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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Kruse to the next phase; Japan await yet again

17 April 2016

With comfortable wins over Kyrgyzstan and Bangladesh following the loss in Jordan, Australia’s final two matches at home were mostly academic. Two draws most likely would have been sufficient to qualify for the third round and final group phase of World Cup qualifying, while a win would guarantee it. Tajikistan proved to offer minimal resistance, losing 7-0 in Adelaide, while Jordan weren’t much better in their 5-1 loss in Sydney. Tajikistan conceded within 3 minutes and then another on 13 minutes before a 5-goal onslaught in the second half. Jordan lasted until the 24th minute before conceding, then conceded another two just before half time. Game over. For Jordan, after losing in Kyrgyzstan two games earlier and now requiring a win to guarantee a spot in the next round, it was heartbreaking. Remember, this was the team that made the intercontinental play-off in the last cycle.

Russia 2018 Asian World Cup Qualifying - Group B - Final Table

Most interesting to observe from these final two games was the team’s progression. They have had trouble putting teams away, and been dumb strategically. They were also too reliant on the aging Tim Cahill. Other players needed to step up, while the team needed to be smarter in their approach. Preferring more often to take the game to opponents, particularly away in the Middle East, it played into the hands of opponents, who’d sit back and pounce on the counter attack. Australia needs to remember that their opponents also are in it to win it, so away from home, let them be more adventurous and hit them on the break. Against Jordan, that philosophy was illustrated perfectly, and the results were comprehensive. They turned around a 2-0 loss away to a 5-1 win by simply allowing their opponents force some of the pressure.

Even more exciting was the improvement in many players. Robbie Kruse, who was finally back after a long injury spell, toyed with Jordan. It was one of his best games for Australia ever, and only dampened by a nasty tackle from behind by Jordan’s Yousef al Rawashde. How it wasn’t a red was mystifying. Even worse would have been another injury. Jordan were so rattled that they even threw a second ball on the field at one stage to stop a quick throw in. It failed miserably as Australia scored their fifth goal. Tom Rogic, now established in Scotland, has added a lethal shot and far superior decision making to his game. The three goals he scored in those two games were superb. Melbourne City’s Aaron Mooy has taken command in midfield, setting up and scoring goals. His passing is sublime, at a level not really seen in the Socceroos since Ned Zelic, or Milan Ivanovic with some of the long passing. Coach Ange Postecoglou even unearthed a bright new talent in Apostolos Giannou. He got his debut against Tajikistan, impressed with his pace and power, and only letdown by missing a sitter. He deserved a goal. Another letdown, becoming persistent too, is Matthew Leckie. He seems to have lost the plot, particularly with final balls into the box and shooting.

Onwards to the draw for the final group phase of qualifying. It’s no secret that the Socceroo Realm, as would many Australians, would love to see Australia play Iran again. It’s been nearly 20 years since the infamous Iran Game. Much of the chatter before the Jordan game was for Australia to win it to ensure a seeding as one of the top two teams. Supposedly that would avoid a tougher draw – based on FIFA rankings. No it wouldn’t, because FIFA rankings are a joke in their creation, and meaningless in a competitive field. Australia, Iran, Japan and Korea are arguably the top four teams in Asia and there’s little between them whatever some silly FIFA number sitting next to them wants to make us believe. In drawing the final two groups, two of these top four would play each other regardless. The only exception being that the top seed in each pot would not play each other. So for Australia to have a random chance at either Iran, Japan or Korea, they needed not to be seeded. As it turns out, they were one of the top two seeds. Guess which was the other? Iran. Depressing, and rigged. The top four should have been in one pot and randomly paired that way. In fact, the other 8 teams should be in one pot too, and randomly drawn. There should not be such a strict interpretation of these dopey FIFA rankings.

Immediately we knew Australia could not play Iran, so let’s hope we at least draw some new teams. We haven’t played Korea at all in World Cup qualifying since our entry into Asia, and drawing them would add to the rivalry generated from the epic Asian Cup 2015 final. Except for an early group phase two cycles ago, we’ve missed China too. Alas, nothing went our way. We got Japan for the third straight cycle, Thailand and three Middle Eastern teams. The only salvation is that Saudi Arabia is back on the ascend, so they should be interesting. UAE are on the rise too, finishing third in the Asian Cup. Iraq is the other team, who finished fourth in the Asian Cup, and can be dangerous. It’s a challenging draw.

Schedule

01 Sep 2016: Australia vs Iraq
06 Sep 2016: UAE vs Australia
06 Oct 2016: Saudi Arabia vs Australia
11 Oct 2016: Australia vs Japan
15 Nov 2016: Thailand vs Australia
23 Mar 2017: Iraq vs Australia
28 Mar 2017: Australia vs UAE
13 Jun 2017: Australia vs Saudi Arabia
13 Aug 2017: Japan vs Australia
05 Sep 2017: Australia vs Thailand

Note that there are six teams in each group, up from five from previous years. Obviously this is to allow more teams to be involved. It also means no more byes. The away trip to Japan is the second last match day, which could affect its prestige if both teams are safely qualified. The top two teams from each group automatically qualify for Russia 2018, with the two third teams playing off for a spot against CONCACAF’s fourth best team. That third-placed playoff is actually the only way Australia and Iran can meet in this World Cup qualifying cycle. Could it happen?

Round 2 Group Winners

Group A: Saudi Arabia
Group B: Australia
Group C: Qatar
Group D: Iran
Group E: Japan
Group F: Thailand
Group G: Korea Republic
Group H: Uzbekistan

Round 2 Best Second-Placed Teams

1. Iraq
2. Syria
3. United Arab Emirates
4. China

Round 3 Group Draw

Group A: Iran, Korea Republic, Uzbekistan, China, Qatar, Syria

Group B: Australia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Thailand

More: http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/preliminaries/asia/

Australia through to the semis, Iran and Japan out

24 January 2015

Quarter Finals
21/01 Melbourne: Korea 2 – Uzbekistan 0 (AET)
21/01 Brisbane: Australia 2 – China
22/01 Canberra: Iran 3 – Iraq 3 (1-1 FT, 6-7 PK)
22/01 Sydney: Japan 1 – UAE 1 (4-5 PK)

So much for the “mother of all football games” of Australia facing Iran in the Asian Cup final, with a match against Japan in the semis before that. While both Australia and Iran did their jobs in the group phase (Australia lost their last match, Iran won theirs), neither Japan or Iran could survive the first knockout game. Iran was terribly unlucky, losing a man early through a dubious red card when leading and then responding twice in extra time to draw the game level, while Japan failed to convert their rare chances eked out against the resolute UAE defence. Both matches went to penalty shootouts that proved notable for none of the four goalies able to make a save. The shootouts were decided on the kickers missing the goal totally. So much for the nonsense that shootouts are about luck. They are 100% skill and the ultimate test of nerve. Shoot straight and you convert, always.

After a tough first half, the Socceroos breezed through 2-0 over China in their quarter final. It’s amazing that a couple of goals can transform a game so much. Despite ridiculous statistics like 288 passes to 70 and 72% possession during the first half, China had Australia well contained, and looked dangerous on the break. While coach Ange Postecoglou said the strategy was to maintain possession and tire the Chinese, it looked more like he was trying to bore them to death. The vast bulk of that possession was messing about in the back line. Too often, forward approaches often resulted in the ball passed back. When Tim Cahill broke the stalemate early in the second half, it didn’t come from open play, it came from the second phase of a corner, with a delightful bicycle kick. Whether by design or accident, the ball came off the outside of his shin for the perfect angled shot across the face of goal. Fifteen minutes later, Cahill made it 2-0, this time from a trademark header from open play. From there, with China really opening up, Australia looked dangerous, creating many chances, unfortunately converting none, which is a concern.

Superficially the quarter final results seemed a great outcome for Australia. UAE in the semi finals is supposedly easier than Japan, while it will be Iraq or Korea (who knocked out Uzbekistan) in the final. The quarter final results show that the perceived difficulty factor doesn’t always correlate with reality on the day. Japan would not sit back against Australia like UAE most likely will do, so they could allow more chances to be created. Then there’s always the notorious frail Australian sporting psyche that can see them beat top teams one match then succumb to weaker teams in the next. The bravado entering these games often sees respect for the opponent lost, bullying becomes the game plan, the match doesn’t progress as expected, pressure builds, and it’s calamity. With Postecoglou at the helm, let’s hope he keeps that reigned in.

The quarter finals of the Asian Cup have been an some turnaround for Middle Eastern teams. Of the 10 that qualified for Australia, 7 went home after the knockout stage, with two that did progress coming from a group of four Middle Eastern teams. The only east Asian team that failed in the group phase was DPR Korea. Even then, DPR Korea’s supreme leader has no doubt told his people that their current world champions have demolished their group and quarter final opponents, and are on the way to winning the Asian Cup to match their World Cup winning romp in Brazil last year.¬†That western Asia now has half the semi finalists is some redemption for their poor results over the past two World Cup cycles that’s only seen one team (Iran for Brazil 2014) qualify. Even accounting for Australia’s presence in Asia taking a spot, Bahrain failed in a playoff against New Zealand for 2010 and former powerhouse Saudi Arabia failed to even reach the final Asian qualifying phase last time. Ideally it would be good to see one of the Middle Eastern teams in the Asian Cup final, as long as it’s not the UAE.

Iran’s Red Card

Any major tournament sees issues emerge. While the group phase progressed smoothly, even to the point of producing no draws and every group finishing with teams on 9, 6, 3 and 0 points, the major talking point of the quarter finals was the second yellow card against Iran’s Mehrdad Pooladi. The clash with the Iraqi goalie was never a yellow card, and it was only made worse by the fact the referee, Australia’s Ben Williams, forgot Pooladi was already on a yellow. The Iraqis then reminded the referee of the case, to which the red card was issued.

The big question: would the yellow have been issued had Williams remembered the first yellow? The thing is, it shouldn’t matter. Here you have referees – and they all do it – trying to finesse the laws of the games. It’s either a yellow card offence, or it isn’t. It seems Williams – as all referees do – consider previous behaviour before issuing a card and therefore do it for general insubordination – known as “accumulated fouling”. As we’ve seen, how can referees remember the little incidents from each player that support such a case? One such challenge is a verbal warning, second or third is a yellow. Clearly the referees can’t remember. Even worse, if there’s legitimate accumulated fouling by a player already on a yellow, only the final minor foul will be remembered for the second yellow, and therefore the red, which outrages all. How can you send someone off for barely a tickle? Well, that’s the outcome of finessing the law to include accumulated fouling.

If the incident was adjudicated in isolation, there’d be no yellow and therefore Iran keeps their man in a match they were dominating, and probably go on to win. The referee’s either confused the player, or forgotten that he issued a yellow for the earlier incident. It’s not Williams’ fault either. It’s the sport’s antiquated laws and the culture that thinks players can be moulded and taught to play the perfectly behaved game on the edge of the laws. They can’t, and humans, especially in ultra competitive sport, will always be prone to bend the laws as far as possible. In fact, such finessing of the laws by the referees only encourages it. Players on a yellow believe that only a more serious infraction than normal will earn a second yellow, so bend the rules further.

Time Wasting

The Asian Football Confederation promoted before the tournament “Don’t Delay Let’s Play Football”. Apparently they want 60 minutes of actual game time in each 90 minutes. While this tournament has been much better than others, it proved a farce in the Iran-Iraq quarterfinal once extra time started. The second period went for 23 minutes for about 5 minutes of play. Much of the last 10 minutes were taken by the Iranian goalie suffering a wrist injury and the bizarre medical practice of spraying every part of his body except his wrist with some sort of magic spray. Once the goalie was up and the ball back in play, time was instantly called. The first period also had many stoppages, and was stopped bang on 15 minutes. Again, you blame the sport’s antiquated laws and culture. If you want 60 minutes of game time, simply have 30 minute halves and stop the clock on every single stoppage, just like in American football. Once time is up, play is stopped once the ball becomes dead. Extra time period is 10 minutes, or even 5 minutes. Right now, 15 minute halves seem too much as players are clearly conserving energy even during regulation time to prepare for ET.

Full site: socceroorealm.com

Could have won, should have won, would have won – that’s football

18 January 2015

17/01 Brisbane Stadium: Australia 0 – Korea Republic 1

Australia lost 1-0 to Korea last night in match that was provided a more resilient, stronger and lethal opponent than that of Kuwait and Oman in the first two games. Australia need this test to validate the development seen in those first two games, and to help prepare it for even tougher tasks ahead. It proved exactly a test, being a cagey game until Korea scored just after 30 minutes, then opening up in the second half in a fascinating duel between two teams not wanting to concede an inch. As Australia dominated possession, passing and shots on goal, Korea held firm and created a few chances of their own on the rebound. You could argue Korea’s goalie was brilliant, or maybe Australia unlucky to convert chances. That’s football.

James Troisi created a glorious chance for himself in the first half, shooting just wide after wrong-footing the goalie. Robbie Kruse created similarly in the second half, dribbling past a defender, only for his shot to be saved. At the other end, Mat Ryan saved point blank shot from a one-on-one break that would have seen Korea 2-0 up. It was fabulous entertainment, with the players and coach echoing the belief that the team played well enough to win, are good enough to win the tournament, and will now look forward to the quarter final against China on Thursday.

Australia started the match with a reshaped forward line, with Nathan Burns, Tomi Juric and Troisi leading the line. Juric also had at least two good chances to score himself, with one a poor first touch that saw the ball escape him, and the other from close range that went over the bar. Of those three players, he’s probably the one to just lack that bit extra to excel at international level. Burns and Troisi did well. Late in the game Tim Cahill, Kruse and Matthew Leckie were brought on to try rescue the game, remembering that a draw was enough to win the group. While their presence was notable, Korea largely contained them.

In fact, Korea really did their homework against the Socceroos, often goading them with little shoves and plenty of time wasting, hoping Australia would retaliate excessively. It worked, frustrating the Australians, and possibly contributing to Matthew Spiranovic’s rough challenge late that saw him get a second yellow card for the tournament and therefore miss the next game. Aziz Behich was almost lured into rough conduct, with the potential scuffle broken up by the referee, while you could speculate Australia lost concentration on the Korean goal. Three players were lured to the ball carrier after a throw in, creating the space for the short through-ball and low cross that was guided into the net.

Ultimately the loss meant nothing, other than pride.¬†If you had to lose a game, this is the one, especially after playing so well and showing the team is firmly on the right track. It might even knock down any of the excessive bravado that might have been building. Despite nonsense about the perils of not winning the group, there is barely anything between the quarter final options of Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and China, so there’s also no material consequence of the loss. Before the tournament, Uzbekistan looked the strongest team; now they may not even qualify for the next phase. We now know China is our opponent, and other than sealing their group win after just two games, they, along with Saudi Arabia, have been rubbish the past few years. Playing China also means Australia stay in Brisbane, even if the negative there is substandard pitch.

The real interest because of this loss, and if Australia beats China, is Australia likely faces Japan in the semi final and Iran in the final. Amazingly, Japan is still not assured of even qualifying for the knockout phase, needing no worse than a 1 goal loss against Jordan to guarantee it. Otherwise, with Iraq likely to wipe aside the hapless Palestine, that would leave all three teams in Group D on 6 points. With head-to-head unable to split the three, it will go to goal difference. A two goal loss to Jordan and if Iraq beats Palestine by four (maybe even 3 is enough), it’s goodbye Japan. Iran plays Group C leaders the UAE on Monday night so need a win to top the group. Otherwise, it’s Australia in the semi finals, not the final. For those still traumatised by the Iran Game of 1997, the only therapy is to plan Iran again. It will happen one day. It needs to be a big one-off game on home soil. The final of the Asian Cup is the perfect time. It is our destiny.

Full site: socceroorealm.com

Oman demoralised, now for the real test: Korean Republic

15 January 2015

13/01 Stadium Australia, Sydney: Oman 0 – Australia 4

As much as Australia dominated Tuesday night’s match against Oman to win 4-0, Oman hardly provided a stern test. While they looked dangerous early with a few counter attacks, the two quick Australian goals just before 30 minutes demoralised them, and they then went into damage control until the half time break. This was probably the plan from the start, that if going behind early, rather than compound the problem, the team would make adjustments at half time. Unfortunately, for Oman, the problem was compounded, conceding right on half time.

As much as Oman tried to make inroads in the second half, Australia were content on reversing the counter-attacking role, playing the waiting game against Oman and hitting them on the break. Despite numerous chances created, only one was converted – a lovely cross on the outside of the boot by Matthew Leckie for Tomi Juric to smash home. Most pleasing about the result was that four different players scored the goals, none of whom were Tim Cahill, and none of whom scored the four goals against Kuwait. Australia also finally kept a clean sheet, restricting Oman to barely a handful of chances.

The second goal of the night was the best Australian goal of the tournament so far. After receiving from Kruse, Massimo Luongo lovely first touch allowed him to lob the ball over for Kruse to continue his run through. He controlled nicely off the thigh then slammed the ball home on 30 minutes. Scoring was opened 3 minutes prior when Matt McKay scored at close range from a corner after a header towards goal from Trent Sainsbury, while the goal just before half time was a penalty converted by Mark Milligan after his goal in open play was ridiculously denied. The referee didn’t play advantage after Cahill was dragged down so it was fitting that Milligan was allowed to right the wrong.

Australia is through to the quarter finals regardless and only needs a draw to top the group. Coach Ange Postecoglou responded beautifully to a question whether he’d take it easy and just settle for a draw. “What do you think?”, was his riposte. We’re Australian, we go for the win. All good as long as you remain mindful of respecting the opposition, of which Ange seems sure to do. It’s already been the hallmark of his coaching and you see the response in the team that the arrogance and visible indignation seen in the team from, especially, the 2007 Asian Cup, long gone. Of course, it’s a different group of players now, a group beginning from a humble base, and now on a trajectory up.

Australia’s quarter final opponent is the runner-up from Group B. China has won the group already while Uzbekistan must beat Saudi Arabia to qualify in second. After that, it gets very interesting, with Iran (by winning its group) the likely semi final and Japan the final. If Iran finish second in their group, the clash with Australia would be in the final. If Australia finishes second in their group and Iran win theirs, it’s China in the quarter final, Japan in the semi final and Iran the final. In some ways, the latter scenario is the more enticing one. First, China might provide the sterner test than the Saudis or Uzbekistan, plus the Chinese fans will make for an amazing atmosphere. Second, it’s been 18 years since “The Iran Game” of 1997, so it would be nice for some form of redemption in a big one-off game. I guess if Australia loses to Korea, let’s be mischievous and revert to talking up the “performance”, rather than the “result”.

Full website: socceroorealm.com

Asia fails and sticking with a France v Argentina final

27 June 2014

With the match-ups for the knockout stage complete, other than Spain’s early and humiliating exit, there’s actually been very few surprises overall for the tournament. Only Group D where both Italy and England failed to progress from the group, at the expense of Costa Rica and Uruguay, could you point to a surprise. Maybe Portugal in Group G is a small surprise at finishing third behind Germany and the USA.

The small upset in Group D means the earlier prediction of one semi final being Argentina vs Netherlands is all the more likely. The Dutch face Mexico then either Costa Rica or Greece, while Argentina must navigate past Switzerland and then either Belgium or USA. For either to fail to reach the semi, that would be an upset.

Knockout Stage Matches

Left Side

BRA v CHI
COL v URU
FRA v NGA
GER v ALG

Right Side

NED v MEX
CRC v GRE
ARG v SUI
BEL v USA

Despite the tougher run for both teams, I’m sticking with Brazil and France to reach the other semi. Brazil plays Chile and then either Colombia or Uruguay. Interesting that four of the five South American qualifiers play each other, meaning three can’t make the semi. Argentina stands alone for South America on the right side of the draw. The fact Brazil plays its fellow South Americans should be comforting to them. The times Brazil have been knocked out early it’s been by Europeans. Their opponents will be very familiar and most will play in the more open South American style that will suit Brazil.

The lower part of the left side should see France and Germany brush past Nigeria and Algeria, respectively, to then meet in a quarter final. Forget about France only securing a 0-0 against Ecuador in the final pool game as a case against their legitimacy as a contender With any luck, France could have scored the same bagful that they did against Switzerland and Honduras. They seem to have the fire power to break down Germany.

From the semi finals, I expect Brazil to crumble under pressure, from both the burden of being host and the fear of France’s attacking prowess. The Dutch defence has already been exposed as suspect, so expect Argentina to get through.

In the earlier preview, I cheekily said the team in dark blue to win the final, thinking both France and Argentina coud be wearing a dark strip depending on who is drawn as the nominal home team. Except, France’s dark blue is their home strip, and Argentina’s is their away strip, so there’s no clash. France will be in dark blue against the faint stripes of Argentina. It looks like it’s France to win the World Cup!

While France might be the prediction, who do I actually want to win? As always, a new team would be great. Based on the draw, Colombia vs Netherlands would suit perfectly, with the Dutch to win. So many near misses, including such a narrow loss to Spain four years ago, it’s time they won. If Colombia are the designated home team, Netherlands will just happen to be in dark blue too.

Asia’s failure – we’re not alone

All four Asian teams finished last in their group and could only accrue a total of 3 points between them. That’s courtesy of a draw each from Iran, Japan and Korea. Australia, in the toughest group, finished with nothing. While it’s disappointing, it should not be surprising, since Asia is still a fly-weight on the world stage. Only in the home World Cup in Korea and Japan did Asian teams excel, with Japan reaching the quarter finals and Korea finishing fourth.

Before anyone points fingers at querying Asia’s allocation of four spots at the World Cup, Africa and Europe can hardly claim a strong success rate from their allocation either. Three of 5 African teams bombed out, with the other two likely to be swept aside in the first knockout game. Excluding Algeria – an Arab team – it’s three of 4 failures from a region that was so widely hyped that Pele famously predicted they’d win a World Cup before last century’s end. They’ve gone backwards. As for Europe, seven of their 13 teams failed too. Europe, especially, benefits from a weight of numbers, and who’s to say that if more Asian teams were in the World Cup, some would not progress?

Asia’s small allocation meant they could not spread their numbers throughout all groups, and therefore have a team in all the weaker groups (even if three of them actually did have a reasonable draw). Does this mean Asia’s allocation should be altered? No. The only change should be that its half spot is linked with Oceania. This was part of the bargain for allowing Australia to enter Asia – that effectively Australia would not take a spot from the traditional Asian teams. At worst, such teams would finish fifth, and play against New Zealand. That happened for 2010 when Bahrain lost to NZ, which left no room for Asia to complain. For 2014, FIFA as they always do, re-jigged the rules to suit the more powerful confederations, meaning a random draw for cross-region playoffs that saw Asia face South America and Oceania face CONCACAF.

The World Cup is meant to represent the best teams in each part of the world. Ideally you have 8 teams from each approximately 50-team quadrant (Europe, Africa, Asia/Oceania, Americas) at the World Cup. Until all regions mature to a relatively equal standard, the best approach is continue performance based with a minium of four. Ideally this process should be more transparent so to end the ritual squabbling for spots. You do that by allocating spots based on an average of top 16 of the previous three World Cups. Meaning if Asia/Oceania had two teams in the top 16 for the last 3 World Cups, they get six spots. If Europe begin to average only 6 teams in the top 16, then their total spots should be 10.

Full site: socceroorealm.com