Cahill against Denmark, especially since we can never know if he’d have made a difference.

PLAYER RATINGS FOR THE TOURNAMENT

GOALKEEPER

Matt Ryan 6

Not at fault for any of the goals, nor made any miraculous saves or penalty saves. So it’s a “good” rating for doing his basic job.

DEFENDERS

Trent Sainsbury 7

Did little wrong at the back, other than almost conceding a penalty against Denmark, and not being quite able to intercept the pass that led to Peru’s first goal.

Mark Milligan 7

Solid in an unnatural position as a stopper next to Sainsbury. Had some good attacking flair too. Good to see him rewarded with three match starts after only playing one match in the past 3 World Cup campaigns.

Josh Risdon 6

Showed some good pace and got into good positions; unfortunately never resulted in much.

Aziz Behich 4

Not good enough at this level.

MIDFIELDERS

Mile Jedinak 6

Reasonably solid in a defensive midfield position, and reliable with penalties. General forward passing was uninspiring, or went sideways.

Aaron Mooy 8

Best player of the campaign. Let down by very few decent corner kicks, and he plenty of them to try.

Tom Rogic 7

Always looks neat and skilful on the ball, and played the two passes versus Peru that set up Kruse’s and Behich’s crosses. Otherwise, his work often results in very little, and he can’t shoot either. The World Cup is not like playing Motherwell in Scotland. Was substituted in all 3 games.

Robbie Kruse 5

Another player that looks neat, or tries to look neat. He’s lost pace, and often when he gets into good positions his crosses are rubbish or are blocked. Was substituted in all 3 games.

Mathew Leckie 8

Really stepped up when the situation demanded it. Fast and always looked dangerous. Unfortunately never quite had the support to capitalise on his work, and missed a great shooting chance late in the game against Peru by taking an extra touch.

Daniel Arzani 7

Came on all all 3 games, always looked dangerous, and twice against Denmark nearly set up a goal. Unfortunately, no actual result for his effort so it keeps his score down.

Jackson Irvine 6

Serviceable as the second midfield substitute in all three games.

FORWARDS

Tomi Juric 5

An old fashioned target man, he was neither a great target or could create much himself. A substitute for Nabbout in the first two games; started the third before being substituted for Cahill.

Andrew Nabbout 6

Looked dangerous at times, especially with his speed. Never quite got the service. Missed the final game through injury. Was substituted for Juric in the first two.

Tim Cahill 6

Only appearance was as a substitute against Peru. Did as much as he could with his 35 minutes. Would have had a goal if Behich’s cross on 71 minutes vs Peru was better.

As much as we can pick at coaches, preparation, tactics, selections and even bad luck, ultimately, the players of this generation are not good enough. During the qualifying campaign it was noted that none of this 2018 team would get a start in 2006. Perhaps the possible exception is either Mile Jedinak or Aaron Mooy for Jason Culina. Not even Tim Cahill was in the starting eleven then, and now, at 38 years old, he is still Australia’s most dependable goal scoring option. Comparing to the other teams at Russia 2018, the differences are clear. One less touch, a bit more urgent, a bit more ruthless, a bit more tricky, even a bit more cunning. We need to be resigned to the fact that World Cup success below the top echelon of nations is about generations. All teams go through it. The likes of the Netherlands can go from almost a World Cup winner in 2010 to a non-qualifier in 2018, while Italy missed out too. It’s not about grand visions, technical direction, permanent playing styles, changing landscapes and other hocus pocus ideas. It’s about youth development and growing the game domestically to ensure the best talent is attracted to the game and a pathway is provided for them to reach their full potential. Then the final polish is made with coaching, tactics, strategy and general support. The hope now is the wait for that next generation of great players is not too far away.

FIFA Match Details

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Russia 2018 – Denmark vs Australia Review as VAR Succeeds Again

Russia 2018 – France vs Australia Review & VAR Controversy

Russia 2018 – World Cup Preview, Predictions & Australia’s chances

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Russia 2018 – Denmark vs Australia Review as VAR Succeeds Again

23 June 2018

The 1-1 draw against Denmark in Samara on Thursday has left Australia in a precarious position. Fail to beat Peru on Tuesday night, Australia are out. If France fails to beat Denmark on Tuesday night, Australia are out. A 1-0 win over Peru will be sufficient as long as France’s win is also a low scoring match. If it’s 3-2 or higher, Australia must beat Peru by 2 goals.

World Cup Russia 2018 - Group C standings after 2 games

World Cup Russia 2018 – Group C standings after 2 games

It’s disappointing that Australia is in this predicament after they were the better team against Denmark and blew too many good opportunities to score. The match started poorly for Australia when Denmark scored after just 7 minutes. The ball wasn’t properly cleared well after a Danish throw-in, and Denmark was able to pop the ball through an unsettled Australian defence for a relatively simple running volley by Christian Eriksen. The ashen look on coach Bert van Marwijk’s face said it all. It was a sickening opening to a match Australia entered with high hopes of winning.

Thankfully it was only 20 minutes later that Australia equalised, thanks to a penalty by Mile Jedinak. It came after the intervention of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) when the referee was notified to check the replay for a possible handball. The Australians had protested immediately when Matthew Leckie’s header towards goal was blocked and, indeed, replays showed Yussuf Poulsen had blocked the header and possibly prevented a goal. It even looked deliberate too, with Poulsen’s arm flailing in the air, so lucky to avoid a yellow card. It’s the second game in a row where Australia’s goal came from a penalty after a handball infringement and no yellow card was given.

Once into the second half, Australia began to exert its dominance as Denmark became tentative. A loss to Australia would mean Denmark would need to beat France in their final game and obviously wanted to avoid that. Sadly, Australia could not make the breakthrough, with substitute Daniel Arzani providing the best two opportunities: one a cross that slipped through the penalty box untouched, and later a shot himself from a tight angle after a burst down the wing. Another cross might have been beneficial there. Then there were other lost opportunities through the recurring problem of errant passing and poor decision making. For Denmark, a tangle between Trent Sainsbury and Andreas Cornelius could have been a possible VAR intervention for another penalty. Cornelius managed to stay on his feet, and pass to Pione Sisto for a shot just wide.

Van Marwijk fielded the same starting line-up again, and made similar substitutions, notably leaving Tim Cahill on the bench. When Australia really was needing a moment of magic, it seemed strange that Tomi Juric was used instead of Cahill. While the team has played well in both games, clearly up front isn’t potent enough. Tom Rogic can’t shoot while Robbie Kruse is too slow. Leckie has been dangerous out wide only to be let down by a lack of support for his creativity. That’s where a Cahill just pops up to nod one in. Even his presence alone benefits the team, as he’ll draw defenders and inspire more confidence. The only issue against Peru should be whether Cahill, with barely any club time in the last few months, starts the game or comes on in the second half. The chorus among fans and many commentators is at least make sure he gets a run. Instead of Kruse, it’s worthwhile to give Arzani a go from the start too. He’s trickier, and faster.

As noted, the VAR was active again, and successful again. Of course, in the bizarro world of SBS’s World Cup coverage, VAR was another misuse and wrong use. Despite Poulsen clearly blocking a goal-bound header with his arm, for Craig Foster, it wasn’t a penalty, with his primary reasoning is if it was Australia infringed, would we be happy? Yes! Just like with the Griezmann penalty against France. Rational Australians want the rules applied fairly and consistently, not on potential feelings of indignation. Then in the Brazil vs Costa Rica match, Neymar reacted to a touch, threw himself to the ground, and somehow Foster deems Neymar was impeded so it’s a penalty. Meanwhile, Griezmann was clearly impeded and he says no penalty? VAR doesn’t decide or overturn anything either. It advises the referee to check the replay, then he decides. The only issue with VAR is that perhaps it doesn’t intervene enough. No doubt it will be reviewed after the tournament, and possibly one idea is the referee asks for a review, rather than rely on VAR itself to intervene.

– Australia plays Peru on Tuesday night 26 June at midnight (00:00 27 June). France vs Denmark is at the same time.

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Russia 2018 – France vs Australia Review & VAR Controversy

Russia 2018 – France vs Australia Review & VAR Controversy

18 June 2018

Australia got the job done against France in their opening game at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Despite the 2-1 loss, the broader aim is qualifying for the knockout phase from the group, and with that, against by far the group’s strongest team, the primary aim was of damage minimisation. While a draw would obviously be better, or even to snag a win, the most realistic and critical outcome was goal difference. The 4-0 hammering to Germany in 2010 cost the Socceroos a spot in the next round, while the experimental 2014 team lost 3-1 to Chile – effectively ending their campaign when Netherlands and Spain were still to follow.

Mile Jedinak scores a penalty for Australia against France at World Cup Russia 2018

Mile Jedinak scores a penalty for Australia against France. Image: fifa.com

After a nervy start, Australia handled both themselves and France well. While France always looked the more dangerous side, eventually they ran out of ideas and Australia began to create the occasional opportunity themselves. Nil-nil at half time was perfect, and it was hoped the pattern could remain. Then, after 10 minutes into the second half, the chaos started. A penalty on Antoine Griezmann when tripped by Josh Risdon was followed within minutes by one for Australia when Samuel Umtiti inexplicably, and deliberately, handle the ball. Mile Jedinak converted while Umtiti inexplicably avoided a yellow card.

As the game progressed, Australia began to tire and became sloppy, losing the ball too often in midfield either by dallying too much on the ball or through errant passing. Eventually France would capitalise, and it happened in the last 10 minutes when Paul Pogba ran onto a loose pass and shot on goal. It deflected off Aziz Behich’s leg, over goal-keeper Mat Ryan, off the crossbar and over the line. Curiously it was awarded as an own goal by Behich. So disappointing to concede so late after all of that hard work was done.

All the post-match focus since has been about that penalty to France. It was the first time the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) had been used to determine a penalty situation at a World Cup, and it’s driven controversy online and in the media since. Much of this is through ignorance or a downright denial of reality. For those in Australia it’s been led by SBS’s Craig Foster. While initially he agreed with the decision (as the commentators did), he reversed his view and now claims no penalty. Claims that only “clear and obvious” errors are meant to be “overturned” is also misleading.

First, the use of VAR. For penalty decisions, the FIFA website says its “role is to ensure that no clearly wrong decisions are made”. There’s nothing about “overturning” a decision. With the VAR active, the referee, when in doubt, is more likely inclined not to unnecessarily stop the game and call a penalty, preferring to wait for notification from the VAR. In this particular case, the referee was notified of a possible missed decision, went and checked the video himself and awarded a penalty. His decision was never “overturned” as the system relating to penalty kicks is not about that anyway. It’s about preventing clearly wrong decisions, and denying a penalty based on the footage would have been clearly wrong. The system worked.

VAR guidelines on penalty decisions

As for the decision itself, the chorus of “he touched the ball” as somehow meant to annul further fouls is nonsense. Again, Foster has led this in Australia, primarily from picking out of context David Elleray’s (former English referee and head of VAR) admission Risdon got a touch on the ball. Even Australia’s players post-game, and captain Mile Jedinak in the press conference, blindly blathered away about this infamous “touch” – a touch that was barely noticeable and only deviated the ball’s direction by 5 degrees, if that. The touch is irrelevant, as Griezmann is still entitled to regather the ball. In his subsequent stride, Risdon lifted his leg and clearly tripped Griezmann. That’s always a penalty. The sequence of events:

Risdon/Griezmann penalty France vs Australia World Cup Russia 2018

Risdon attempts to tackle Griezmann, barely contacting the ball. Note this is outside the penalty box, so a foul would have been preferable then.

fra-pk13

Now inside the box and Griezmann into a new stride, Griezmann skips clear in pursuit of the ball while Risdon lifts his leg and drops it on Griezmann’s heel.

Risdon/Griezmann penalty France vs Australia World Cup Russia 2018

The force of the contact causes Griezmann to fall and Risdon’s leg to fly into the air. It’s clearly a subsequent incident, clearly a trip, and clearly a penalty.

David Elleray’s full quote:David Elleray on France Antoine Griezmann penalty vs Australia World Cup Russia 2018

It’s a shame there’s been so much focus on this one incident as it’s a mostly a distraction. Facts are France “handed” Australia a penalty back within minutes, reversing the damage and restoring the game to level scores. Australia lost because of their constant turnovers in midfield that gave France too many opportunities on the break. Australia were lucky not to be punished earlier. So look to the match in the broader picture, praise the team for playing so well and remaining so disciplined. Whinging won’t help. Even the complaints against France’s Lucas Hernandez constantly going down on any minor contact is irrelevant. As he admitted in the press conference, “Sometimes I exaggerate, but that’s all part of the spectacle… it also helps to take more time when you are winning.”, it’s all part of the game.

Mile Jedinak was right about one thing: It’s time to move on and look forward to Denmark. With Denmark beating Peru 1-0 in their opening game, that blocks the scenario of two draws being enough for Australia to qualify for the knockout phase. That would have been a real scenario as long as France beat Denmark and Peru by more than a goal, and all other games were draws. As it stands, and presuming France doesn’t implode and lose both of its remaining games, Australia cannot afford a loss to Denmark otherwise it’s all over. A draw will mean the final game is alive and goal difference will likely count (the real achievement made against France). A win will mean a draw is most likely enough against Peru. A win by two or more goals means a narrow loss to Peru would also be sufficient.

– Australia plays Denmark on Thursday night 21 June at 22:00 AET. France vs Peru follows at 01:00 on 22 June. The group’s final games are Tuesday night 26 June at midnight (00:00 27 June).

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Russia 2018 – World Cup Preview, Predictions & Australia’s chances

15 June 2018

“I will do it my own way.” With those words at his initial press conference, out went the old ways of previous coach Ange Postecoglou, and in come the new ways of coach Bert van Marwijk. So much for changing the landscape, or leaving a legacy, as was Postcoglou’s mission. It was always a fool’s policy that Postecoglou set, and actively encouraged by elitists in the media, that a national team can be moulded into a permanent style. National teams are representative, meaning player options are often limited, not bought or recruited from anywhere, so strengths across the field can vary through the years.

FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 Logo

With that, it was also pleasing to hear van Marwijk say “it’s important we play in a way that fits the players, and “you cannot play in a way that players cannot do.” Australia struggled through World Cup qualifying primarily because of Postecoglou’s enforced doctrine. The possession and pressing game, and always playing out from the back, was exploited, with the leaky defence never to be fixed, and experimentation with team selection never ending.

In the four internationals van Marwijk has controlled the Socceroos since his appointment late January, things are slowly improving. A 4-1 loss in Norway was followed by a 0-0 against a quality Colombian team in London, then a 4-0 win over Czechia in St Polten, Austria. Even though Czechia appeared in holiday mode and Colombia had plenty of chances to win easily (including a penalty saved and hitting the post twice), Australia looked much better on the ball in both of those games, and finished their World Cup preparations with a 2-1 over Hungary in Budapest. That was strange game in which all goals came from mistakes: Hungary’s goal-keeper fluffed a shot from range by Daniel Arzani, Hungary equalised after Trent Sainsbury’s headed back-pass went straight into the net, while Hungary responded with an own goal of their own.

Speaking of Daniel Arzani, the 19 year old was a shock inclusion into the World Cup squad. Barely with 6 months of club football under him at Melbourne City, he’s now threatening for a starting spot in Russia. His inclusion has shown a preference towards the trickier, speedier and more skilful players in van Marwijk’s teams – evidence he sees (realistically) that the overall playing strength is not at the required level to take on these pedigreed World Cup teams head on, so he’ll rely more on individual brilliance and a counter attacking game. As he says, play to the players’ strengths, not force something unusual on them or beyond their capabilities. If he can sort out the defensive frailties further, then we could in for a surprise result or two.

Can Australia reach the knockout phase?

If you take a direct form line from Russia’s 5-0 demolition of Saudi Arabia in the opening game, it won’t be easy. Saudi Arabia, with van Marwijk at the helm, qualified ahead of Australia. Van Marwijk then quit after negotiations to renew his contract broke down, and now Australia is lucky to have secured his services for the tournament. Although, Australia handled the Saudis quite comfortably in qualifying, are arguably a more talented team, and now have a more astute and flexible coach than previously.

France is Australia’s first match, and while the French are notoriously slow to start a tournament, no risks will be taken. Remember, it doesn’t matter when you score your points to qualify for the knockout phase, as long as you score them. With France likely to beat Denmark and Peru as well, essentially it will come down to those matches. A narrow loss to France would be sufficient, and then it’s a matter of trying to gain 4 points from the other two matches, or 6 points to guarantee it.

Denmark qualified relatively easily behind Poland in a rather weak Group E, and then disposed of Ireland in the playoffs. They look the standard, solid Scandinavian team – teams Australia generally have handled well in the past. Peru was South America’s fifth best team and qualified thanks to a 2-0 playoff over New Zealand. Even with a draw (or loss) to Denmark, the fate of Australia is likely to come down to that match, and while Australia generally struggles against South American teams, as they say in the classics, if you can’t beat Peru, you don’t deserve to be in the knockout phase.

World Cup Predictions

It’s difficult to have much confidence in Australia progressing unless those defensive problems are fixed. Scoring could be a problem too if “no goal scorers” is the second favourite at $6.50 to be Australia’s top scorer. Tomi Juric is favourite at $6. Best case scenario to qualify is a 50/50 proposition. If Australia qualified for the round of 16, the likely opponent would be Argentina. Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria are the other options.

As for the World Cup winner, the draw is always the best guide, along with general form, especially through qualifying. France, Spain, Portugal and Argentina are in the top half, so some will be eliminated before the latter knockout stages. In the lower half, Germany (who won all games in qualifying) and Brazil will steer clear of each other if they win their respective groups, while Belgium is the likely spoiler, and it would be great to see a new team win. While I certainly will be hoping for the Belgians, the tournament seems set up so well for Germany to go two in a row, with Brazil their likely opponents in the final. Given the 7-1 thrashing the Germans handed Brazil in the semi finals four years ago, a repeat match-up would be quite an exciting prospect, even if both teams have won their fair share of World Cup spoils over the decades.

Australia’s Schedule (AET)

20:00 16 June France vs Australia
22:00 21 June Denmark vs Australia
00:00 27 June Australia vs Peru (Tuesday night)

Australia’s World Cup Squad

Goalkeepers: Brad Jones, Mat Ryan, Danny Vukovic

Defenders: Aziz Behich, Milos Degenek, Matt Jurman, Mark Milligan, James Meredith, Josh Risdon, Trent Sainsbury

Midfielders: Jackson Irvine, Mile Jedinak, Massimo Luongo, Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic

Forwards: Daniel Arzani, Tim Cahill, Tomi Juric, Robbie Kruse, Mat Leckie, Jamie Maclaren, Andrew Nabbout, Dimitri Petratos

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.

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”

Australia through to play Honduras as Ange Postecoglou shoots through

20 October 2017

Less than 12 hours after Australia beat Syria 2-1 in extra time and 3-2 on aggregate to progress to the final stage of World Cup qualifying, the nation awoke to news that coach Ange Postecoglou would quit the Socceroos at the conclusion of the campaign whether Australia qualifies for Russia 2018 or not. While he hasn’t explicitly confirmed media reports are correct, he hasn’t denied them either, saying: “My sole focus is on preparing the team for the final two qualifying matches. I will not let anything compromise the team’s journey on getting to a fourth consecutive FIFA World Cup.” The FFA echoed those sentiments, saying there’s plenty of time between the last qualifier and the World Cup “to lock in our set up as soon as possible to maximise our preparation time”.

It’s believed frustration at the growing criticism towards Postecoglou, specifically about results and the change of formation mid-campaign, is the reason for the early departure. If that’s true, it shows a remarkable weakness in resilience and a capitulation in belief of both he and the team. Not to mention it would seem completely out of character, especially for someone that boasted about playing “the Australian way” and leaving an imprint on the game. It’s almost un-Australian. Or is it?

If you consider the true Australian sports psyche, it is actually one that fails under pressure, and is notorious for quitting when things get a bit tough. Cathy Freeman denied herself an almost certain second gold medal by quitting athletics a year before the Athens Olympics, while Ian Thorpe began to experiment in other disciplines and distances, and eventually became one of our biggest sooks ever. Sound familiar? Australia’s reputed fighting style really only exists when backs are to the wall – essentially when there’s nothing to lose and there’s no pressure at all. When leading and being challenged, it will either succumb or try to escape. If escape is not possible, the coping mechanism is to try bully past the opposition, which invariably makes capitulations even worse. The debacle in swimming at the Rio Olympics is the most recent example, while the Test cricket team’s history is blotted by regular and notorious batting collapses. Now it’s Ange’s turn. It’s all suddenly a bit tough, and rather than fight it out and attempt to achieve a good result at the World Cup, it’s get out while you can. If that’s true, it will be a really sad epitaph on his coaching career.

The match itself was microcosm of the entire campaign with the task made more difficult than necessary by defensive blunders, sluggish transition between defence and attack, and wasted scoring opportunities both with final passes and shots. Syria scored after 6 minutes when Mark Milligan conceded possession in midfield, and while Australia equalised only seven minutes later thanks to Tim Cahill on the end of a sublime cross from Mathew Leckie, the game remained on a knife’s edge thanks to the odious away-goals rule. Remember, under this idiotic rule, if Australia conceded another it would mean they’d need two more before full time to avoid elimination even though it’s 3-3 on aggregate. Hardly an incentive to attack while playing at home, is it?

Despite dominating possession for large portions of the match, Australia didn’t create too many chances, much less score. It took Cahill – yes, him again – to rise in the box in the second half of extra time to head a cross from Robbie Kruse home. Naturally, that compelled Syria to desperately attack, and it was only a matter of inches that they didn’t score from a direct free kick in injury time of extra time. The ball struck the post and went wide. Poetic justice, you might say, as Australia had struck the post so many times in their previous two qualifiers. That included the final group match against Thailand, and the away leg of this series, played in neutral Malaysia, that finished 1-1. That was a fair result anyway after Syria was as good in the final 30 minutes as Australia were in the first 60 minutes. Even though Syria’s goal came from dreadful penalty call on Leckie, they really should have converted one of their numerous chances beforehand.

Tim Cahill saves Australia vs Syria - World Cup qualifier Sydney 2017-10-10

Tim Cahill – he saves Australia again (Image: AAP/News)

After a crazy final round of matches in CONCACAF, Honduras awaits Australia. USA were third on 12 points, with Panama and Honduras next on 10 points. Panama was in fourth – and the expected playoff opponent – thanks to a +5 goal difference over Panama. The final matches also favoured table positions remaining unchanged: Panama vs Costa Rica, Honduras vs Mexico and Trinidad & Tobago vs USA. USA only needed a draw to bottom team T&T to be safe or hope both Panama and Honduras lose. Instead, all three matches ended in upsets as the USA lost 2-1, Panama scored late to jump to third and qualify for their first ever World Cup, and Honduras beat Mexico to jump to fourth, leaving the USA eliminated.

Until the win over Mexico, Honduras’ only other points came from two wins against T&T and a draw against USA. While those mediocre results seem encouraging for Australia, their coach said they were unlucky through the group phase by conceding goals – and points – late in several games. Also note Honduras have qualified for the past two World Cups and the last time they played Australia at a meaningful level was at the 2000 Sydney Olympics when they won 2-1 and sent the Olyroos packing on the official first day of the Games (Australia lost 1-0 to Italy a few days prior). Countering that, Honduras lost all three games at Brazil 2014 and only managed a draw at South Africa 2010. Australia’s record is better having won and drawn in 2010 and performed really well in patches against Chile and Netherlands in 2014 despite losing all 3 matches. The teams seem well matched, and Australia is reputedly in the favoured position of playing home last. That might actually have a tangible benefit this time as Leckie and Milligan will return fresh after being suspended for the away-match due to accumulated yellow cards. Let’s hope Honduras don’t put the tie away before then.

The big concern is Ange Postecoglou. Is their still enough trust and belief within the team to play for him? Will he amend some of his stubborn tactics to ensure no soft goals are conceded? The incessant tactic to always play out from the back has made the team so predictable and easy for the opposition to apply pressure from midfield and force turnovers in dangerous areas. Syria capitalised in Sydney, and there’s no doubt the speedy Hondurans will be looking to do likewise.

The other problem is the team itself. It simply isn’t that good. It’s relying too often on a 37 year old part-time player to get it out of trouble. It’s never settled, with Postecoglou bizarrely starting Aaron Mooy on the bench at home to Syria. Thankfully Brad Smith was injured early to force Mooy on and undo the stupidity. Postecoglou seems obsessed with developing a good squad rather than a good team and possibly that’s his tacit admission of our weak playing stocks, and also his frustration that he can’t “change the landscape”, that it’s a recognition that he’s reached a limit with this team, and the team itself has reached its limit, and the system itself is too limiting for him. Win or lose against Honduras, it is the end of an era, and the Australian national team will face a restock, if not a major reboot.

Curious stat: With 48 goals, Australia has scored the most goals of any team in World Cup qualifying so far. Playing a long campaign of 20 matches no doubt helps.

The playoff is scheduled for Friday 10 November (Honduras time) and Wednesday 15 November (Australia Time).

Results

2017-10-05 Melaka: Syria 1 (Alsoma 85′ PK) – Australia 1 (Kruse 40′)
2017-10-10 Sydney: Australia 2 (Cahill 13′, 109′) – Syria 1 (Alsoma 6′)

Match Report