Every now and then, a moment in sport comes along that becomes etched in your mind, that no matter how old you grow, you’ll be able to remember it like it was yesterday. 15 years on from that historic night against Uruguay, the sparkle refuses to diminish…
By Will Guthrie
I’m going to break from my usual method here; normally it’s appropriate to keep things neutral, but this story had such an impact on every Australian football lover, I felt it only fair to make this one a standout. This month marks 15 years since Australia qualified for just their second World Cup Finals. It’s amazing to see the amount of people from other countries who’ll turn their nose up at that, and good for you, mate, your country plays football well. Here it’s probably the fifth most popular sport in a nation of under 25 million people. You getting the picture yet? Don’t worry, you will! For years we’d fallen short at the last hurdle, mostly because we just weren’t good enough in critical moments, but there were times it seemed fate was genuinely against us, dare we say it, we were cursed. This particular night however, the Football Gods smiled on us and delivered a moment for the ages.
This was always our problem, being grouped in Oceania and smashing minnows before having to take on the fifth best country from South America or Asia to actually qualify. It was staggering to me that a team of regulars in the Premier League, Serie A and half a dozen other leagues around Europe would not face real, quality opposition until this final hurdle. Our Golden Generation looked as though it belonged amongst the best in the world and would hold their own. The Iran qualifier in particular hurt Australian football in a way you sometimes don’t recover from. Up 2-0 in the second leg (at home) and absolutely flying courtesy of a 19-year old Harry Kewell, a serial pest (I won’t name him) decided it would be a good idea to use his welfare cheque on a fine for trespassing, running onto the ground mid game to cut the net down. I remember my dad saying something like “that’s going to kill us”, half an hour later the final score read 2-2 and we were denied qualification on away goals. Being known as “a serial pest” should tell you everything, all i’ll say is he should be forced to carry a tree with him everywhere he goes to replace the oxygen he steals from the rest of us. A team of hardened veterans looked broken and we had to reload for even tougher opposition in four years’ time. Hope was definitely on the wane at this point.
When it comes to opponents from South America, we were never going to have it easy, but copping Uruguay was almost as bad as getting Brazil or Argentina. We’re talking about a country of just under 3.5 million people that not only produce some of the game’s best but have actually won the World Cup – twice. Beating them to qualify would be our Everest. In 2001, we won the first leg and travelled to a hostile Montevideo for the second leg. It was here that fans spat on our players at the airport, whilst seemingly camping outside our hotel room all night long to make noise and keep our players awake. This is just normal behaviour in their culture but for us, it was a wake-up call. Football for them is life and death and they’ll do what it takes. The Uruguayans have a saying, Garra Charrura, which means to prevail in the face of certain death. It’s a nod to their history but also highlights their mentality. They, like us, had players situated all across Europe led by their superstar talisman, Álvaro Recoba, who was one of the most skilful and talented forwards in world football at the time (see our Rogues Gallery for more on this). They accounted for us easily, winning 3-0 and crushing our dreams again. Four years later and we were in the exact same position, drawn to face Uruguay, who had now become a rival of sorts, and knowing we still had a mountain to climb to get to the big dance. This time though, there was a key difference. We’d be playing the second leg at home, in Sydney, a huge advantage if we could produce a good display in the first leg. We lost, but only 1-0, leaving us very much in the hunt to qualify. Once the Uruguayans began implying that we didn’t belong at the World Cup and that they had “a divine right” to be there, you could sense the pressure had shifted, setting the scene for an unforgettable night.
Our Players and that Night
We don’t often get crowds of over 80,000 for Socceroos games, so it was testament to the occasion that this game would deliver not only a crowd that size, but one which felt larger. So many times, we’d faltered at the final hurdle, but this night was different. The Golden Era was ready to deliver, they harassed the Uruguayans and gave as good as they got. Most importantly, they held their cool. After coming on at the 30-minute mark in a tactical switch, Harry Kewell was exceptional. It was obvious they had concerns over him and whenever he went near the ball, the Uruguayans would close in on him, trying to pressure him into a mistake. The tactic worked, but only well enough for a loose Kewell ball to bobble to Mark Bresciano, whose criminally underrated finishing skills and cool temperament saw him power the only goal of the game into the roof of the net. With the aggregate score now level, both sides looked for a winner without success, while doling out what must be a world record for cynical fouls. It’s fair to say that if VAR had existed back then, the game would have seen a lot of red. A shootout seemed unavoidable. When it did come, the atmosphere and the pressure were the stuff of legend. Even now, all these years later, re-watching the shootout still gives you chills. From the first penalty, where Harry Kewell (who’d been excellent all night) calmly buried it home, to the last where John Aloisi took off in celebration, everything felt like it was finally going to go Australia’s way. With the composure to deliver under such enormous pressure, with talk of “the curse” potentially rearing its head again, our players showed their firm belief that it was finally our time. The roar of the crowd when Mark Schwartzer made those saves was unforgettable. Hearing that roar quickly turn to boos for the Uruguayans spot kicks is perhaps less of a cherished memory, however it’s easy to forgive the crowd that night when you remember how our players were treated in Montevideo. Simon Hill and Craig Foster’s bit of commentary once Aloisi’s penalty hit the net is nothing short of classic. Truly, it was a remarkable night.
For Australians, simply getting there was enough. So many had toiled for so long, so many hearts had been broken, so many different variables had contrived to deny us. For a long time, it really did feel like a genuine curse. To beat a two-time world champion, at home, in front of 83, 000 people in such dramatic circumstances was always going to be something that we could fondly look back on. It wasn’t about being viewed as a threat to win a major trophy; it was about being respected. It was about announcing that we were a serious nation when it came to football and while we might not beat the Brazils and the other heavyweights, we certainly wouldn’t be afraid to compete with them. For me, with 15 mates over for a barbecue, which Dad operated exclusively and insisted no one get near, it’s a night that will live long in the memory. At the time, we were so content, we would have easily been satisfied had that been the highlight of our World Cup journey. Little did we know, the Golden Generation weren’t done yet, they still had the World Cup left to really show the world what we could do.
Join us for the conclusion of this series next year in June.