Top 100 World Cup Moments (From the Aussie P.O.V.): 6-Hot Stuttgart Nights (2006)

Following their ‘honourable’ loss to Brazil, Australia knew exactly what they had to do to ensure they would shock everyone but themselves and make it to the second round of the 2006 World Cup.

They had to draw with Croatia in the group game in Stuttgart.

Croatia were no usual opponent. The connection between the two countries when it came to this sport ran deep, despite Croatians making up only around 1% of the total number of migrants that have come to this country post World War II. The Melbourne Knights and Sydney United (nee Croatia) were both major players in the NSL before it was whitewashed from history but their role in developing the league and some unbelievable talent could not be ignored. The trouble at some games could also not be ignored, Bobby Despotovski’s Serbian salute in a 2001 NSL Final prompting riots with his team’s bus being besieged among numerous other incidents. There was no denying nationalism played a big part in their football.

The talent from these clubs mainly played for Australia but some felt the call of the motherland – once it had gained independence from Yugoslavia – was too much. Especially when, at the time, players of that generation were learning their trade there was a sense of celebration and relief with Croatia finally breaking free. Anthony Seric decided to play for Croatia despite being born in Sydney, as did Geelong boy Joey Didulica who was never going to dislodge the other keepers like Schwarzer and Kalac from the national side. Then there was the black hat that was Josip ‘Joe’ Simunic who raised the ire of many fans by going to the AIS on a tax payer funded scolarship, coming from Bosnian heritage and then playing for Croatia anyway. All three were in the squad for Croatia in this World Cup. The vitriol aimed towards these three when they switched was a little bit over the top. When you look at the time Seric and Simunic defected, the sport was a basketcase in Australia. Simunic went to his former Knights and AIS teammate Mark Viduka to ask what he should do. They made their choice.

On the Australian side many more could have played for Croatia and many were tempted when playing in the Croatian league. In the wonderful documentary ‘The Away Game’ Josip Skoko played with his kids with one in a Wigan Athletic shirt and one in a Croatia shirt. Viduka, Culina, Covic, Popovic all were eligible too, the list went on. Forget New Zealand and England, this was THE derby with a spot in the next round of the World Cup at stake, no less. Australians again went their separate ways between Munich and Stuttgart following the match against Brazil to see more of the country. Their arrival in Stuttgart was tempered by the fact that this was the largest ex-pat Croation community in Germany with Viduka’s uncle even working in the local Mercedes factory. Before the game many Aussies mixed with Croatians who were trying to do deals to swap their girlfriends with inflatable kanagaroos or referring to the Socceroos as Croatia’s ‘B’ Team, with many down little laneways and small squares savouring the local bars, the local atmosphere and the strangley jovial banter between the sets of fans. Luckily, like many other bad eggs, the hooligans from all countries were either weeded out or couldn’t get tickets. Croatians also couldn’t get their head around why Skoko, who was born in Split, didn’t play for Croatia.

The match would be played at the Gottleib Stadion which had been refurbished for the tournament which included removing the running track and extending the roof to ensure the atmosphere would be locked in like a dutch oven. The nerves of both sets of fans were washed down with wheat beer and bratwurst as they headed out to the stadium on the train and even joined in mocking those on the trains coming back in to the city downhearted because they were unable to attain tickets. Around the stadium there were large collections of green and gold at one and red and white at the other with little groups spread between, Banners were from the ultra groups from Croatia and your average cities and towns in Australia. When the team was announced for Australia the rumours of Zeljko Kalac taking over in goal that had been laughed at were actually true and the giant keeper was in the side replacing Schwarzer. The reason for the selection was apparently so Kalac (with his longer reach) could counteract the tall Croatian side. Kewell was also back in the starting XI for the injured Popovic. The Croatians had learned their lesson from playing a team of old men from 1998 and featured an impressive rebuilt team featuring the pony tailed power striker Dado Prso, the brilliant full back Dario Srna who was a world class free kick taker and their talented captain Niko Kovac who had also decided to call Croatia his international football home despite being born in Germany and playing his whole career in the Bundesliga.

The atmosphere inside the ground was as exciting as it was apprehensive, as boisterous as it was tense. Croatia’s national anthem was first. ‘Lijepa Nasa dmonovino’ (Our Beautiful Homeland) was sung in what was like a low guttural roar from the Croatians that came across the ground towards the Australian contingent like the army of the dead. The lyrics were a little militaristic but brilliant none the less. Australia’s national anthem was sung louder and with just as much heart. Some who loved indulging in the cultural cringe were often critical of our anthem with lyrics such as ‘girt by sea’ rather than ‘fatherland of ancient glory may you always be happy’ but obviously those people hadn’t heard it sung in a Football World Cup.

Many eyes would be on the captain Viduka in this game and he was off to an awful start when he mistimed a pass to Vince Grella who was robbed of the ball by Kovac. Viduka tried making up for his mistake by charging up the field and trying to tackle Kovac but only managed to foul him right in the zone where someone like Srna prospered. Before Australia knew it, Srna had sent a blistering free kick around the wall and just out of the reach of Kalac. The ball hit the back of the net so hard it bounced out again like it had hit a brick wall. 1-0 Croatia and they were already in the box seat after two minutes. Australians at home, in the stadium and wherever else sobered up immediately. Immediately after the restart Australia started to lob the ball forward for Viduka rather than try and pass through a midfield that Croatia was already on top of. Tomas and Simunic tagteamed Viduka who used his surprisingly great pace and skill for someone his size to bamboozle the pair of them; they resorted to common basic thuggery to keep him quiet. First Tomas almost backhanded Viduka with a left hand when going for a ball and then when chasing a loose ball near the goal-line Simunic (with his three day growth and slicked back hair to further enhance his bad guy persona) virtually rugby tackled Viduka, but the referee Graham Poll made the first of his many cock ups for the night and refused to give a penalty. Australians winced and knew that was the wrong decision, they still had plenty of time to find that one goal.

Mile Sterjovski, a product of Sydney United but who had had a hot and cold career since, was starting to beat the Croatian defenders on the wing, taking the long passes and cutting in along with Emerton on the other wing. Croatia started to look like they were the ones chasing a goal and started to panic, their coach Kranjcar on the bench showing the calmness of a snowman with hot coals for hemorrhoids. Sterjovski and Emerton brought Culina and Grella back into the game in midfield with Culina receiving two passes after great lead up work but both shots were over the bar. As the half inched on Australians cried and pleaded for every foul, Simunic again virtually assaulted Viduka in the box when the ball went near him after Emerton, Kewell and Moore all linked up to put Viduka through. Australia’s pressure was relentless as once again in this World Cup they were a goal down but didn’t panic, pushing the ball around in a Zen like fashion. Australians trusted their side to deliver, they trusted Guus, they were for once mature and patient with their side.

With 7 minutes to go before half time Australia finally broke through. A cross from Emerton in to the box saw a penalty given when Tomas, in another act gentlemanly thuggery, gave Cahill a huge shove and then proceeded to also handle the ball. This was a penalty Poll had to give. Viduka had missed his last two penalties for Australia so who would step up? There was the golden boy Kewell, Tim Cahill and even Sterjovski who had been deadly from the spot but the one to take it would be former captain and central defender Craig Moore. The former Rangers man made no mistake to make it 1-1 and have Australia back in the driver,s seat with his only his third goal for his country. It was a deserved equalizer with Australia being mugged after only a couple of minutes and then having the run of play ever since when in other times they would’ve wilted. It was 1-1 at half time and everyone could breathe. Australia just had to draw. The gamble of playing Kalac had worked so far with the keeper hardly used.

Australia continued their domination in the second half with Kewell again showing something akin to his glory days at Leeds United. Corners came but even with Chipperfield now taking them Australia couldn’t get anything from them just like in the other two games. The domination again was counting for nothing and this was compounded when Croatia went back in front in bizarre, tragic and hilariously cruel circumstances some 10 minutes into the second half. Kovac stripped a poor Cahill of the ball and he descended towards goal with Moore in front him. A speculative shot managed to go through Moore’s legs but straight at Kalac who seemed to collect the ball safely but somehow it skidded underneath and trickled in to the net without Kalac being able to get a hand over the top of it. A horrible mistake by three players – and not just Kalac – had resulted in the goal. Fans were dumbfounded, the Croatians in the stadium had found their voice again after seemingly giving up after Moore’s penalty. Whereas the team had 88 minutes to find a goal when 1-0 down, they now only had 30 minutes or so to find another at 2-1. Now people were anxious. Hiddink’s gamble on playing Kalac and turned in to a potential spectacular failure.

Croatia passed the ball around willy-nilly to themselves trying to eat up time and thinking that blow could finish off this alleged Croatia B side. Skoko cooled his heels on the bench as his mind may have wandered back to Split. They obviously hadn’t taken in the wet sails Australia had finished with in the previous two games. Grella was taken off for Aloisi with Culina playing the holding roll in midfield. Bresciano came on for a brilliant Sterjovski who had nothing left to give as Hiddink rolled the dice. Australia poked and prodded but couldn’t find a way through, they couldn’t dominate now that Croatia were back in the box seat as Australians again cried for anything even remotely looking like a corner, penalty or foul with tens of thousands yelling ‘Go on!’ like a collective hymn every time they went forward. Kennedy was brought on for Chipperfield, Australia was now throwing everything at the Croatians with 15 minutes to go, as Bresciano started getting into the game and away from the tackling of the Juventus midfielder Igor Tudor who was as thuggish as he was effective. Tomas again handled in the box from a Bresicano corner that was more blatent than the one Australia got a penalty for but in the first half, but Poll again somehow didn’t give it. Lesser teams may have dropped their heads here, Australia didn’t.

Australia continued to be patient, they now had the skill and maturity not to be overawed by the task like they had done in previous campaigns against Iran and Uruguay. This was where Hiddink was a master. With 10 minutes to go Bresciano broke down the right wing and sent in a brilliant cross that was just a centremetre too high for Aloisi to head in. The ball dinked off Aloisi’s head and to the feet of Kewell at the far post who had lost his marker. Kewell seemed to take an age as he slopilly controlled the ball and then finished past the keeper to send the Aussie end of the stadium in a wall of white noise and rumbling mass of green and gold to have Australia back at 2-2 and in to next round if it stayed the same. Kewell turned away and sprinted along pumping the fists and jumping in the air wide eyed looking much like the wild cockey youth we saw dominating for Leeds on televisions in the middle of the night over the past decade before injury and his move to Liverpool. The Australians had undergone what was pretty much an emotional purging and now had the game back in their hands. Unbelievable relief was matched only by tension. Australia had to hang on for 10 more minutes.

Croatia were trying to find a goal but could only try and kick Australia off the park as Poll lost control of a match which turned into something like a bar room brawl from a Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer movie. Tudor had a shot from the edge of the area with only Kalac to beat in goal, but Emerton blocked the ball and it was cleared by Neill and Moore who hadn’t put a foot wrong at the back all game. A young Luca Modric had a shot go just wide, Kalac managed to kick a ball straight at Leko who luckily fluffed his shot straight back at him. 10 minutes seemed like an hour as Australians could bare to look. In the desperation to keep Croatia at bay Emerton committed another late foul and received his second booking. He had played his heart out all night and overstepped the line and was sent off. Then Simunic again rugby tackled Viduka when the latter was trying to get a shot at goal which resulted in another card, his second. Australians cheered, Croatians thought it was over in deathly silence but Poll filled in his details and popped the card back in his pocket after a minute of arguing between players had distracted him. Poll had forgotten to send off Simunic, Big Joe walked off with bemusement. The crowd was too in the moment and tense to vehemently protest and couldn’t believe what they’d seen. The game went on.

With seconds to go all the Aussies wanted was that final whistle and rode every tackle, every pass, ever agonizing second. A cross came in to Kennedy who went up to head the ball but was pulled down to the ground with a thud, the ball loose ball fell to Aloisi who knocked it in for a goal and celebrated but a whistle went. A penalty for the foul on Kennedy? Full time? No, Poll didn’t give a reason. Players were as confused as the fans. The referee had completely lost the plot in the drama of the final seconds before he realized this and blew for full time to end his nightmare game on the World Stage. He didn’t even know why he’d blown the whistle a minute before. Viduka for some unknown reason gave Poll a massive bear hug lost in the moment. Simunic taunted Poll for not sending him off. Poll then got out a third yellow card and sent Simunic off after the final whistle but the damage had been done. The Croatians had finally been overcome, they had snarled, twitched then died. The army of dead had been defeated. Australia were through to the knockout stages for the first time in their history in one of the dramatic games they had ever been involved in. Poll would be sent down to the lower divisions of England to ref where at every game he was reminded about his horror show.

AC/DC, like at the other games, blared out of the sound-system along with the usual ‘Aussie Pub Songs Volume 3′ classics. Australians eventually got the trains back in to Stuttgart to celebrate, trade stories with friends in other parts of the stadium and politely decline offers from Croatians to swap shirts. Cafes in the town square had secret beer stashes behind the ice cream and cakes to cope with demand as Australians and even Croatians took over the square and mingled, drank, celebrated and above all else breathed again. Relaxed was definitely the wrong term. News reports around Australia showed many rugged up in the early morning cold in public spaces celebrating, John Winston Howard was shown on the edge of his seat trading cricket for football for once and getting emotionally involved with a glimpse of charisma. In the town square back in Stuttgart a German version of Baddiel and Skinner’s England song ‘Football’s coming home’ was played at full volume as most sang along in their green and gold finery. It definitely seemed like it had indeed come home to Australia.

About Dennis Gedling

RTR FM Presenter. Dilettante. Traffic Nerd. Behind the Almanac World Cup 100. Keen Cat, Cardie, Socceroo/Matilda, Glory Bhoy.


  1. Gregor Lewis says

    The match that defined a golden generation.

    Brilliantly brought to life sir!

    I cried with sheer relief after we got through. And how!

    It seemed every disaster we had endured led us to equanimity and perseverance under the most abominable blizzard of bizarre refereeing ever I saw.

    And Zen…
    Gooooooooaaaaaaaaal Kewell!
    Aloisi’s ‘phantom goal’!
    And Finally … Full time and sweet 16 …
    How sweet it was.


  2. ned_wilson says

    Was lucky enough to be there. Along with Kaiserslauten v Japan a sporting life highlight. Brilliantly brought to life here – thanks Denis!

  3. andy_frame says

    I was in the Platz that night in Stuttgart with a mate of mine. He’s a Trinidad boy (and that’s a WC story in itself, as it was the first one the Soca Warriors had ever got to). We had a fantastic time in Germany for 10 days, travelling about and watching our teams play and generally getting messy at various bierkellers.
    I remember –
    Finding ourselves a good spot to watch the game and then suddenly realising we were a duo of green and gold in a sea of red and white checks.
    My hat going flying as the Croatians celebrated wildly as Srna’s free kick curled in.
    Moore’s penalty.
    A Croatian fan putting a consoling arm around me and saying “He is Croatian you know…” as Spider grimly picked the ball out of the net.
    Doing ‘aeroplanes’ by the speaker system as Kewell ran along the line after equalising.
    My mate reassuring me “They’re home, they’re home” as the last minutes ticked by.
    Unashamedly hugging him as the throughly good natured Croats (who had been unreservedly friendly to us all game) shook our hands and patted our backs.

    As we came out of the square I looked up at the Town hall steps and it was awash with a heaving mass of Green and Gold and Aussie flags as, what seemed to be a whole army of my countrymen, chanted, clapped and sang themselves hoarse. A wall of delirious colour and sound. It’s a hard feeling to describe really. That swelling in your soul. In the movie ‘The Beach’ which I’d seen the previous year, the last lines as narrated by Leo Dicaprio’s character Richard have always come the closest.

    “And me, I still believe in paradise. But now at least I know it’s not some place you can look for, ’cause it’s not where you go. It’s how you feel for a moment in your life when you’re a part of something, and if you find that moment… it lasts forever… “

Leave a Comment