Vale Billy Rice, we hardly knew you

Jesse Fink Roar Guru

By Jesse Fink, Jesse Fink is a Roar Guru

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    billy rice

    I’ve been so caught up in Arnoldgate the past few weeks that I neglected to mention the recent passing of Billy Rice, one of the original Australian tourists (they were Socceroos in all but name) on this country’s inaugural World Cup campaign in 1965.

    Rice (pictured with the 1965 team in Cairns, sixth from left, back row), a centre-half, was from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and played for the Footscray Capri (later JUST) club in Melbourne over 14 seasons and over 500 matches. He played seven times for his country and retired from all forms of football in 1972, making his last appearance in the green and gold against Greece in a friendly in Melbourne 1969.

    Famously, though, he was heavily involved in that ill-fated tour of Cambodia and the Far East, which unfortunately for the Tiko Jelisavcic-coached Australians resulted in 6-1 and 3-1 hidings from
    the same North Korean side that would go on to shock the world a year later.

    In fact, Rice was one of the few players that came out of the two-match World Cup tie in suffocatingly tropical Phnom Penh with his reputation enhanced. But, crucially, not for his football. Rather his spirit.

    As I write in my book, 15 Days in June: “In the second game, with five goals against and their chances of qualification as good as dead, the Australians could have opted to surrender meekly and be slaughtered by the Koreans, but they gave it their all, refusing to countenance defeat until the final whistle. Bodies were literally exhausted in the pursuit of a face-saving result.”

    None more so than Rice. With much of the squad hampered with gastric problems from the local food and water, he too succumbed with stomach cramps halfway through the game with the score locked at 1-1 but played on right till the end. Substitutions weren’t permitted. The ornery Jelisavcic, however, wasn’t exactly overflowing with gratitude.

    John Watkiss explained: “Everybody gave everything they had in that game. It was very hot, very humid, very draining and Billy collapsed after the game. A couple of the guys picked him up and carried him off on their shoulders to the side of the pitch, and Tiko’s reaction was to stand up and say, ‘Let the bastard walk!’ Some of the players flew into him then and he lost all respect from the players after that.”

    In his wonderful labour of love Australian Soccer Records, Sid Grant called Rice “a wise captain as well as a grand stopper … [he] won fame as an efficient pivot”.

    He stopped playing before I was born but I love the stories about Rice from that tour. In many ways, like some wounded digger on the Western Front, he was the progenitor of the sometimes maligned but intrinsic football myth of the Aussie “fighting spirit”, where stamina and pluck is placed on a pedestal over skill and ability.

    Perhaps he never wanted to be remembered for that match, few of his teammates from 1965 do, but like I write in 15 Days, on the turf in Phnom Penh’s Stade Olympique, which is still standing against all the odds, “lie the tread marks of Billy Rice and the ’65 Socceroos. Here, in this forgotten field in South-East Asia, not Germany, is the true place where the legend of the Socceroos was born.”

    Which makes Billy Rice, in my view, one of the most historically important figures in the Australian game.

    Godspeed, friend.

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    The Crowd Says (18)

    • Columnist

      July 18th 2008 @ 8:23am
      Spiro Zavos said | July 18th 2008 @ 8:23am | ! Report

      Jesse, Thanks for a wonderful evocation of an era that is being lost in time but which needs to be remembered. I always think that the best of sport is to see your game as a sort of long-lasting community of saints, all those players and lovers of the game who have passed on, all those who are passionate about it now and the millions to come who will carry on the spirit and history of the game.
      The story of the 1965 Socceroos seems to be one of those epics of Australian history where defeat revealed the true character of the players even more than victory might of.
      Do the current players know this history? If they don’t they should.

    • July 18th 2008 @ 9:24am
      Bill McIlroy said | July 18th 2008 @ 9:24am | ! Report

      Like Billy Rice I also hale from Belfast N.Ireland.i have been a follower of soccer in Australia for almost 30 years and untill I read this story I had no idea about the 65 Socceroos.Thank you Jesse for a wonderfull insight to a bygone era.

    • July 18th 2008 @ 9:43am
      Millster said | July 18th 2008 @ 9:43am | ! Report

      There are times when a column emerges from the here-and-now and adds a gem of history and context to our appreciation of the game, something that makes us all the richer for knowing.

      Thanks Jesse.

    • July 18th 2008 @ 10:20am
      midfielder said | July 18th 2008 @ 10:20am | ! Report

      What a pity that the efforts of our national team pre Crawford are so little known. Makes me even madder at those running the game pre Crawford how poorly there management was.

      As an aside and to show how poorly general football knowledge was; when I first started work in the early seventies a bloke who knew my Dad worked at the same place and for about a month he drove me to work each day as my car was off the road. We often talked about rugby league as I played at a semi professional level. The bloke had played for the Socceroos and we spoke little of football he was in his late 50’s or 60’s at the time.

      I am so ashamed as his name even escapes me, but his face and car and humor of that month are still with me, I had no respect for football but could talk at great length the courage of a souths or manly player in a tackle. Who is to blame as I was a typical young bloke of my times …….. the pre Crawford mamangement ——stories like this and my respecting football so little as to travel to work each day with a Socceroo (not called Socceroo then BTW Dad said he was an international soccer player) and not even care about football.

      So glad we have Obe One now and I hope one day as football grows our past history does come out and is respected.

    • July 18th 2008 @ 12:03pm
      Ben of Phnom Penh said | July 18th 2008 @ 12:03pm | ! Report

      Good piece, Jesse. Sadly the days of Cambodian football took something of a turn for the worse not long after that tour and the country’s football is only just beginning to recover.

    • July 18th 2008 @ 12:10pm
      Salvation said | July 18th 2008 @ 12:10pm | ! Report

      Thanks for some good old fashioned football journalism, Jesse. Ahh, 15 days…a top read!!

      And remarking to some pre-crawford historonics, if you want to know the history of the game, seek out the writers, or players themselves. To give the then administration stick for a personal lack of knowledge is only half the issue. As a country we just weren’t overly prolific in archiving and presenting material.

      And the current times is still left wanting a decent impetus from FFA. Rale Rasic has done probably more for carrying the torch, off his own steam!!

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