Australia v Iran 1997: What happens when a sport bets the house and loses

November 29th 1997 brings mixed emotions when I think of that day. It was one of the darkest I have experienced in sport.

 

The feeling I had once the final whistle went was of pure emptiness: just thinking we shall never ever get to the big dance that is the World Cup. Compare that to the start of the day where I had such a confident feeling the Socceroos were on their way to their first World Cup finals since the boys of ’74.  The Socceroos had gone to Tehran and drawn 1-1 where a young Harry Kewell came into the Australian sporting psyche scoring the opening goal.  With players such as Bosnich, Moore, Zelic, Viduka, Vidmar and Kewell – how could we lose the second leg at a sold out MCG?

 

It was a fine day on the 29th of November.  While the country was still mourning the loss of INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence, there was also a sense that a new player was entering the sporting landscape.  Soccer/Football was entering a new era.  New Chairman David Hill brought changes into the game that were to bring in more supporters, media dollars and opportunities for the players.  The players who had been successful in the youth setup were bearing fruit. The majority were playing in Europe, and the NSL was on an upswing in terms of playing standards and crowd numbers.  Hill brought in Terry Venebles who had won league titles in Europe and had just guided England to the Semi Finals of Euro 96, which was their best performance since they won the World Cup in 1966.  The Socceroos had their best preparation in years playing against European nations and winning.  It seemed that Soccer/Football – after its numerous rebuilds – had finally cracked the code in Australia.

 

I was telling everyone I knew, that we were going to France ’98. I even said I would walk naked around the office if the Socceroos lost.  I managed to rope in with me to the game a few mates I worked with.  The Don loved North Melbourne also loved South Melbourne Hellas coming from a Greek family; DickieRock who had never been to a soccer game but was a sporting nut and was always up for supporting any game Australia was playing. Coutsa another mate from the Greek community who loved his wrestling but also had a soft spot for the world game; and finally the Dutch Beauty who, if there was an event, was always going to be there.

 

The day started at the Don’s house where, in the finest of Greek customs, a fine spread was put on for dinner.  There were only four of us there, but there was enough food to feed a small nation.  We got onto the train to Richmond and as we got there early, decided we would wander around the MCG to soak up the atmosphere.  The G had never experienced the drums, trumpets, chants and singing of the world game crowd; it felt like a big game in Europe – not little old Melbourne town.

 

The Don and myself were stunned and could not believe what we were seeing.  We then met up with the other lads and they also commented how good the atmosphere at the G was.

 

Walking into the G, I then saw someone outside the ground that would haunt me.  I saw Peter Hoare wandering around.  Peter Hoare the dill who had danced on the home straight of that year’s Melbourne Cup and then tried to disrupt Michael Hutchence’s funeral.  I was stunned.  Why was he here? I mentioned it to the lads and they just laughed at me, thinking nothing of it.  How this would come to haunt not just me, but Australian sport. We took our seats in the old Ponsford Stand on the second tier behind the goals.  The teams came out and the roar of the crowd was deafening. When the national anthem came on I don’t think the MCG had ever heard Advance Australia Fair sung better than on that cool evening.

 

The Socceroos dominated from the start of the game.  Vidmar should have had a hat-trick within the first 10 minutes of the game.  His lack of first-team action with Tenerife was hurting his sharpness in front of goal.  Stan Lazaridis was playing the game of his life, turning his opponent inside and out on the left wing, Zelic was silky smooth in the midfield and Mark Bosnich was showing why he was in the top five keepers in the world.  Then Vidmar turns his opponent on the right wing, puts in a tantalising cross where Kewell nods in and scores.  95,000 go up as one and the noise is unbelievable.  The Socceroos are in control and in a comfortable position.  Come half time we are chatting, laughing and thinking where we are going to celebrate after the game.

 

The second half continues the Socceroos onslaught on Iran’s goal.  Iran’s defence is making schoolboy errors and giving Australia further opportunities to extend the lead.  One such moment results in Aurelio Vidmar finally finding his scoring touch and knocking in the second goal.  Then it happened. When the second goal went in the Dutch Beauty screamed at me “We are going to France”.  I said yes we are and he grabbed me and said “No mate we are going to France!  I don’t care how much it costs.  Sell your car, sell everything.  We are going!” We both noticed before the game there was a stand with a tour group that was signing up people who wanted to go to France 98.  We both agreed we were going straight there after the game.  Gee that tour group was sitting on a gold mine at the 70th minute of the game. Then Peter Hoare jumps the fence, avoids the security and jumps into the net from the Ponsford Stand.  The game is disrupted for about 10 minutes and while the net is being fixed the momentum stops.

 

Once the game restarts the whole game has changed.  Australia looks nervy.  It is like in that 10 minutes the players suddenly realised they were on their way to history and the weight of what they were doing had hit them.  The nerves spread to the crowd.  I remember feeling a sense of panic thinking something bad is going to happen.  Then it happened.

 

Karim Bagheri Iran’s star player scores after a defensive mishap.  Bagheri had a quiet game before then, but a player of his class was always going to make an impact.  Now we really hit panic stations.  I was screaming we needed to get Milan Ivanovic, Adelaide City’s sweeper, to come on and settle the players with his experience in big games from his time at Red Star Belgrade.  Venables seemed to be stuck at his chair, unable to make a move or decision.  Then after a failed offside call, Khodadad Azizi latches onto a loose ball and coolly slots the ball past Bosnich for the equaliser and more importantly for Iran, the lead on the away goals rule.

 

My world came crushing down on me.  The next 15 minutes went so quick, Australia had a couple more chances, but when the final whistle went the MCG was silent in it’s shock.  The Don had his head in his hands, Coutsa was looking out at the ground stunned, the Dutch Beauty looking around screaming “What just happened?” Dickie Rock who, as mentioned, had never been to a soccer game, was absolutely devastated.  He has since told me it was one of the most devastating experiences he had in watching sports.  So how did I feel?  Well, a sense of guilt.  I want to state now that I am to blame for Australia not qualifying for France ’98.  I could have tackled Peter Hoare before the game and I reckon no judge in the country would have charged me.  Even if I copped a fine, I would happily pay it knowing we got through to the World Cup.

 

Saying that, what else did the game lose?  Venables left within 12 months, David Hill resigned from Soccer Australia not long after, and the NSL, while it had a small resurgence, died a slow death in 2004.  If the Socceroos qualified would that have kick started the game?  Would the likes of South Melbourne, Marconi and Adelaide City be playing in front of packed stadiums with a healthy TV rights deal?  Would the game in Australia have a higher presence and be even bigger then what it is now?  It really is an example of a sport putting all their chips on the table and losing, as this put the game back by at least a decade. We are still paying the price for it now.

 

By the way, I never ended up walking naked around my workplace.

 

Presenting The Tigers’ Almanac 2017. Read all about it HERE.

 

About Vaughan Menlove

Obsessed with Richmond, Luton Town, Melbourne Victory and Arsenal. The Dr had a soccer career hampered by the realisation he was crap, but could talk his way around the game. Currently on Southern FM with The Peoples Court and co host of Goodfellas Football podcast with Steve Baker

Comments

  1. I remember going out to dinner with friends in Fremantle that night (pre smart phones). Listening to ABC radio on the drive there and at 2-0 up late in the second half as we parked, I thought “you beauty”.
    Came out 3 hours later and turned on the radio for the drive home. When I heard the news, I thought “shit that can’t be right, I must be pisseder than I thought”. Unfortunately my addled brain heard right.
    Momentum and mental attitude is a big thing in elite sport – Hoare deserved to be shot. Serial f..wit.

  2. Dennis_Gedling says:

    The anniversary completely passed me by this year. Thanks for the PTSD. There was still a full round of NSL fixtures that weekend too. The day after that ‘loss’ a heap of us from Perth took the bus down to Gippsland to watch Glory play the Falcons. Around 800 people would’ve been there and no one was in the mood to watch any form of the sport. It was just the most solemn collection of people this side of a Morrissey fan club get together. Glory also lost that game. It was a horrible time.

    In Robbie Slater’s book he said the NSL players like Robbie Hooker took it particularly badly because they didn’t have an overseas career to go back to the week after. It was back to playing for Canberra Cosmos and working a job.

    It was a collection of bad luck and cock ups with players form and selections that cost us no matter how freaky and gut wrenching it all was. El Tel is a twat.

  3. Dave Brown says:

    Nor should you nude up in the workplace – we didn’t lose, we just didn’t qualify. I was at a 21st that night. Frequent score updates a feature of the party – optimism to disbelief in 30 minutes.

  4. It was a very important and amazing moment for Iranian football fans, I was 7 years old in that time , As an Iranian I never forget this match and every time I see AZIZI’s goal I get a little bit emotional.
    Australia was way way better than Iran in that match but it’s football and you never know what will happen until the game is finished.

  5. I may have to take the blame. I am MC-ing Mick (brother) and Nell’s wedding. It’s a classic. Golf in the morning. Dust storm. Nuptials at South Mildura Catholic church. Back to the golf club for a classic bbq wedding reception. I am keeping an eye on the MCG and when the Socceroos go 2-0 up I announce: “Australia is going to the World Cup.”

    Shocking early crow.

    The rest is described in Dr Cruel’s piece.

  6. Mick Jeffrey says:

    All I can remember of that night (I was 13) was sitting on the floor of the loungeroom of 48 Yarcombe Crescent Craigieburn after a pizza and some diet Pepsi (tasted as attractive as it sounded) just stunned. The image of Alex Tobin and Steve Horvat (2 said NSL players) playing the offside trap and being sprung by Azizi is still there.

  7. Tobin and Horvat should never have played together in those games. Tobin and his Adelaide City Ivanonovic had played next to each other in defence for club and country for years but El Tel brought in Horvat who was no slouch but why mess with the formula.

  8. Peter Hoare: what ever happened to Peter Hoare ?

    My last recollection of him was in the 2007 Federal Election when he ran against Kevin Rudd in the seat of Griffith. He ran as an independent using the nom de plume P.M. JohnHoward.

    I sort of concur with PB. I did many years of casual security at the Australian Open and we were cognisant of him in the late 1990’s, but he still got onto Centre Court.

    He was a result of the inadequacies of our health system.

    Glen!

  9. 20 year anniversary but feels like yesterday

    Tragedy for one side, glory for other side.

    If it makes Australians feel any better, this victory meant a lot more to Iran than you can imagine. After the Islamic revolution, 8 year brutal war with Iraq, horrible economy of the 90’s with low oil prices, there was very little for people to cheer back then.

    That kind of joy can never be felt again, it was at the right place and the right time. Sure now days people feel excited when they qualify for the world cup, but that campaign was something else. To have so many let downs, easy chances go away and at the end qualify in the most improbable fashion, that rollercoaster of emotions can never be repeated.

    Australia was very unlucky. For what it is worth, Iran was the best Asian team. If Australia had faced Saudi Arabia (an embarrassment in 1998 including 8-0 lost to Germany and failing to score a single goal) or Japan or even South Korea I think they would easy quality. Iran had a rising core of superstars that were making ways in Europe, a very experienced goaltender and decent defense (Khakpour). It was as complete of a team that has ever played for Iran – not like the one sided teams of the later decade.

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