Fifty years since the Socceroos triumphed in war-torn Vietnam

Tim Roberts Roar Rookie

By , Tim Roberts is a Roar Rookie

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    It has been 50 years since the Australian government decided to send the national football team to Saigon for the annual South Vietnam National Day Tournament during the Vietnam War in 1967.

    That year in Vietnam there were 81 Australian army casualties, of which 70 were battle casualties and 11 were non-battle casualties. It was the sixth year in the war and also the most brutal in terms of death toll.

    A football tournament in the middle of a war zone sounds bizarre, but it was the making of the Socceroos, who won their first ever tournament in perilous conditions.

    Despite knowing the war was taking place in Vietnam, the players had no idea what the circumstances would be like when arriving. During the tour, the firing of mortars was heard in the distance. The accommodation conditions were dangerous.

    One of the players tried to turn his fan on, but he touched a live wire and was thrown across the room. The Socceroos later heard that the Viet Cong was caught in its attempts to blow up the Koreans in the team hotel. The Socceroos were staying on the floor below.

    The players’ lives were in danger during the tournament, but they never received a National Service Medal despite the morale boost they gave to the Australian troops and the Vietnamese.

    In the group stages of the tournament, held in Saigon, the Socceroos won all three matches. They defeated New Zealand 5-3, South Vietnam 1-0 and Singapore 5-1, which set up a semi-final between Australia and Malaysia, which the Aussies won 1-0 after extra time. On 14 November 14, 1967, Australia defeated South Korea 3-2 in the final in front of 30,000 people.

    Australia returned to Saigon in April 1970 to play in the South Vietnamese Friendship Cup, the aim of which was to boost the morale of Vietnam. Australia defeated the Kowloon Bus Company 6-0 and the South Vietnamese Army 1-0.

    The Socceroos went back to Saigon again in October 1972 to play two matches in preparation for the 1974 World Cup. Australia defeated South Vietnam under-23s 2-0 and South Vietnam 1-0.

    Roy Hay, author of Football and War: Australia and Vietnam 1967-1972, says the Australian team got its ‘Socceroos’ nickname in 1972 during preparation for its World Cup qualifying campaign. It started off with a logo that the Australian Soccer Federation wanted to use for advertising. The logo consisted of a kangaroo wearing football boots.

    In 1973 Australia qualified for the 1974 FIFA World Cup in Germany. They finished qualification undefeated with five wins and five draws. It was the first time the Socceroos ever qualified for a World Cup.

    The Australians were drawn in a group featuring East Germany, West Germany and Chile, which would now be considered the ‘group of death’. The Socceroos lost 2-0 to East Germany, lost 3-0 to West Germany and drew 0-0 with Chile.

    The Socceroos’ trips to Vietnam in 1967, 1970 and 1972 were vital to the development of Australian football and is part of the reason football has become more popular and continues to grow in Australia today.

    Although this story of the Socceroos in Vietnam may not be widely known among every football fan today, 1967 was an important year in Australian football for many reasons.

    The National Day Tournament was a genuinely competitive international tournament, and the core of that 1967 Socceroos outfit was the core of the team that qualified for the World Cup in Germany in 1974.

    Some of the players who went to Vietnam in 1967 went back in 1970 and others went back in 1972, so it wasn’t just one trip to the middle of a war zone; it was three.

    The National Soccer League (NSL) was founded in 1977, just three years after the Socceroos participated in the 1974 World Cup. Football became the first sport in Australia to expand a state-based league to a national one. The NSL was succeeded by the A-League in 2004.

    The Socceroos next qualified for a World Cup in 2006, which was also hosted in Germany. It was Australia’s best ever World Cup performance to date as the Socceroos reached the round of 16 and were defeated 1-0 by eventual champions Italy.

    It was a squad hailed as the Socceroos ‘golden generation.’ The Socceroos have since qualified for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and have one foot in the 2018 World Cup group stages after a 0-0 stalemate with Honduras in the first leg of a qualification play-off. The second leg will take place at Stadium Australia on Wednesday.

    While his future remains unclear, current Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou has played a huge role in the development of Australian football since his appointment in 2013. Postecoglou led the Socceroos to its first ever AFC Asian Cup championship in 2015.

    The Socceroos defeated South Korea 2-1 in the final, a rivalry that originates from its 3-2 win over South Korea in 1967.

    Australia still have a long way to go to reach the heights of the world’s best, but it’s only up from here. Australian football has grown significantly since the Socceroos squad of 1967 triumphed in Saigon.