You can get to Kazan Arena by following Prospekt Khusaina Yamasheva until it curves to the right past Continent Park and the stadium rises dramatically out of the earth like a flying saucer.
Perched on the eastern outskirts of Kazan in the Novo-Savinovsky district, beyond row upon row of brutalist Soviet-era apartments standing resolute under slate-coloured skies, the 45,000-capacity World Cup stadium is a beacon of modernity in a Tartar republic so old no one quite knows when it was founded.
I don’t know this because I’ve been there. I looked it up on Google Maps.
I’ve been this way since I was a child. Ever since I first realised the game Toto Schillaci was playing when he bulged the back of those Italia 90 nets was the same one I played with witches hats for goalposts as a kid.
I’ve always had an insatiable curiosity about the world, and for the longest time, that curiosity has been fuelled by football.
My first memory of following a campaign from start to finish was when the Socceroos failed to qualify for USA 94. I’d seen highlights of Italia 90 on TV without quite understanding their significance, but was acutely aware of what the Socceroos were trying to accomplish the following campaign.
It helped that I started playing when I was four. I didn’t necessarily come from a football family – my parents presumably enrolled me because it was social and the sport was largely devoid of serious injuries – but by the time I was seven, I had graduated to full-field football and all the intricacies the game entailed.
So by the time Mehmet Durakovic looped his header over Canadian goalkeeper Craig Forrest at the Sydney Football Stadium in August 1993, I was fully invested. It never occurred to me that Durakovic – a player who wore his heart on his sleeve for the Socceroos, as far as I could tell – might somehow be considered different by the rest of mainstream Australia.
That tie against Canada was a fruitful introduction to international football to anyone who, like me, came of age in the nineties. The Socceroos had already beaten New Zealand 4-0 on aggregate to advance to the inter-confederation playoffs, with the second leg at Olympic Park in Melbourne notable for two goals inside the opening three minutes from Carl Veart and Aurelio Vidmar.
Veart scored with an unerring strike following a quick-fire counterattack, while Vidmar thumped home an unstoppable header from a pinpoint Robbie Slater cross to virtually end the tie as a contest barely three minutes in. And I didn’t see either goal, because I didn’t even know the game was on. Judging by the smattering of empty seats around the stadium, the clash hadn’t exactly caught the imagination of the Melbourne public either.
But the two-legged playoff with Canada was different. The build-up to the tie featured in the daily newspapers – even if you had to flick about five pages in to find it. And the ‘will he, won’t he’ saga over whether Mark Bosnich would play dominated the discussion. In the end, the 21-year-old Aston Villa goalkeeper claimed he had “retired” from international football. FIFA banned him for his troubles, prompting Bosnich to retort: “This could be restraint of trade. My heart is with Aston Villa – they are my bread and butter.”
Bosnich would eventually go on to play 17 games for the Socceroos, but his absence in Edmonton proved something of a headache for national team coach Eddie Thomson. He filled the void by turning to Adelaide City custodian Robbie Zabica. It was an eventful 17-minute cameo.
When an attempted Ned Zelic pass bounced off Mexican referee Arturo Carter, it landed straight at the feet of Canadian striker Alex Bunbury. His through ball played midfielder Dale Mitchell into space, prompting Zabica to come tearing off his line in an attempt to defuse the situation. Instead, the broad-shouldered shot-stopper brought Mitchell down on the edge of a penalty area. It was a free-kick – and a straight red card.
Anyone struggling to understand why Mark Schwarzer became such an integral member of the Socceroos need look no further than his debut against Canada. After coming off the bench in Edmonton, he could do nothing to prevent Canada’s two goals. He made a decent save before the first only for Mark Watson to hammer home the rebound, before a crazy series of goal-line clearances only resulted in Domenic Mobilio blasting home the second.
I’d never seen a sport capable of creating such drama before – and we hadn’t even reached extra-time.
And having lost the first leg 2-1 in Canada, the fresh-faced and long-haired Schwarzer looked understandably nervous as he made his first international start in his hometown of Sydney. A sensational Frank Farina scissor kick on the stroke of half-time put the Socceroos back in the tie, only for disaster to strike shortly after the break. A relatively harmless half-volley from Canadian midfielder Lyndon Hooper flew straight at Schwarzer, but the young Marconi goalkeeper saw the effort slip through his grasp and straight into the back of the net. Then up stepped Durakovic.
By the time Durakovic’s looping header arced over stranded Canadian keeper Forrest, I was already hooked. I’d never seen a sport capable of creating such drama before – and we hadn’t even reached extra-time. Perhaps I wouldn’t be such a staunch Socceroos fan if that game hadn’t gone to penalties. Who knows? But we all know what happened next.
Schwarzer, of course, proved the hero. After skipper Paul Wade – who had controversially been left on the bench – put Australia in front from the spot, the Canadians went level through Mitchell’s low spot-kick. The reliable Aurelio Vidmar scored Australia’s second, and up stepped Schwarzer. He dived low to his right to deny Bunbury with a superb stop, before Alex Tobin rifled home. And what was remarkable about Schwarzer’s next save from Mike Sweeney was how closely it resembled his save from Dario Rodriguez 12 years later. By the time Frank Farina smashed home the winning penalty, I had fallen in love with the Socceroos.
For all the drama of the win over Canada, it was Australia’s next clash with Argentina that generated the headlines. That’s partly because the Socceroos were just one step away from the World Cup, but mostly because Diego Maradona was in town.
The difference between the two games in Sydney was stark. Where a crowd of just over 25,000 had turned out to see Canada dispatched, this time a ground-record attendance of 43,967 squeezed into every conceivable vantage point at an absolutely rocking Sydney Football Stadium. And they generated the sort of atmosphere other sports can only dream of.
The tale of the tie is well known. Bosnich was back in goal, while Maradona was back for Argentina. A Socceroos team containing overseas stars like Ned Zelic, Aurelio Vidmar, Robbie Slater and Graham Arnold was at the peak of its powers. The visitors contained names such as Fernando Redondo, Abel Balbo and Gabriel Batistuta. And Paul Wade was back in the starting line-up to mark – well, almost – Maradona out of the game.
Maradona’s one true moment of magic came in the 37th-minute. It was actually a defensive error by Milan Ivanovic that allowed the little master to gain possession and cross for Balbo to stoop and head home. The trajectory of Balbo’s header – that flat, tracer-like accuracy as it floated over Bosnich’s outstretched hand – felt like a metaphor for Australian football in general. Close – and following Aurelio Vidmar’s equaliser, even closer still – yet somehow still so far away.
I snuck a handheld radio into my year six class to listen to updates from the second leg, and I remember feeling for the first time a sense of crushing disappointment upon hearing that Australia had gone down 1-0 in Buenos Aires. It was a feeling I’d return to again and again as far as the Socceroos were concerned.
There was no more devastating a campaign than 1997. My Dad was never the biggest football fan, but my club side was fairly decent and he understood the finer points of the game more than most. I remember him driving us from our home in the Hills District all the way to the Sydney Football Stadium one wintery afternoon, only to reach the carpark and discover the game had been postponed due to a waterlogged pitch.
So we showed up for the rearranged fixture at Parramatta Stadium the next day and watched as a Ned Zelic special and a second goal from Graham Arnold helped see off New Zealand 2-0 in the second leg. It meant the Socceroos had overwhelmed the Kiwis by five goals on aggregate and booked a showdown with Iran at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for a place in the 1998 World Cup.
Australian football’s ability to shoot itself in the foot is legendary. Yet when Soccer Australia hired English coach Terry Venables to take charge of the Socceroos, it felt like football in Australia had finally turned a corner. The highly respected Venables had taken charge of a national team brimming with talent, including names like Bosnich and Zelic, Paul Okon and Mark Viduka. And, let’s not forget, a 17-year-old Harry Kewell.
The 1-1 draw with Iran at a feverish Azadi Stadium in Tehran felt like a win. Kewell’s early volley – in front of a reputed crowd of 128,000 – handed Australia a vital away goal to take back to Melbourne. Not even Khododad Azizi’s equaliser shortly before half-time could take the gloss off a superb performance.
And the tie looked done and dusted when Australia scored either side of half-time at a packed MCG. First it was Kewell, then the reliable Aurelio Vidmar who threatened to bring the roof down either side of half-time. Venables was all smiles on the bench. The Socceroos were going to France.
The Socceroos were going to France. Except they weren’t.
Except they weren’t. The sequence of events that saw the Socceroos miss out yet another World Cup despite failing to lose a game is barely worth repeating. Peter Hore, that serial idiot of a pitch invader, ran onto the pitch and nearly pulled the goal frame down. There was a long delay. The Iranians regrouped, and scored a couple of simple goals through star midfielder Karim Bagheri and the ubiquitous Azizi. Johnny Warren wept on TV.
I watched that game with my parents in our living room. When the full-time whistle blew, I swore I’d never watch football again. I’ve never felt so crushed. And while many would argue that the failure of 1997 made the success of 2005 all the sweeter, I still believe that night at the MCG was the darkest moment in Australia’s football history – and one that set the game back at least a decade.
By the time the Socceroos slalomed through Oceania qualifying in 2001, my interest in the national team was waning. I was in the crowd at a half-full Stadium Australia when they beat New Zealand 4-1 to advance to the inter-continental playoff, but having only recently returned from living in Germany – where the Bundesliga captured my full football attention – the bitterness of the Iran result, coupled with the National Soccer League’s struggles to generate any kind of mainstream attention, meant I went into the playoff game against Uruguay with low expectations.
It didn’t do much for my frame of mind when the Socceroos won that first leg 1-0 in Melbourne. If a team’s story is pieced together as much from its failures as its successes, then Kevin Muscat at least deserves some credit for holding his nerve and stroking home a perfect spot-kick in front of a packed MCG crowd.
But the Uruguayans more than had our measure. After putting on the most hostile of receptions, they ambushed us in front of a seething Centenario in Montevideo. The sight of Tony Vidmar trudging from the pitch in tears following that 3-1 defeat is one of the most iconic images in Australian football.
There was an element of world weariness at the thought that the Socceroos would once again have to beat a South American opponent to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
For all the talk of Australia enjoying an easier route to the World Cup since the switch to the Asian Football Confederation, there’s little recognition of the fact that two of our most disastrous campaigns came from trying to qualify through an almost identical route. In 1982, the Socceroos finished second in a combined Oceania and Asian qualifying route behind New Zealand. The All Whites then went on to beat China in a playoff to make their debut at the World Cup finals. Then there was the debacle against Iran, who went on to beat the United States 2-1 in a highly politicised clash in Lyon. In a group also containing Germany and a Yugoslavia on the verge of disintegrating, Socceroos fans were left to wonder what might have been.
Having heard that the newly rebadged Football Federation Australia might implement some kind of loyalty scheme for Socceroos ticket holders, I bought tickets for the game against the Solomon Islands at the Sydney Football Stadium, and took my new girlfriend along to the match. I was almost embarrassed when the Socceroos thumped the hopelessly outmatched islanders 7-0. Despite the heavy defeat, the same number of fans turned out for the return leg in Honiara as were present that night in Sydney.
After so many years of disappointment, perhaps I just had Socceroos fatigue. But I still made sure I was in the crowd for that game against Uruguay in Homebush. Never before have the Socceroos played in front of such a white-hot atmosphere – certainly not in Australia – and truth be told, they probably haven’t played in front of another one since.
I told my boss I was “ducking out for coffee” the morning tickets went on sale and returned, frazzled, some two hours later. Police had to be called to my local ticket outlet. Not for the first time when it came to football, staff behind the counter had absolutely no idea what they were selling tickets for. By the time I got there, hundreds of fans were lined up outside the door. If it wasn’t for my girlfriend – who spent an hour on the phone and online trying to purchase tickets – we would have been left empty-handed. Lucky we were members of the ‘Football Family’.
In all my years of watching football around the world, I have never heard a louder crowd than the one that greeted the Socceroos that night.
I heard later that around 40,000 tickets had been snapped up within hours of going on sale, and it was obvious standing in the crowd that night that this was one for the hardcore supporters. In all my years of watching football around the world, I have never heard a louder crowd than the one that greeted the Socceroos that night. The noise was simply deafening.
The game had all the more meaning for me personally since I had successfully applied in the FIFA ballot for World Cup tickets. If John Aloisi converted from the penalty spot, I too was heading to Germany.
That trip was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. Since I speak a bit of German, I’d seen an ad on the Kicker website for a Deutsche Bahn rail pass. For just €200, it offered holders the chance to travel the entire German rail network – including internationally – throughout the duration of the tournament. I found an application form online, filled it in and three weeks later my girlfriend and I received our very own personalised World Cup rail passes.
We went everywhere on those passes. After the Socceroos played in Munich, we headed down to Salzburg two days later. When Aussie fans struggled to make their way out of Kaiserslautern, we hung around and soaked up the atmosphere, safe in the knowledge that we could simply catch the next train. And when Lucas Neill dived in on Fabio Grosso – threatening to put Italo-Australian relations back decades – we were watching with interest from a dimly-lit bar in Prague.
We could have attended the Round of 16 clash with Italy in Kaiserslautern – my best friend, who bought tickets in the ballot with us, was one of the Aussie fans who travelled to Stuttgart to buy tickets for the game from the FFA. But my girlfriend and I had a more pressing engagement. Thanks to a last-minute cancellation and some consular assistance, we got married on a glorious summer afternoon at the Old Town Hall in Prague.
I don’t remember much about the 2010 World Cup. The Socceroos were coached by Pim Verbeek, who I was familiar with from my travels. I was living in Japan at the time – Verbeek had previously coached in the J. League – so much of that particular qualification campaign passed me by.
I recall the Socceroos losing to a second-string China in front of a huge crowd in Homebush and finding it odd that such a star-studded Australian team could have so much trouble with such an unheralded opponent. Perhaps I too was guilty of thinking qualifying through Asia would be easy?
The Socceroos only topped that opening qualifying group on goal difference, but they romped through the next round of qualifying – drawing 0-0 with Japan in Yokohama for a clash in which I made a brief cameo on Fox Sports’ coverage before the game, before a Tim Cahill brace saw off the Samurai Blue in front of another huge crowd at the MCG.
Sitting high up in the MCG’s press box for that decisive encounter with Japan, I felt at the time that the Socceroos might be a dark horse to do some damage in South Africa. But I didn’t count on the Germans.
How different might the 2010 World Cup have turned out for Pim Verbeek if the Socceroos had played Germany last, instead of first? Just as they had done four years earlier, the Socceroos ended up with four points from their three group stage games. But a 4-0 mauling at the hands of a rampant Germany brought the Verbeek era to a sudden halt. He was one of the nicer blokes to ever coach the Socceroos, but the debacle in Durban – and Verbeek’s ultra-negative tactics – never sat well with Socceroos fans.
I would later tell Ange Postecoglou – when I interviewed him for the ABC – that if the opportunity ever presented itself, I would back him to become the Socceroos coach. I truly believed then what I believe now: Postecoglou was the best candidate to take charge of the Socceroos of any coach in the world.
But it’s safe to say his regime didn’t end with quite the same promise as it started. I attended my fair share of fixtures in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, and I covered the pivotal clash with Japan in Brisbane for the ABC. I also made an effort to travel to Brazil for the tournament. But when my plans didn’t fall into place, I wasn’t too perturbed. My personal circumstances had changed. Newly divorced, my girlfriend and I took a trip to New York instead.
However, we watched all three group games with interest. More than anything, I was proud that Postecoglou finally had the Socceroos playing what I believed was a truly Australian brand of football. The team was afraid of no one. And while they may not have come home with any points, Tim Cahill’s goals and Mile Jedinak’s inspirational leadership proved once again that Australia genuinely belonged on the world stage.
I was in the crowd as Australia went down 2-0 to Japan at Saitama Stadium last August. I had proposed to my girlfriend in Kyoto three nights earlier. And I felt like, having seen the Socceroos struggle for the entirety of the campaign, Postecoglou had been out-coached. But I never thought he would quit.
The 2018 World Cup represents the next chapter in the evolution of the Socceroos. Is Bert van Marwijk’s pragmatism a better fit than Postecoglou’s desire to modernise the Australian game with a 3-2-4-1 system? Time will tell.
But I still think it’s a shame that Ange elected not to see the job through. Maybe the Socceroos would have been slaughtered in Russia – we’ll never know. But maybe things would have clicked, and the coach who guided Australia to an Asian Cup title might also have enjoyed the send-off from national team duty he actually deserved.
What I do know is that I won’t be in Russia to see how it all pans out. I’m getting married in a couple of months. And I’ve long since learnt that my insatiable desire to explore the world through football doesn’t need to be mutually exclusive with my personal life.
But I’ve learnt a lot through following the Socceroos for the past 25 years. I’ve seen some amazing players. I still think Mark Viduka is one of the most underrated athletes Australia has ever produced. I’ve always thought Neill’s challenge on Grosso was a penalty.
And I’m proud of my national team. I’ve lived in many different places over the years, but I still call Australia home.
Written by Mike Tuckerman
Mike Tuckerman is a Sydney-born journalist and lifelong football fan. After lengthy stints watching the beautiful game in Germany and Japan, he settled in Brisbane, and has been a leading Roar football columnist since December 2008.
Editing, design and layout by Daniel Jeffrey
Image credit: All images are copyright Getty Images unless otherwise stated.