Amid the flurry of excitement that absorbs Australia during a Socceroos’ World Cup finals campaign, one of the team’s ex-stalwarts and most capped players struggles to keep his emotions in check.
Adelaide-born Tony Vidmar played a vital and unexpected role in helping the Socceroos qualify for their first World Cup in 32 years, in the now etched-in-folklore 2005 penalty shootout against Uruguay. With the aggregate level between the sides after two games and extra time, a series of spot kicks were required to decide which country would take the final place in Germany in 2006.
The third penalty of a shootout, when a break is in hand – which the Aussies had thanks to miraculous Mark Schwarzer – is akin to the third, ‘premiership’ quarter of an AFL game:
Score, and the lead is almost unassailable. Miss, and you drag the opposition back into the hunt.
So when Vidmar, a 36-year-old attacking defender, waltzed up to the spot to take the shot, it would have bewildered pundits and spectators around the country. How had a bloke who’d taken one penalty in his professional career found himself taking one of the most important spot kicks in Australian football history?
Looking back, the man himself admits that the situation should have been disconcerting.
“A lot of people would’ve been saying, ‘what the hell is he doing there, taking a penalty?’” Tony told The Message Pod’s Nicole Haack, this week.
“It’s not part of my game, that I would be involved. But it’s happened.”
Astoundingly, the one penalty he’d taken up to that point was during a club friendly in Europe – a game that had no more than zilch riding on it. Nevertheless, he’d nailed it, so he was 100 per cent from the spot.
“It went in, I took it really well,” Vidmar says of that friendly kick.
“[But] I never thought that, four or five months down the track, I’d be in that situation again.”
On that November night in Sydney, however, usual sharpshooter Mark Bresciano had been substituted. The rest of the boys were either out on their feet, physically, or deer in the headlights, mentally. Vidmar was neither.
“It never even crossed my mind,” he says when asked about the added pressure.
“In that moment, [for] 120 minutes – I felt really good in the game.
“You strike while the iron’s hot.”
Vidmar precariously placed the ball on the 12-yard spot. It rolled forward, as if in protest. He picked it up and put it back. He had the weight of a nation and over three decades of frustration on his boot. His boots were black Adidas Copa Mundials – no fuss, no nonsense.
When the whistle pierced the air, he calmly tucked the ball into the bottom-left of the net without issue.
Commentator Craig Foster knew how important it was – “Tony Vidmar is the hero tonight!”
After a 14-year career for the Socceroos and three qualifying campaigns that had fallen short, Vidmar and Australia were off to the Cup.
But Tony never took his place.
Two months before fulfilling his childhood dream at the tournament, he underwent a stress-test that was required of all players. He was found to have an irregular heart rhythm caused by a blood clot in his left coronary artery.
Accomplishing his life-long aspiration had been ripped from his grasp. He needs a second to compose himself when it becomes the topic of conversation, in this week’s episode of The Message Pod.
“It’s a difficult one still, to talk about. Depending on how I am at some stage, I can actually talk through it. Now, at the moment, it’s a little bit harder,” he explains.
“To be told that you’ve got to stop playing or else it’s gonna kill you – you don’t believe it.
“I thought it was a joke, I didn’t know what to do or which direction to go with it.”
It was a crushing emotional blow that he might not ever be able to reconcile, but Vidmar appreciates the fact that the check-up probably saved his life.
“On the day that I was told, that evening, I was living in Europe and I was watching something on the television that spoke about players and heart failures. A player had fallen down – collapsed and died.
“That’s when I had the realisation that, if I continue on as it is then I’m not gonna be here anymore.
“Not going to the World Cup then plays second fiddle to your life. I have a young family – you don’t want to see them grow up without their father.”
– The Message Pod
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