Top 100 World Cup Moments (From the Aussie P.O.V.): 7-The Iran Disaster (1997)


With the South American nightmare against Argentina over, FIFA decided to give Australia a bit of a leg up for the campaign to get to the 1998 tournament  by letting them play off against the fourth best Asian side for a ticket to sunny France. With the new David Hill regime in control of what was now called Soccer Australia, it was going to be a bit of a shock to see who the full time replacement for Eddie Thompson would be. First there were whispers, then there were rumors, then there was a press conference with ex England boss and general cockney wide boy Terry Venables posing for the cameras with a boomerang and didgeridoo in a dark London hotel foyer after he had agreed to become the new Socceroos boss, quite the coup considering his last job was taking England agonizingly close to the final of Euro 96.

Venables got down to work by signing Australian players on dodgy deals to Portsmouth (the club he was president of at the time) and then actually got around to doing what he was supposed to do and that was coach the national side. Australia creamed the Oceania section as usual by scoring 32 goals and conceding only two, including a 5-0 aggregate win over the All Whites. They would have to wait and see who they would face over two legs in late 1997. Saudi Arabia and South Korea topped their groups which left Japan and Iran to play off in a one-off match in Malaysia with the winner qualifying for France, the loser would play us.

In a tight contest Japan prevailed to qualify for their first ever finals thanks to a golden goal which left Australia again playing Iran, an old foe was coming back to town. This was an old foe that was in poor form and changed coaches like they changed socks yet had their greatest ever player Ali Daei playing for Bayern Munich and his strike partner: the fast, nimble and deadly finisher Kodadad Azizi. The first leg would be played in Iran, so finally Australia had a chance to have the second leg back home. The game would be played in Tehran at the massive Azadi stadium where Australia had played in the qualifiers for 1974 and was the very definition of the label ‘House of Pain’. Was it a sign? God knows. All we do know is that a war of words kicked off when Hill managed to insult our hosts by claiming their water was undrinkable and they would leave arriving until the very last moment along with taking their own food. You could see his point but perhaps explaining it a little better and more tactfully might have sufficed.

This gave the Iranian press a chance to whip up the locals in to a frenzy about these evil infidels who were the sons of criminals. We should have just blamed it all on Tony Labozzetta.  In the starting line up for the first leg would be Mark ‘The Duke of Zagreb’ Viduka and some young little man from Leeds United that not many people had heard of, Cool or Kehool or something. Harry was his first name anyway. This was the first ever time Viduka and Kewell had played together in a starting XI for Australia, strange for Venebles to do this in such a big game with the experienced pair of John Aloisi and Graham Arnold relegated to the bench. It was Kewell who scored a scrappy goal early in the match which silence the 125,000 men in the stadium. There were two women who were also attendance, the future wife of Hill and some backpacker the team had met in Dubai.

Australia were under siege for the remaining 80 minutes after Kewell’s goal with the brilliant Khodadad Azizi scoring on 40 minutes. Heroics from the on-fire Bosnich kept it to 1-1 until full time. Advantage Australia and the result they wanted. The team had a plane waiting to take them straight out of the country following the match. Did Australia dare to dream? For the return leg in Melbourne the Socceroos would go on the attack with a 3-5-2 formation. At the pointy end of the midfield would be Aurelio Vidmar who would play behind Viduka and Kewell with Slater and Lazaridis bombing in balls from the wings. A 0-0 draw would do for Australia but a 3-0 win would be nicer.

This was all a great plan to have a bevvy of starts in Australia’s starting XI but the trouble was that half the side were either half fit, sitting on benches or playing in the reserves for their clubs. Slater had only just come back from groin surgery and didn’t last the 90 minutes in the first leg, both Vidmars weren’t getting regular game time and Ned Zelic was going through hell in France. In 1993 the side was playing regularly and galvanized under Thompson even though it was missing half of the talent this side had.

1997 qualifier against Iran at the MCG.

Still they all started despite copping stick from the press and the game was on a late November night at the MCG in front of a sell out crowd. Following a national anthem that would have brought a tear to the eye of anyone with a shred of pride, the Socceroos were all over Iran. Chance after chance was spurned by the home side as they besieged the Iranian goal with Aurelio Vidmar missing a few chances (a one-on-one with the keeper), Craig Moore failing to capitalise on two keeper errors at corners, Viduka heading wide and Kewell having a shot cleared off the line. Remember that this was only 13 minutes in to the match and a crowd that been reserved before the match had now lifted the roof of the famous ground.

Around 30 minutes in Lazaridis burst down the left and passed to Vidmar who crossed over to the far post where Kewell latched on to the ball with an outstretched leg and finally scored for Australia, 1-0, the MCG going ballistic. Either Kewell was going to finish the move or Alex Tobin was but why was Alex Tobin all the way up there!?!?! Total Football from the Aussies. After a close chance to Iran it was 1-0 at half time and still all to play for despite Australia’s domination. We still dared to dream. In the second half it was all on again with Lazaridis finding Viduka in the box who spun and shot wide but it was a tad hard considering he had an Iranian defender trying to tackle him like it was an Aussie rules match. A few minutes later Kewell set up Foster who headed against the crossbar but the rebound went straight to Vidmar and he FINALLY scored. 2-0 and Australia cruising with a radio commentator at the time saying ‘Pack your bags, we’re heading to France’.

During the celebrations though an individual jumped the fence and ran up to the net with the view to tearing it down; he succeeded. While it took forever to repair the net one Peter Hoare was taken away by police. During the time that this was all happening Iran were getting themselves together and discussing tactics in the middle. The keeper (and captain) Abedzadeh made an impassioned plea to his players to fight hard and it didn’t seem to work as just after the restart Viduka had spurned two chances.

Slowly but surely through the second half Iran were building momentum, and as those of us with mental scar tissue from previous Socceroos campaigns knew Australia were nowhere near home and those chances lost may cost us. Kewell was almost being taken out by the keeper and the away team hanging on to possession more as the impatience started to sweep through the massive crowd. What would anyone have changed? I don’t know (not bring on Ernie Tapai) but Iran were getting dangerous and a brilliant move from Mahdavikia down the right flank from a nice ball from midfield resulted in a low, hard shot towards goal for which Bosnich fell to the ground in an instant to stop. It was a reflex save of the highest order, though not terribly spectacular. However none of this was lost on the crowd who chanted Bosnich’s name in recognition.

Funny then that had the ball been cut back there were 2 Iranian attackers with only Craig Moore between them to do anything to stop them from tapping the ball in. Australia needed to defend and change tactics but Venables held firm. He wanted Iran to be ground in to the dirt. Then the fightback for Iran began in earnest with a goal that came from a clear offside.  Bagheri shrugged off the attentions of Craig Moore and passed forward to Azizi and the sub Tehami who were running through. Moore followed the ball and Tobin was busily protesting for an as yet non-existent offside. Azizi was tackled and fell to ground just inside the field of play on the goal line. At this stage the Australian defence should have booted the ball away, probably for a corner. Instead they tried to play their way out and the ball was played into the legs of Tehami and ricocheted back to Azizi who was now offside. Not even Bosnich, who was gravitating towards the ever more dangerous situation, was behind Azizi. With all the Aussie defenders at the side of the goal Azizi squared the ball to the unmarked Bagheri in front of goal who scored. 2-1.

Was that Johnny Warren who was saying 2-0 was a dangerous lead? Never fear most thought, we were still on top and that goal should have been disallowed anyway. Those who knew the true Socceroos were silent though, they pondered surely not this time. The PTSD of World Cup failures past bubbled in the mind and wrapped around the lungs of the experienced. 20 minutes to go. Whatever was wrong with the first goal Iran’s second goal was brilliant, and it pains anyone to say it. A Bosnich goal kick was contested and won by Iran in the centre circle and ran to the legendary Ali Daei. His pass to release Azizi was exquisitely timed and eliminated all the defenders on hand, and since there had just been a goal kick there wasn’t exactly many around. Azizi was through on goal and he managed to keep a cool head and Bosnich guessed the wrong way so that Azizi’s sidefooted shot came to nestle in the Australian goal and send Iran and their supporters into raptures.

Hearts sunk, pants soiled, Iran with a second and now ahead on away goals when it seemed the Socceroos had mentally checked out of the game when it was delayed due to the serial pest. Now it was all upside down. Arnold and Tapai were brought on to try and save the game for Australia, but the momentum had dried up and it was now Iran who were the confident team knocking the ball around and defending well. Australia managed a series of half-chances, the best and last of which was a header by Arnold destined for the bottom corner but again Abedzadeh saved Iran’s bacon and while on the balance of play. Regretful people in the crowd already talking about France in 7 months time were now begging internal forgiveness for having such thoughts and just wanted that third goal. The MCG have never been humbled in such a foul swopp. Those who had been here before welcomed back their old friend darkness.

Almost 10 minutes of time was added on in the second half (thanks to Hoare) but it seemed like it was a slow torture, the goal just wasn’t coming. After what seemed like an eternity of added time it was full time and Paul Williams on SBS gave a dejected call of ‘Iran have qualified for the World Cup..’ before seconds of dead air with Williams trying to find the words to say in the wake of a national disaster and keep his professionalism together. Iran had taken their few chances, Australia had not. Iran were going to France 98, their second World Cup, Australia were not.

As the Iranians (deservedly) celebrated with their little collections of fans around the MCG, the home fans slunk home fighting through tears and anger and the players trudged off after being standing dumfounded for what seemed like an age. Lazaridis was said to be inconsolable following the match throwing boots and across the room, hitting his fists on the wall of the changeroom and howling like a banshee. Robbie Hooker was bawling his eyes out. When asked why he was so upset he claimed that at least the European boys had something to go back to, all he had was the NSL and a regular job.

Following the match Johnny Warren was in tears on national television with Les Murray showing some stiff upper Hungarian lip, the emotional vacuum was massive with Australia being so close to heading to France before switching off and letting Iran snatch the plane tickets out of their hands. A monumental heartbreaker that no one could ever recover from and one of the darkest days in Australian sport. The day after the match with many avoiding newspapers and any discussion, some travelling Perth Glory fans went down to Gippsland to watch their side play the Falcons in the NSL with around 900 people watching in a ground where one end was a cow paddock. This was Australia’s footballing reality for another four years.

Looking back you could blame Craig Moore for not booting the ball out of the stadium before the first goal, the official for not spotting the offside, the pointless card for Kewell, the clown who broke the net or even the lack of warm-up matches. In the end none of those things should have mattered if Australia were good enough for the World Cup. Certainly supporters of teams like Portugal, Ireland, Ukraine and Russia have had more to complain about than Australia in their qualifiers over the years. This is a night that not many people will ever recover from. We were an insignificant speck in the scheme of things for FIFA in 1997 but what could have been with the risk Hill took bringing Venables to town and his attempt to try and ‘scorch the earth’ of the rotten hate-filled politics that ran the sport.

Both chairman and coach were gone from their respective positions soon with the old guard of questionable businessmen coming back in to the slots to send Australia back to the dark ages for a while.  Well done to Iran, it was good of them to come back but what a sink hole of a moment in the history of the Socceroos. Iranians celebrated back in their native land. The Government deployed the national guard to ensure nothing revolutionary would occur but instead they were invited to celebrate with both men and women. They joined in. This was the first time many who love the Socceroos now were emotionally invested in the team and what a harsh test of loyalty this would be. The Italy result hurt, the Iran result almost killed us. What made it worse was the top effort of Australia under Venables at the Confederations Cup in the new year against full strength sides that played in France.

Thank God for 16/11/05 that offered some counterbalance to this dark dark night at the MCG.

About Dennis Gedling

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


  1. Mick Jeffrey says

    Scary to think that by the time Germany 2006 came around both SBS commentators (Johnny Warren and Paul Williams) were no longer with us.

Leave a Comment