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The untimely death of colourful football coach Terry Venables will mean many things to many people.
For Australian sports / football followers, fans, players, pundits, aficionados, the memories of that infamous night at the MCG between the Socceroos and Iran (26 years ago this Wednesday) will be revived when hearing of the passing of ‘El Tel’.
When Venables arrived as Australia’s coach, football was arguably stuck in a rut which has echoes to its place in the Australian sporting landscape today.
Trying to become a major mainstream sport at local level (the old NSL then, the A-Leagues now), while getting its ‘moment in the sun’ when the national teams qualify/play in World Cups/Olympics/Asian Cups/Major Tournaments (the Socceroos then, the Socceroos and Matildas now).
Enter David Hill, the English immigrant who has worn many hats.
Boss of the Sydney Rail Corporation (now Sydney’s CityRail), a main mover behind the revamping of North Sydney Oval, a significant figure in the removal of cigarette advertising and sponsorship of sports, the boss of the (seven cents a day) ABC in the early part of the 21st century.
In 1996, Hill was the boss of Soccer Australia and wanted a cut-through circuit breaker to get football on the back (and hopefully) front pages. This would help no end his simultaneous push to make the old NSL “mainstream” – code for moving the game away from the ethnic based clubs that dominated the old NSL from its inception in 1977.
With Venables on the market after finishing up with England at the 1996 Euros, Hill had the perfect target – a (then) current and flamboyant figure from the English game.
For just a £200,000 ($AU500,000) 12 month contract, it was a steal – if Venables got us to those 1998 World Cup Finals.
Many thought that with an expanded 32 team tournament for the first time and not playing an Argentina or a Scotland but an Asian team in the last playoff – just like Australia did when qualifying in 1974 – that the shadow that 1974 squad cast over the code would be lifted.
The straightforward Oceania campaign – further enhanced by back-to-back victories over New Zealand to win the playoff berth – enhanced this view.
Especially after Iran were painfully beaten by Japan in extra time the week before the first play off game – to be given their last chance against Australia.
After the 1-1 draw in the first playoff leg in the intimidating Azadi Stadium in Tehran before 128,000 blokes and one, possibly two women – one being Hill’s then girlfriend who he managed to sneak into the official Australian delegation (and who he married a year later), the other allegedly a gutsy Socceroos supporter who dressed up as a man to get in the gate – it was thought that a tired Iranian side would be ripe for the picking at the mighty MCG a week later in the return match.
(Yes, only men were allowed to watch matches live at the ground under Iranian Law – until 2019 for internationals and last year for club games).
I was lucky and fortunate enough (in what now seems a previous life) to be at the ‘G’ to cover that return match on Saturday Night, November 29, 1997 for the now defunct Canberra Racing/Sports Radio Station 2SSS-FM – in between the trots and dogs from Moonee Valley, Albion Park, Wentworth Park and Globe Derby Park.
You had to be in Melbourne for the period before and after that match to know what it was really like.
From strolling around the Crown Casino and city streets of Melbourne picking up every second conversation talking about going to the game and where they had travelled from to be there.
The “Salman Rushdie Lives” stickers given away in a pub in town and again at the Punt Road end of the ground in the hours before kick off in the ultimate un-PC sledge against the Iranian regime.
Right down to the presentation of that 1974 squad to the 85,022 crowd in the pre-match build up.
It was all set for the glorious return of Australia to the world’s biggest sporting event (alongside the Summer Olympic Games).
The sense of destiny was further reinforced by the crowd’s reactions to both national anthems before kick off.
First, the booing that drowned out the Iranian anthem – which was only matched by similar booing of the Uruguayan anthem at Sydney’s Olympic Stadium in another World Cup playoff eight years later.
Then Jane Scali (who made her name on Young Talent Time in the 70s) getting drowned out when she attempted to sing Advance Australia Fair.
I won’t go into the full gory details of the match itself – we all know what happened that night – except these memories.
Aurelio Vidmar blowing two sitters inside the first five minutes that would have buried the tie right there and then.
Serial pest Peter Hoare doing what Peter Hoare did in those times midway through the second half.
Venables being slow to react to the way the tone of the match changed in the last 25 minutes with his tactics and substitutions.
Karim Bagheri coming from a suspiciously offside position to score Iran’s first goal.
Steve Horvat standing in the middle of the MCG trying to spring the offside trap in the 75th minute – and looking like he was hailing a Silver Top Taxi instead as Khodadad Azizi slalomed past him to score the goal that broke a nation’s heart.
The absolute silence – apart from maybe 100 or so Iranian supporters at the Punt Road end – when Azizi scored. A silence only matched since by the silence 92,453 Indians gave up when Virat Kohli was bowled by Pat Cummins in last week’s Cricket World Cup Final in Ahmedabad.
Every Australian in the crowd knew the game was over.
The sheer emptiness that enveloped the MCG when Hungarian referee (the late) Sandor Puhl blew the final whistle that night. This emptiness made this match without question the saddest sports event I have ever attended – and probably ever will attend.
The stand in Iranian coach – the experienced Brazilian Valdeir ‘Badu’ Viera who was punted after getting Iran over the line on a three-match contract – admitting after the match that the better side on the night did not qualify.
Indeed, Australia went through that qualifying campaign unbeaten – and had the middle of a doughnut to show for it.
The late great John Warren was featured in tears at the end of the SBS call that night. He was front and centre of the coverage alongside the late great Les Murray, and the late Paul Williams – a football not matched in this country before or since (with all due respects to Simon Hill and David Basheer who have followed him). It was a coverage that won SBS its first Sports Logie – when the Logies actually meant something.
I will never forget the silence that dropped like a 20 ton anvil over the post match press conference when Venables and Hill entered that room alongside each other.
It was like watching both men arrive at the gallows to face the hangman. Everyone in that room knew it was the end of the road for them. Venables eventually resigned early in 1998 with no World Cup to go to and Hill was gone from Soccer Australia by the end of 98.
The stunned look Venables gave me when asked about the Confederations Cup that kicked off a fortnight later, followed by “that’s a good question” will also live eternally. This was followed by the late Mike Cockerill quick on the draw.
“Will you be there, Terry?” Venables said “yeah, I will be there” – and he was. He guided the Socceroos to the final in his last great hurrah as Australian coach – only to be thumped 6-0 by a Brazil led by Ronaldo and Romario on their way to the Final at the next two World Cups.
The fact that devastated group of Socceroos were able to make that Final shows you what could have been in France ’98.
Every Australian leaving the “G” that night was convinced that Socceroos team were not only the best team in the world not to qualify, but also convinced an opportunity to do some real damage in France ’98 had been lost. Thrown out with the garbage.
When you look at that Socceroos squad it’s easy to see why – Bosnich, Zelic, Moore, Tobin, Ivanovic, Lazaridis, both Vidmars (Tony and Aurelio), the experience of Arnold and Slater, Foster, Tapai, a young Aloisi, a young Viduka. And a 19 year old Harry Kewell who was uninjured, untapped, unrestricted…and unbelievable. We will never know what they could have done – just wonder what might have been.
Eventually, it took another doomed playoff against Uruguay in 2001, a Crawford Report, changes to structures at the top of the re-branded FFA, the return of Frank Lowy and his millions, and the realisation that Australia’s footballing future was not in Oceania but in Asia, to get Australia over the line to regular World Cup qualification.
Yes, Australia did qualify that glorious night in 2005 in Sydney at our last attempt as the Oceania winner. However, we arguably would have had to wait until the ridiculous expansion to a 48 team World Cup in 2026 – 29 years after that night in 1997 – for automatic qualification out of Oceania.
We have not missed a World Cup Finals since 2006 when in Asia – on the back of hardened qualification matches that had us far more ready for playoffs we did win in 2017 (over Honduras) and 2022 (the 2 wins in 4 days over UAE and Peru).
The same bunch of hardened qualification matches that Iran played in 1997 in Asia before their playoffs against the Socceroos.
(By the way, Iran were a decent side – much better that what we gave them credit for. Alongside Bagheri and Azizi they had Ali Daei up front – who held the world record for most full International Goals of any player for over 20 years after he retired before broken by one Cristiano Ronaldo. Anyone who scores over 100 full International Goals is no mug).
You could also question whether the game of football has made any real strides domestically in the 26 years since that November night.
That is another debate for another time – and maybe another article.
Even though we may still not want to acknowledge, let alone talk about, that match – at least take some time on or around the 26th anniversary of that fateful night at the MCG this Wednesday night.
Take some time to remember the short and colourful rollercoaster ride Terry Venables gave us all as Australian sports fans in his memory.
Maybe even (gulp) test your nerve and watch part or all of the full replay (another gulp) that is out there in the digital universe.
For we needed to feel the pain of the MCG in November, 1997 to experience the sheer joy we all felt from Stadium Australia in November, 2005.
Rest In Peace, “El Tel”.