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The birth of a soccer nation

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This month, we mark the most important anniversary in Australian soccer. And no, writes Paul Marcuccitti , it’s not the Socceroos’ win over Uruguay.

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November is a month of anniversaries … if you’re a fan of international soccer.

There wouldn’t be a Socceroos fan in the country who doesn’t know what next Monday, 16 November, represents.

Ten years since Australia, Uruguay, Guus Hiddink’s coaching, Mark Bresciano’s goal, Mark Schwarzer’s saves and John Aloisi’s penalty. And we were on our way to the 2006 World Cup finals.

It’s also 50 years since Australia played its first ever World Cup qualifiers, 42 years since we clinched our first World Cup finals appearance (for the 1974 tournament), 22 years since we were narrowly denied by an Argentina team that included Diego Maradona, and 14 years since Uruguay knocked us over in qualifying for the 2002 edition.

For decades, World Cup qualification has wrapped up late in the year that precedes the finals. That way FIFA can get on with doing the draw for the tournament and everyone has at least six months to prepare.

So November it is. And the practice of setting aside dates for international soccer in the middle of this month continues. That’s why Australia will play qualifiers against Kyrgyzstan on Thursday and Bangladesh next Tuesday.

Of course qualification for 2006, achieved on that famous night in Sydney in November 2005, broke a 32-year drought. While I’ve been expecting its tenth anniversary would be celebrated, it is being done at a level I would never have anticipated. I’m struggling to keep up with all the columns, books and films… and there’s still a week to go.

And I’m pleased. Never thought I’d see the day and all that.

Certainly a lot changed that evening and there is no doubting its impact. But there is one oft-used epithet I can’t agree with: that it was the night Australia became a soccer nation. That had already happened.

The anniversary of that night is November 29. And it was 18 years ago.

…more than 85,000 left the MCG in near silence. I’d never experienced anything like it and haven’t since.

Australia went into its World Cup qualification clash with Iran at the MCG in 1997 after drawing 1-1 a week earlier in the away leg.

Now, for the benefit of the uninitiated, the way away goals work in soccer sounds simple: if the overall score over two games is tied, the team with most away goals wins.

But in practice it can work in strange ways. After drawing 1-1 in Tehran, Australia could draw 0-0 in Melbourne to qualify on the away goals rule; however, when the Socceroos took a 2-0 lead, they then needed to go on and win the match as 2-2 means more away goals for Iran.

And 2-2 was how it finished but more on that later.

Even before the game kicked off, I saw things I’d never seen before. Such as a massive crowd at a soccer match in Australia.

Four years earlier, when Australia had to face Argentina in a qualification playoff, the home match was played at Sydney Football Stadium. Its capacity is just 44,000 and several thousand tickets were sold to Argentines who were placed on the side of the pitch facing the main camera. Those of us who had to watch the game on television were horrified to see a backdrop full of the visiting team’s white and light blue.

A soccer nation? Not us on that evidence.

Quite extraordinarily, there was resistance among some of the sport’s then-governors to the idea that Melbourne should be chosen for the ’97 match against Iran, even though the MCG had twice the capacity of anything Sydney could offer at the time.

But there are a couple of things you need to know about people that have run soccer in Australia over the years: most of them have been hopeless; and most of them had a postcode that begins with the number 2.

For the Iran game, my seat was in the front row of an elevated tier of the old Olympic Stand. Back then it was a single stand and not just a section of a giant stand as it is now. It was a great spot from which to see all the fans and take in the extraordinary atmosphere.

And it was that moment that confirmed what I’d suspected for years. Many Australians do love soccer. But they were hidden. Hidden because such a large number of them will never consume domestic competition as it can’t match the standard offered by the big leagues of Europe; hidden because there were no social media impressions to analyse; hidden because no one knew or cared about who was listening to BBC World Service late on a Saturday night (to hear live commentary) or buying World Soccer magazine.

Moreover, the Socceroos rarely played important matches. As members of Oceania, we’d have a short series where we’d beat up a few small Pacific nations, then face New Zealand and, if we got through that, we’d have to win a sudden death two-legged playoff against a team from another continent to qualify for the World Cup finals. We’d lose and then wait years to have a meaningful game again.

But those few meaningful matches would often be at inadequate venues. I still can’t believe that in 1985, when Australia faced Scotland for a place in the 1986 World Cup finals, the game was played at Melbourne’s crappy (and now defunct) Olympic Park which barely fit 30,000. You could have probably got that many Scottish expats to the game, particularly given some of the great names in that visiting team.

Ahhh, but in ’97 we finally had a venue with a large capacity. And the people came. And they were incredibly passionate. I still get a buzz when I think about it.

Australia's Harry Kewell is up ended by Iranian defender Mohammadali Pieravany as Australia attacks after Iran had scored two late goals to draw 2-2 and qualify for the 1998 World Cup finals at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Melbourne 29 November. A crowd of 85,000 saw the underdogs Iran clinched the tie after being down 0-2 and progress to the final on the away goals ruling after drawing the first leg in Tehran 1-1. AFP PHOTO

A young Harry Kewell is up-ended by Iranian defender Mohammadali Pieravany as Australia fruitlessly attacks after the visitors equalised in 1997. Photo: AFP

What unfolded on the pitch that night was stranger than fiction and for those of us that had yearned for successful World Cup qualification for so long, it was devastating.

I had waited nearly 16 years because the first World Cup I remember was 1982. Australia wasn’t there (New Zealand was!) but I could see this marvellous tournament was something we should be part of. And others had waited longer than me – it was 24 years since the Socceroos qualified for the 1974 edition.

At 2-0 up in the second half, I was actually starting to think about whether I could go to France for the following year’s tournament. Oh yes, the Iranians might score twice… but they’d barely had two decent attacks. We had dominated and should have been more than two goals ahead. The drought was finally over.

But late in the game, delirium turned to anxiety when Iran pulled a goal back and to despair a few minutes later when the visitors scored another. 2-2. Australia eliminated. Again. And in the cruellest possible way.

Normally when you leave a game people are talking about it. But that night more than 85,000 left the MCG in near silence. I’d never experienced anything like it and haven’t since.

When I got back to the motel room I was sharing with a couple of friends who’d also travelled from Adelaide for the game, I went into the bathroom and quietly cried. I wasn’t embarrassed about being moved to tears but I didn’t want to share them with anyone else either. In the eighteen years since, I haven’t cried after a sporting event.

And it wasn’t just because we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. After being denied qualification so many times, and having fallen against the easiest opponent we were likely to get, I now thought it might never happen. The FIFA World Cup – the planet’s greatest event for a single sport – was something that took place without Australia.

When we think about why 16 November 2005 was special, we should always acknowledge that the Iran match eight years earlier is part of the story.

Sure, whether the 1997 failure was dramatic or not, 2005 versus Uruguay would still have ended a 32 year wait.

But until that infamous night at the MCG, World Cup qualification failure was frustrating and sad. After that match, it was something more – it burned inside us.

What if? Was that the chance? One we’d never have again?

And all on the night we had confirmation we could fill a giant stadium and prove how deep the interest in (and passion for) soccer was in Australia. People were talking about the game; many that had rarely talked about it before.

Now I can reflect on how lucky I’ve been to be able to travel to three World Cup tournaments to follow Australia and that the Socceroos play regular high profile matches because they’re in the Asian Confederation, not Oceania.

Yet until a few weeks ago, I still hadn’t watched a replay of the Iran match. I couldn’t.

But it is the most important night in Australian soccer history. Without it, no one would have bet on the sport, as a few people did, when it was on its knees in the early 2000s. And without that, we may never have been in a position to invest in one of the best coaches of the time to maximise our chance of reaching Germany 2006.

And then 16 November 2005 might not have been the wonderful and glorious night it was. And we might still be waiting.

If we hadn’t given up altogether.

Paul Marcuccitti is a co-presenter of 5RTI’s Soccer on 531 program, which can be heard from 11am on Saturdays. His regular A-League column, Manton St Tales, will return next Monday.

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