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For those of you only tangentially bitten by World Cup fever, the next four weeks should be renamed ‘be kind to your workmate’ month.
There will be sleep deprivation, angst, heartache, periodic outbursts of pure joy and an utter reliance on the local cafe to provide greater than usual quantities of coffee.
The following article is designed for all, but those of you who might tune into the world game every quadrennial with something approaching bemused enthusiasm might pick up a few things and gain an understanding of why those of us with football coursing through our veins regard this June-July period as something approaching Nirvana, even if it always ends in bitter disappointment and heartache for 99 per cent of us.
The World Cup is like an 88-year-old novel that keeps getting added to every four years. The stories, the characters, the locations and the drama never end – it’s The Truman Show with a cast of millions.
Australia first became a participant in this series in 1974 when a bunch of amazing guys led by a former Yugoslav national named Rale Rasic made it to the finals for the first time. As a youngster I didn’t appreciate the significance of this achievement until I had to wait until I was a middle-aged man to see it happen again. Or, as one pained, passionate fan uttered on the night of 16 November 2005, “That’s 32 years of my life I’ll never get back”. (And NSW rugby league fans complain about a State of Origin drought!)
Happily Australia has become a regular fixture at World Cup finals in recent times, but those of us who lived the 32-year drought will never take that for granted – unlike Channel Nine, who, in one of the funnier World Cup stories, successfully bid for the right to televise the 2002 finals from Japan and South Korea. For the first time, the World Cup would be beamed live into our lounge rooms in prime time given the favourable time differences to our near neighbours.
However, the Nine Network had banked on Australia finally breaking the hoodoo and reaching the finals. When they didn’t, Nine sports executives got cold feet and decided not to broadcast anything except for the semi-finals and the final. SBS, smarting from having their four-yearly football fest snatched from them, stepped in and offered to fill the void. Nine agreed with due haste, happy to be relieved of the millstone of a World Cup no-one would be interested in.
Except that the games SBS showed – in prime time – out rated almost everything Nine were showing in the same timeslot. Legend has it an irate Kerry Packer stormed into the sports office at Nine and ‘boned’ the people responsible for the decision on the spot. In an ironic lousy-sense-of-timing way, Australia has been in every World Cup finals since.
Now for those of you who are thinking, “Four World Cups in a row – must be time to win it”, hey, a lot of us like your thinking, especially the late great Johnny Warren. However, it’s not quite so straightforward.
If you need proof, look no further than Mexico. The Central American powerhouse holds the dubious honour of having qualified for the most World Cup finals without having ever won one. Fifteen times the Mexicans have made the finals, and their best result has been a quarter-finals appearance twice – in 1970 and 1986, which just happens to be the two occasions they hosted the finals.
Which leads me to Qatar. Stay with me, there’s a reason we’ve jumped from Mexico to the Persian Gulf. Mexico hosted the World Cup in 1986 on short notice after original hosts Colombia were found to be so far behind schedule in their preparations (and ran out of money) that FIFA transferred the tournament. It ended up being one of the best tournaments ever, thanks in large part to a guy called Diego Armando Maradona. If you don’t know him, google him – no one article would ever do justice to his footballing genius.
But the Qatar issue? Well, Qatar are hosting the next World Cup in 2022 and no-one save for the Qataris are looking forward to it that much. The Qatar bid won’t run out of money unless we get cracking on alternative energy sources very quickly, but if FIFA can find anything that they can hold Qatar up over their preparation – 53-degree temperatures notwithstanding – Australia is waiting to do a Mexico.
Most of us have heard of Tim Cahill, the patron saint of soaring headers. Super Tim is playing for the Socceroos in his fourth successive World Cup, and if he scores, it will put him in an exclusive club populated only by Uwe Seeler (West Germany), Miroslav Klose (Germany) and a guy called Pele, who I’m going to assume you’ve heard of too.
Speaking of scoring, Russia’s Oleg Salenko won the tournament’s Golden Boot for top goal-scorer in 1994 with six goals. But he scored five of them in one match, a 6-1 victory over Cameroon. He remains the player to have scored the most goals in the fewest games to win the top-scorer prize.
If that fact gets your World Cup groove started, here’s a few more scoring facts to impress your sleep-deprived work colleagues with. The most goals scored in a finals series is 13, by Frenchman Just Fontaine in 1958. Fontaine achieved the feat in just six games, and yet in the following World Cup finals in 1962 four goals was enough to win the Golden Boot, which meant successive tournaments saw the highest and lowest goals total for the top scorer. As an aside, no fewer than six players shared the 1962 top scorer award.
From scoring to defending, Switzerland holds the distinction as the only country to not concede a single goal in a finals tournament, in 2006. The Swiss drew 0-0 with France and beat Togo and South Korea 2-0 in their group stage before being eliminated on penalties by Ukraine in the round of 16 knockout stage after another 0-0 draw.
This is also significant for Australia given they would have faced the winner of that Switzerland-Ukraine game had an Italian called Fabio Grosso not tumbled to the ground in the last seconds of a round-of-16 game against the Socceroos and – no, I’m sorry, I can’t go there yet.
There’s more – much, much more – but we’re close to the start of the real greatest show on earth, so grab your Socceroos shirt with the name ‘Arzani’ emblazoned on the back – trust me, the kid’s got superstar written all over him – have the coffee pot on high rotation and settle in for the ride to 15 July.