On 15 November 2017, Australia qualified for the 2018 World Cup, beating Honduras in a playoff. In recent years, the Aussies have become accustomed to seeing their boys battle it out against the most illustrious footballing nations in the world. However, it hasn’t always been this way.
This story goes back to 1999, when a 35-year-old – who failed to score during his three-game stint at Notts County in 1992 – was hired as coach of Australia. His name was Frank Farina, and he was tasked with completing one objective: qualify for the World Cup. While Farina was still expected to do well at the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) Nations Cup and perform competitively in friendlies, it was imperative that Australia reached the 2002 finals in South Korea and Japan.
The Socceroos had not appeared at the biggest stage since 1974, when they beat South Korea in a playoff to book their place in West Germany. In 1985, they lost to Alex Ferguson’s Scotland side; eight years later they lost to Diego Maradona’s Argentina; and in 1997, Terry Venables’ team lost on away goals to Iran. The pressure was well and truly on the new coach.
To qualify for the 2002 edition of the tournament, Australia would have to finish top of their five-team group, beat the winner of the other group, and then overcome a match against a South American team. It was a big test, but one the new coach was up for. “To go to the World Cup has always been one of my dreams,” said Farina. “I am looking forward to the challenge.”
Their qualifying campaign started in April 2001, when they came up against Tonga. Every pundit predicted a big Australian victory, but no one foresaw the carnage that followed. Australia ran out 22-0 winners to smash the world record for the biggest victory in an international. The result was mortifying for everyone involved. “Oceania have to look seriously at the format,” raged Farina after the game. “It was embarrassing.”
Yet the most uncomfortable thing about this was not the result, but who Australia were playing next. They were up against American Samoa, who, in their first ever qualification campaign, had already lost 13-0 to Fiji. The newbies were ranked 203rd in the world and were missing most of their players due to eligibility issues, meaning manager Tunoa Lui was playing a team that had an average age of just 18. “Frightened is not the word,” said Lui before the match. “We are asking the Lord to help keep the score down.”
But by how much would Australia go on to win? 10-0? 15-0? 25-0? Although the match remained level after 10 minutes, everything changed when American Samoa conceded a corner. As Con Boutsianis whipped it in, the 3,000 spectators watched in horror as the ball flew over goalkeeper Nicky Salapu and landed in the net. It was a truly comical moment that made everyone realise that this was going to be a very, very awkward match.
Over the next 80 minutes, another 30 shots hit the back of Salapu’s net. There were that many goals that even FIFA were not sure how many went in. Was it 31? Was it 32? The match was a joke, and not a very funny one. The Telegraph described it as “a farce”, while American Samoa were called “the worst football team in the world” by The Guardian. Coach Farina was even more infuriated than he was after the Tonga result, branding the match a “disgrace”.
Despite having a furious Aussie on their hands, the OFC remained defiant. “Farina’s comments are absolutely unnecessary and unjustified,” said Basil Scarsella, chairman of the OFC. “All these countries have the right to play Australia and New Zealand every four years. In the same way Australia like to play strong countries like Argentina, France and Brazil.”
Notwithstanding Scarsella’s insubordination, FIFA took Farina’s side as they too were not amused. “I don’t think this will happen again,” said spokesman Keith Cooper. “It’s quite clear none of the otherfive federations have such a gap between the top and bottom.” With the match being such bad publicity for football, FIFA forced the OFC to change. A new bye-based format was sensibly agreed for the 2006 qualification, and it seemed unlikely that another 31-0 drubbing would occur in the future.
But in the meantime, Australia had to concentrate on this qualification campaign. They unsurprisingly went on to beat Fiji 2-0 and then Samoa 11-0 to book their place in the regional final. After four wins, four clean-sheets and 66 goals, Australia faced New Zealand for a place in the intercontinental playoff. Despite finally coming across a team of professionals, the likes of Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell and Mark Schwarzer helped the Socceroos to an easy 6-1 aggregate victory. Australia were now 180 minutes from the World Cup.
Standing in their way were two-time champions Uruguay, who, blessed with Internazionale forward Álvaro Recoba, were clear favourites. The first-leg took place in front of nearly 85,000 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and it was a close affair. The deadlock wasn’t broken until the 79th minute, when Aussie substitute Paul Agostino was fouled in the box. Up stepped Wolves defender Kevin Muscat, who despite missing his last two penalties, hammered the ball home.
Uruguay pushed for an equaliser, but their efforts came to no avail and Australia had a one-goal lead to take to South America. While they had the initiative, Farina reminded everyone to stay calm andfocus. “I was asked previously if I would be happy with 1-0 and I said I would settle for that straightaway. But there are still 90 minutes to go in an atmosphere which will be hostile if not worse.” Holding on to their slender advantage was going to be a tough task.
Visiting the famous Estadio Centenario in Montevideo – where Uruguay became the first world champions in 1930 – the Aussies were entering a historic and intimidating coliseum. And because of that, it was unsurprising that Farina’s side started poorly. A wave of attacks on Schwarzer’s goal threatened to destroy Australia’s hopes, and in truth, they were lucky to only concede one Darío Silva goal before half-time.
After the break, Australia got back into the game and looked likely to score. But ultimately, despite the efforts of star player Kewell, they didn’t, and Uruguayan striker Richard Morales scored twice in the second half to secure their World Cup qualification. It was 3-0 on the night and 3-1 to Uruguay on aggregate. Farina’s dream was over. He had failed to complete his primary objective.
Despite failing, Farina stayed on heading into the 2004 Nations Cup. As part of the new format, the regional tournament doubled up as World Cup qualification, and Australia received a bye to the second round. After winning four and drawing one, the Socceroos eased to the final. They came up against the Solomon Islands in a two-legged affair, but there was no contest between the two nations. Australia won 11-1 on aggregate to win their fourth Nations Cup.
Although Australia had hammered the Solomon Islands, they would have to play them again a year later to secure qualification to the next stage of the World Cup. While they may have been annoyed by this, frustrations were softened by their qualification for the 2005 Confederations Cup in Germany. However, in what turned out to be a disappointing campaign, Australia lost to the hosts, Argentina and Tunisia to finish bottom of their group.
Farina was sacked following the Socceroos’ poor showing in Germany. “If a change, if any, would have happened 12 months ago, I think we would have been better off,” explained Football Federation Australia (FFA) chairman Frank Lowry. “It has happened now and I think it should not diminish our opportunity to qualify.” It was a harsh decision, but Lowry had a top coach lined up to take his place. On 22 July 2005, Gus Hiddink – a European Cup-winning manager – was hired.
Brought in on a part-time basis until the end of the 2006 finals, Hiddink’s one and only job was to guide Australia back to Germany. His first task, and probably his easiest, was to get past the Solomon Islands and make it to the intercontinental playoff. Playing at home in the first match, Australia eased to a 7-0 victory to ensure the second-leg was a pointless exhibition. The final aggregate score was 9-1 to the Aussies.
Once again, they were set to face Uruguay in the all-important playoff. However, this time it would be redemption rather than heartbreak. After losing 1-0 in Montevideo, Australia took the game to the South Americans in the second leg, playing with passion, determination and belief. With 35 minutes on the clock, Aussie midfielder Mark Bresciano scored to confirm their dominance. 1-1 on aggregate.
Jorge Fossati’s side managed to stay in the game thanks to their solid defence, but going forward, they were not the team they used to be. Diego Forlán was absent, Morales was now in his 30s and Recoba was past his peak. They failed to create anything substantial, and with Australia looking tired and out of ideas, the match eventually dwindled into extra-time and penalties.
This was it – nine kicks that would re-write the history of Australian football. After two momentous saves from Schwarzer, John Aloisi had the chance to send his country to the World Cup finals for the first time in 36 years. Forget the Confederations Cup, forget the Nations Cup, this is what mattered. Aloisi stepped up, looked goalkeeper Fabián Carini in the eye, and stuck it in the top corner. All those years of hurt were finally over. Australia were going to the World Cup.
Elation ran through the nation. “At last, at long last, after more than 30 years of frustration, tears and trauma, the Socceroos last night steamed through to next year’s World Cup finals in Germany,” read the Sydney Morning Herald the next day. The players were equally as joyous. “We’ve been dreaming of it for two years, and you couldn’t ask for a better finish,” cheered Aloisi, while Lucas Neill surmised: “Maybe they’ll be a national day off so we can all celebrate.”
There was no day off, but Australia did end up excelling in Germany. They beat Japan 3-1 in their first game, and a controversial 2-2 draw with Croatia – remembered for Graham Poll booking Josip Šimunić three times – ensured qualification to the last-16 of the competition. Australia then lost to eventual champions Italy following a contentious last-minute penalty.
However, it was events that happened two months after their victory against Uruguay that was most important. After years of hammering semi-professional teams and failing to make it to the biggest stage, Australia left the OFC to join the Asian confederation. This move brought them a generation of success, and they have qualified for every World Cup since and won the prestigious Asian Cup in 2015.
While it may have been a long 32-year journey, filled with lacklustre opponents and heartbreak, Australia eventually became World Cup regulars after they made it to Germany in 2006. And who knows, maybe the nation from down under may host the World Cup themselves in the next couple of generations. The future of Australian football certainly looks brighter than it did two decades ago.
By Tom Blow @blowsive