Those who attended that fateful day at the MCG on 29 November, 1997 I feel your pain and understand if you do not wish to read on. For those lucky enough not to be there, or even luckier; young enough not to remember have a read. It will hopefully make qualification tonight so much sweeter.
The night was a typical balmy night, we were approaching summer and the Socceroos entourage were in town. 16 years ago we weren’t as lucky as we are today with World Cup exposure, or even International friendlies. This was going to be an event that you would remember for the rest of your life.
I spent the previous weekend at my Gran’s house in Warrnambool, now some of you might think that isn’t too far away only a three hour drive down the highway, but remember these are the days before digital television. I spent that Saturday night on the couch watching the first leg via a snow like reception relying heavily on the commentary. We came away with a 1-1 draw, and a young Harry Kewell announced himself on the International stage.
Back to the ‘G’, there was a buzz about the ground I had never experienced before, it was an eerie feeling. There was a hush over the ground; people were nervous, anxious about what was going to take place over the next 90 minutes. Out came the players and all this lifted, we became an army of 85,000 fans urging our national team across the line to gain the 32nd place in France. I believe this added to the experience dramatically, knowing that 31 nations had already booked their place, and only 90 minutes stood in our way of joining the football elite.
We had a belief that we deserved to be on the football stage, after all our squad included some of the best names Australia had ever produced; Bosnich, Slater, Zelic, Kewell, Viduka and Arnold just to name a few. We also had master tactician Terry Venables behind our campaign, what could go wrong.
We started well but failed to take our chances, Aurelio Vidmar probably had 3-4 early chances but he wasn’t alone. I’m not going to go too much into the game but let’s fast forward to the 47’. A Vidmar goal puts Australia 2-0 up, and the crowd went into a sense of jubilation. Sure we were celebrating too early, but we were playing the better football and had the overwhelming support of the 85,000 crowd. I remember literally dancing in the isles singing “We’re going to France, we’re going to France” looking back at this now it was a little premature, I was a first year university student surviving on working 3 nights a week at the indoor cricket centre, and no passport to speak of; But ‘we’ wasn’t me that night, ‘we’ referred to the Socceroos. ‘We’ were going to France 98’ and nothing could stop us.
Enter Peter ‘#@#@$@’ Hore, the serial pest that has plagued many public events. Hore ran onto the ground and caused a six minute delay. I’m not saying this changed the game but the momentum was lost, the crowd silenced and more importantly Iran had six minutes to stop and assess the situation.
We copped two goals in a five minute period which to this day I still rate the darkest day in my sports watching memory. Yes Italy was heartbreaking but this was something different. The only way I can describe this feeling is if you watch Indiana Jones and the Temple of doom, well the part when our hero literally has his heart ripped out, that how I felt. Sure we had 15 minutes to find an equaliser, but it just wasn’t going to be. Player fitness, injuries and whatever else started taking their toll, France merely became a country where the Eiffel tower is located, not a place to fulfil our World cup dreams.
The aftermath: I remember when that final whistle blew like so many others slumped back in my seat and stared in amazement, the Iranians were running around celebrating, the Aussies on the pitch lifeless. After about 10 minutes I summons enough energy to get myself out of the chair and make the long walk to Flinders street station. It was one of the most surreal walks I can remember, thousands made the similar trip but all I remember was silence, heartbreak and devastation.
We were emotionally drained, and we didn’t even play. A few hours later I thought how the players must have been feeling, after a while I simply gave up. One cannot imagine how the Australian dressing room must have felt that night. In 40 minutes they had gone to being ‘Heroes of a nation’ to just another group of footballers in this country who couldn’t get the job done. The legacy of 74’ would continue for another four years.
In my eyes the players who took the pitch that night were heroes, and it further instilled my belief and support for our national team. That fateful night at the MCG will haunt me forever.Google+