The Olyroos may have reached Tokyo 2020 with all the finesse of Eric the Eel, but there’s no doubt their qualification is a huge achievement and a major boost for Australian football.
As the decade comes to a close, I’m looking back on the last decade in Australian and world sport.
From the highs and lows to the last-gasp winners, crazy upsets and dominant sporting sides, this series will review and remember the most memorable moments of 2010-19.
Today’s article remembers the Socceroos’ achievements in January 2015 as Asia’s best footballers descended on Australia for the Asian Cup.
In 2011 Football Federation Australia were finally acknowledged as a true Asian football powerhouse when the Asian Football Confederation awarded them the hosting rights for the 2015 Asian Cup. Sure, no other nation bid to host the tournament, but when AFC President Mohamed Bin Hammam said he was “happy and honoured” to announce Australia as the host nation there was some truth behind his comments. An Australian tournament would be beneficial to the Asian confederation.
The Socceroos made the final of the Qatari edition of the Asian Cup just a few weeks later, and since joining the confederation from Oceania in 2006 Australia had strengthened Asia’s international growth.
While football is not our most watched sport, it has incredible levels of grassroots support, which often translates to support for the national side. Australia’s multicultural heritage was also key to any success the tournament experienced as 15 Asian nations descended on Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane and Newcastle in January 2011.
While football has a footprint in the summer through the A-League from October to May, cricket and tennis are king in January. To succeed, the Asian Cup had to compete with the rampant T20 Big Bash League as well as a Tri-series of One-Day Internationals featuring the Aussies, England and India.
The Australian Open draws huge attention every year, so to combat this only one knockout match of the Asian Cup was hosted in Melbourne. However, the FFA made the decision to continue to run the A-League during the period, with the aim of the league and tournament complementing each other.
Before the tournament began some fans were put offside as it came to light in October 2014 the ABC would carry the free-to-air coverage of the cup on delay. Socceroos group stage matches would be shown at 10pm in a highlights package, a low blow for Australian fans unwilling or unable to pay for a Fox Sports subscription, where every game was shown live.
The group stage had some remarkable matches, but what was most striking was the lack of draws. For the first time in a major football tournament since the 1930 FIFA World Cup none of the 18 group-stage matches finished in a draw.
The tournament kicked off at AAMI Park on 9 January, with Hussain Fadhel netting the first goal of the tournament via his head against the hometown Socceroos, who were supported by a sold-out Melbourne crowd. After just eight minutes the Socceroos trailed the lowest-ranked side in their group!
Massimo Luongo, who today struggles to get a start for the national side, kickstarted what would turn into a remarkable, dominating tournament when he set up Tim Cahill and scored another off his head to erase the deficit and bring the crowd to their feet. A penalty from captain Mile Jedinak and a last-minute strike from James Troisi rounded out an impressive second half to ensure the Socceroos left Melbourne as 4-1 winners.
In Sydney 50,000 fans turned out for the next Socceroos clash, in which they scored three in the first half against Oman before substitute Tomi Juric slid in to finish a fantastic cross from Mathew Leckie in the 70th minute.
The next match up would be the toughest. The Socceroos headed to Brisbane where the undefeated South Korea, favoured to win the tournament by many punters, awaited Jedinak and his side.
Ange Postecoglou had taken over the reins as Australian manager just prior to the World Cup in 2014. While the Socceroos had then been drawn into what many described as the ‘group of death’ featuring both finalists from 2010 (the Netherlands and Spain) and South American heavyweights Chile, the Aussie boss was under pressure to find some success. His tactics had been dissected and examined following the three losses in Brazil, but now came his hardest test.
Brisbane was rocking on a Saturday night as the football faithful sold out Lang Park for the biggest match of the group stage. It was Lee Jeong-hyeop who broke the deadlock after a tense first half-hour with a slight touch guiding the ball past Mat Ryan and into the Australian net. The stadium erupted less than ten minutes later when Nathan Burns found the side of the net, with the majority of the 50,000 fans believing it had gone in. Juric had a golden chance to score his second for the tournament, but he skied a peach over the bar from six yards out.
The Australians created plenty of chances in the final half, mainly through Wellington Phoenix striker Nathan Burns, but Korean keeper Kim Jin-hyeon denied him on several occasions. The win for the South Koreans ensured they topped Group A, while the Socceroos had to settle for second place and the potential semi-final against Japan which came with it.
The quarter-finals were set: South Korea vs Uzbekistan, Iran vs Iraq, China vs Australia and Japan vs United Arab Emirates.
The Middle Eastern clash between neighbours Iran and Iraq was always bound to by fiery. As well as some post-match controversy surrounding players posing for selfies with uncovered women, the match was also a thriller. The winner from Canberra was to face off against South Korea in the semi-final in Sydney on Australia Day. No doubt organisers wanted a dream Iran-Australia match in front of a bumper crowd at ANZ Stadium, but because of Australia’s loss that did not eventuate.
Iran scored first from a cross from the right corner after 24 minutes to send the Iranians of the crowd into raptures. Their lead remained at half-time before their rivals scored next, but only following a controversial red card from Aussie referee Ben Williams left Iran with ten men.
After 90 minutes the score remained 1-1, so Iran entered the extra 30 minutes with a man fewer. Iraq’s captain dived low to head a ball into an empty net to put his nation ahead three minutes after the second break before Iran scored from a header.
Already a thrilling match, the narrative in Canberra offered more drama than Parliament House when, with four minutes remaining, Iraq were awarded a penalty which they duly dispatched. Just three minutes later, another Iran corner with 21 men in the box resulted in a scrappy shot which rebounded off the bar before it finally found a home in the back of the net from a second attempt from Reza Ghoochannejhad. The match was headed to a penalty shootout.
Both sides missed their first before scoring six in a row, but it was Vahid Amiri who cracked for Iran and sent the keeper the wrong way but hit the post. Iraq were jubilant, as their support staff and players streamed onto the field. They had booked their place in the Semis.
The other notable match in the quarter-finals was Japan’s shock loss. The United Arab Emirates defeated them in another penalty shootout to book a semi-final in Newcastle with the Socceroos, who had triumphed over China thanks to Tim Cahill’s unforgettable bicycle kick from close range.
Both South Korea and the Socceroos won comfortably in the two semi-finals. Defenders Jason Davidson and Trent Sainsbury scored once each in the first quarter of an hour to lead the Socceroos to victory over Omar Abdulrahman’s UAE, while South Korea also scored twice to win 2-0.
The 2015 Asian Cup final was an organiser’s dream. The home nation had qualified for the Final via a much tougher route than originally planned, but the nation was well and truly behind them. FIFA boss Sepp Blatter was in attendance for the Sydney final along with 70,000 Australian fans and a small but vocal section of South Koreans. The Group A match up between the two had fallen the way of the Koreans, but that can often count for nothing when finals come around.
The final also fell on the same night as the Australian Open women’s singles final featuring Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, but this did not negate from the occasion. The football final, the biggest game the Socceroos had played at home since Uruguay in 2005, was a once in a generation event. The 10,000 remaining tickets for the match were sold within a minute and a half of the Socceroos semi-final victory.
The 23 men of the Socceroos squad and Postecoglou and his coaching staff certainly felt the support of the nation when Advance Australia Fair rang out through the stadium. Every Aussie fan in the building sang along with heart and continued the passionate cheering as the match began frantically.
South Korea had more chances in the first half, but Mat Ryan, never a tall man by any standard, pulled off some impossible saves to retain the deadlock with the support of Trent Sainsbury and the other defenders. Fans had started to make their way to the toilets and bars for the half-time break when Massimo Luongo scored one of his finest ever goals. After receiving a bullet from Trent Sainsbury in the front third of the field, Luongo turned deftly, brushed off a defender and fired the ball from outside the box to the right-side netting of the goal. The crowd erupted. The green and gold clad fans shouted, cheered and hugged in absolute delirium.
The fans continued to celebrate at half-time and into the second half, increasing with volume and delight as the match reached its conclusion. In injury time, however, with Tim Cahill subbed off in celebration, disaster struck. Sainsbury came off the defensive line, heading the ball down to control it before losing possession. South Korea exploited the gap he created and scored unopposed past Mat Ryan, silencing what had moments before been a deafening crowd.
The crowd and Aussie players were in shock. Moments before Australia was just about touching the trophy. Now they had to fight for another half hour. In accordance with many important finals, extra time started tentatively as both teams resorted to more defensive measures. Just before the change of ends in extra time, Tomi Juric was camped on the goal line towards the corner, blocked in by two Koreans. Muscling them off, Juric carried the ball down the goal line towards the goal via a nutmeg and put the ball into the box.
Time stood still. The ball headed towards Jason Davidson at the far post, unmarked. South Korea’s goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong got a hand to it, changing its trajectory towards James Troisi, who outpaced his marker and slammed the ball from close range into the net. The crowd lost it.
The green and gold celebrations for the first Australian goal was half of what Sydney produced on 31 January 2015 when Troisi scored. Fifteen tense minutes later it was all over. The Socceroos had unbelievably won the Asian Football Confederation’s Asian Cup, which they had been part of for only nine years. The Socceroos became the first nation to win two separate continental cups. We were the champions of Asia. The night rivalled 16 November 2005 as Australian football’s biggest night.
However, some nations were unhappy with our success. Saudi Arabia and some of their Middle Eastern allies remarked in the next few weeks that Australia should go back to the Oceania Football Confederation, but none of that took away from the achievement of Mile Jedinak, Ange Postecoglou and the 2015 Socceroos.
The 2015 Asian Cup was a home tournament that ended in success for the Socceroos and the nation that supported them. It was one of the most memorable sporting moments of this decade.