Top 100 World Cup Moments (From the Aussie P.O.V.): 24-Argentina Gives Australia Everything Except a Ticket to the World Cup (1993)

Sydney Football Stadium 1993, World Cup qualifier v Argentina. (1-1). An estimated 500 million people were watching

After knocking Canada out in the previous phase of qualifying, Australia waited like a condemned man on death row to see what South American super team they would face over two legs in late 1993. The winner would be heading to USA 94. Argentina had started off their campaign well but a loss in Colombia had brought them back in to the mix. They would need to win at home against the plucky Colombians to qualify but they were hammered/embarrassed/ridiculed 5-0. It was the darkest of days in Argentine football.

Argentinean coach Alfred Basile was in a world of shit. He somehow kept his job but the fans, the press and even the president Carlos Menem were calling for the return of one player who had done the job before and done it well. That player was (at the time) trying to resurrect his career with Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina after being hounded out of Italy for testing positive to cocaine and then failing to make a mark at Sevilla. The player was of course Diego Maradona.

It was big enough for Australia that they would be playing the two time World Champions and runner up from the previous World Cup in Italy. This was the big time and even commercial television was starting to care, with the Australian side being dubbed ‘The Dream Team’ because a majority of the side now played in Europe…ignorance is bliss. They definitely started to care (in other words see they could make a buck) when Maradona announced that he would make his comeback for the national team, even with his lack of fitness and appearances at club level since the doping scandal. Suddenly it was ‘Soccer-mania’ to some with the big man coming with the big team to play our lot.

The first leg would be played on October 31 in Sydney at the SFS with Argentina arriving at Sydney airport a few days prior to the game to rockstar-like worship. The local Argentinean community in Sydney is much like Chile, in that it is quite massive, with hundreds of Argentine ex-pats and football fans in general descending on the airport to get a glimpse of the side. Yes, Argentina had been there in 1988 for the bicentennial cup, but this was a qualifier – this was the real thing! The players were shuffled through with heavy security, with the press and fans hardly being able to see a soul from the side before they disappeared down a tunnel and into the bowels of the airport.

It had seemed that that was that but then Maradona ran back out and (with a safe distance from the fans) did a little dance and blew kisses to his countrymen who went ballistic – the small man had lost his reputation, form and fitness but not his charisma. The man was in town and was putting the hype through the roof. How could Australia deal with all this? Still coached by Eddie Thompson, the side now had a heap of players based in Europe including Ned Zelic, Aurelio Vidmar, Graham Arnold, Dave Mitchell and now fluently French speaking Robbie Slater who had found his dream club in RC Lens and was doing very well. They had a good work ethic and seemed like a side that knew each other inside out.

Even Mark Bosnich had renounced his international ‘retirement’ and come back in to the fold which put Mark Schwarzer’s nose well out of joint after the youngster’s heroics against Canada.  While Australia had players exploring the new world and playing in Europe, Argentina still had a bevy of superstars. Gabriel Batistuta, Redondo, Balbo and Jose Chamont were just some of the stars in the side. Australia would be pushing shit up hill for this match on paper. Thompson had a plan though, and that was to build the team around Zelic and always pass to his feet so he could distribute to the runners such as Van Blerk and Slater, anything above the knee made Zelic look ordinary.

The match was a sell out with touts selling tickets for up to $100 and live Australia-wide on SBS, who had their biggest ever television audience for a sporting event. Just after the gates had opened the Argentinean squad had made an appearance out on the pitch to thank the ex-pat population packed in to a corner of the ground, autographs and photos for all. Bosnich was warmly welcomed back by the crowd during the warm up, the past forgotten. Thompson had Adelaide City duo Tobin and Ivanovic in the centre of defence with skipper Paul Wade man-marking Maradona. Everywhere Diego went he was shadowed by the Wadester.

After the green and yellow smoke bombs when the teams walked out, and the national anthems, it was on and Australia were all over Argentina. Slater was rampant down the wing and set up his good friend Arnold who had his shot scurried across the goal line by a panicky blue and white defence. Argentina soon hit back though with young star Jason van Blerk having to mop up for Wade by taking out Maradona and then forcing Balbo wide when he broke clear. Australia poked and prodded with Van Blerk crossing to Arnold who headed wide and then Tony Vidmar put his brother Aurelio through, but the man with the amazing haircut couldn’t latch on to the ball before it went out for a goal kick.

The end to end stuff continued with Zelic putting Arnold through but he was just put off enough to shoot wide, while Batistuta dived every time he got the ball which drew mock diving score cards from some in the crowd. The first goal came towards half time and it was the away team who scored. Maradona finally broke free from Wade for a nanosecond down the right, and it was enough time for him to cross to the far post where Balbo rushed in and headed past a diving Bosnich, 1-0. In previous times this would have been where Australia decided to drop their bundle but they stuck to their guns and within minute they had a deserved equaliser. After some nifty passing down the right, Zelic collected the ball and passed down the right and over the top of the opposition defence to Tony Vidmar. With his first touch Tony crossed the ball to the far post where brother Aurelio ran in and finished the move off with one touch for a goal.

The crowd went ballistic, the players went ballistic and Aurelio’s flowing locks danced as he ran to the crowd. 1-1 at half time. Half time was extended after the powers that be managed to lose power at the stadium for some 10 minutes. Somebody in the crowd had a flare to try and help out, but that only seemed to get him arrested for being ethnic. Australia tried being cute in the second half with little chips and short passes which the Argentineans lapped up and were well on top of. Batistuta almost scored but pressure by Tobin saw him scoop over. The game descended in to one of those second halves where the intensity from the first half tired everyone out and it ended 1-1.

A fair result perhaps, but Maradona had been muzzled fairly by Wade and we gave them kittens on more than one occasion. Maradona rejected Wade’s request to swap shirts and later in the changerooms ‘summoned’ Slater to meet up with him so they could swap shirts seeing as Slater had given his to Maradona’s wife straight after the match. Not the best result as they now needed to score in Argentina but a decent enough result.

After the first leg both squads disbanded and went back to their domestic leagues, the second leg would be played on November 17. The Australian players all jetted in from Europe to meet up with the Australian-based players who had flown straight over to South America to play some warm up games when it came time for the second game. Many of the Australian players actually flew on the same flights as the European-based Argentinean players, but of course with the ASF being tight they travelled in economy class while Redondo etc ate suckling pig and drank pre-war scotch up in first class.

Maradona was mouthing off in the press in the week leading up to the match. He had raved about Robbie Slater to the press, labeling him ‘La Colorado’ or ‘The Red One’. Australia did their best to keep the lid on things and find out how they could do over their illustrious opponents. Australia had been hit hard in the lead up to the match. Both Bosnich and (more importantly) Zelic were out injured, so Robbie Zabica and Frank Farina came in to the side. When the Socceroos came out to warm up at the Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti in Buenos Aires the crowd all did a piercing whistle the whole time the players warmed up. They new how to hassle visitors to their lair better than most.

Then when it was time to walk out on to the pitch the place was like the 1978 Final, blue and white tickertape everywhere and chanting of the country they were there to see, this was the biggest game for Australia on the biggest stage since 1974. Yes, the Scotland games in 1985 was big but this was Argentina. With the pitch looking like it had been tended to by a lackluster local council both sides relied on long balls early to avoid the bumpy ground. Ivanovic’s ‘creative’ tackling no doubt learned in the Yugoslavian military resulted in his booking along with four others in a half dominated by the defence of both sides.

The home side may have had players playing in the top leagues in Europe, but they were still going to cop tackles from players who played at grounds such as Lakeside at South Melbourne and Knights Stadium in Sunshine. Zabica came to the rescue twice in the first half as Argentina turned the screws, but up the other end half chances also came: Aurelio Vidmar not being given a penalty after being clattered by a bumbling McAllister. In the second half Argentina looked more composed than our rabble who had more and more reliance on the counter attack.

Lady Luck finally put on her panties and headed off after a shameful and regrettable night with the Socceroos when Redondo and Perez brought the ball out of their own half and passed to Batistuta who was making a run along the edge of the Aussie penalty area. Having been escorted to the sideline by Alex Tobin, Batistuta opted for the hopeful ball into the centre. His hopes were rewarded when the ball struck the shin of Alex Tobin’s outstretched leg, hoping to cut it out. Zabica had come to the near post and the ball looped over his head, bounced on the line and hit the far post before going into goal. A roar from the crowd and a sunken heart for millions down under.

The Socceroos now NEEDED a goal but Argentina switched in to Uruguay mode by diving, time wasting and kicking out to deny our boys. The half chances came with Simeone (back in the side) almost deflecting in an own goal from a Slater free kick. Then the ‘super sub’ Carl Veart had a poorly cleared free kick fall down to his feet but he could not get the shot away. With time running out it was almost 2-0 with Zabica making a brilliant save to deny Balbo. Australia had another goal struck off for offside and it looked more and more likely that Argentina would score rather than Australia would equalise. The Argentineans had a massive case of a mystery illness that result in them getting injured then seemingly be running again some 2 minutes later, a case for Catalyst to do a story perhaps, but then again this was a World Cup spot that was being played for.

The final whistle was blown by the Danish ref and Australia were out 2-1 on aggregate, with the players collapsing on to the ground. The crowd and home players went mental but the former did show the grace to applaud the Australians and chant ‘Aust-ra-li-a!’ over and over again in a deafening roar as the meek and beaten Socceroos gave them a clap. To be honest this is personally one of the reasons I’ve always had the utmost respect for the Argentine national side and always wanted to see them do well. I know that if Australia had won then the crowd would have burned Robbie Zabica at the stake and Robbie Slater’s head would have been on a pike outside the Municipal Legislature down the road, but they showed respect to the defeated minnows from across the pond.

Yes, Eddie Thompson was dodgy in some wheeling and dealing but he put together a Socceroos side that was a cohesive unit for this campaign. They had pushed a side that had made the last two World Cup Finals all the day and were unlucky not to at least be putting the game in to extra time. Thompson would leave the role as Socceroos boss and become the second-worst thing that ever hit Hiroshima when he signed on to manage Sanfrecce Hiroshima. This play off was the first time that many people had started to sit up and take notice of the Socceroos. It had been a rollercoaster ride and was only the beginning of many highs and lows. The 1998 campaign for France would be a breeze, wouldn’t it?

About Dennis Gedling

RTR FM Presenter. Glory Guerrillas Producer and Co-Host. Contributer to Football Nation Radio and Football West. Worships at the feet of the mighty Cats, Socceroos, Matildas, West Perth, Glory and Glasgow's Green and White most of the time.

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