Well I approached this game with some trepidation, it is never easy to beat Argentina, but at home it was beyond even the European champions. The pitch had received quite some criticism, apparently a recent Madonna concert had meant extensive repairs which left the pitch very bumpy. Madonna one week, Maradona the next. I had just seen Italy and Spain qualify ahead of Portugal and Denmark, both results ones I had hoped would go the other way. Bad Luck really does come in threes, as I was to find out.
There would be no next game for either side. The last berth at WC94 was up for grabs, Argentina were distinct favourites. Australia had lost Zelic and Bosnich through injury, while Argentina saw the return of Ruggeri and Simeone, both back from suspension.
Australia : Robert Zabica (Goalkeeper), Tony Vidmar, Mehmet Durakovic, Alex Tobin, Milan Ivanovich, Jason van Blerk, Robbie Slater, Paul Wade (c), Aurelio Vidmar, Frank Farina, Graham Arnold. Coach : Eddie Thomson Argentina : Sergio Goycochea (Goalkeeper), Jose Chamot, Sergio Vazquez, Oscar Ruggeri, Carlos MacAllister, Hugo Perez, Fernando Redondo, Diego Simeone, Diego Maradona (c), Gabriel Batistuta, Abel Balbo. Coach : Alfio Basile Referee : Peter Mikkelson (Denmark)
Local reporter Orestes Katorosz had given some perspective of the Argentinian viewpoint, which seemed to be one of caution. The Argentine press, especially El Grafico, seemed to be just as insistent on Basile's sacking as the Mirrors obsession with Turnip Taylor.
As the teams arrived on the pitch masses of paper was released by the crowd which was carried by the strong wind in the stadium. The paper was as thick as any snowstorm (well most anyway) and completely obscured the view for a while, the Australians appeared amid the tumultous applause for Argentina, almost anonymously.
The expected whirlwind start by Argentina did not eventuate, but the early evidence showed that it probably wasn't needed. Argentina were impressive in their passing and running, Robert Zabica getting his first touch of the ball in catching a cross in the first minute.
The crowd was extremely vocal, and their support probably lifted the Argentines to the level required to overcome the Aussies. Both sides were relying on the long ball more than usual, almost certainly because of the bumpy pitch. Both defences were working overtime, and this was reflected in the number of fouls conceded, and the 5 yellow cards of the first half. Maradona was exhibiting some theatrics after a van Blerk tackle, Maradona was suffering from a sciatic nerve problem but his rather surprising recovery seemed to indicate that it had not been aggravated.
Milan Ivanovic and Oscar Ruggeri starred early, as the former cut out many runs on the right flank and the latter gaining posession in the middle from the Aussie attacks. In the end the first shot in anger came from Frank Farina but the shot was going wide and trickled, rather than cannoned into the keepers hands, in any case an offside had been called.
After 12 minutes the Argentines had a golden chance go by them. A disputed throw-in went to Argentina close to the Aussie box and found Maradona. He in turn looped a perfect cross into the middle to an umarked Batistuta who, inexplicably, sent the ball wide from his header. Infact Batistuta was so unmarked I thought he might have been offside, but he wasn't. Once my heart resumed it's sightly erratic beat I knew that things were beginning to look badly. My opinion was confirmed when Vidmar failed to take a throw-in from the correct spot, an elementary mistake.
Aurelio Vidmar was deputising for the absent Zelic in midfield, and though he performed well a lack of experience in that position was showing. In the end one could say that Zelic's absence, and the return of Ruggeri and Simeone won the game for Argentina.
A failed clearance by Vazquez had Graham Arnold away with the ball. Ruggeri was rounded but he held onto Arnolds shirt and pulled him down. While other defenders were coming, Arnold was past them all so theoretically the yellow card produced by Mikkelsen was lenient. In practice I was hoping for a red card rather than expecting one, more out of cynicism than anything. Surely such a professional foul is uncalled for and should be severely punished. In another match perhaps, but this time no. Australia's , I hesitate to say it, ineptitude at free kicks didn't look like improving as Aurelio Vidmar put the ball over the crossbar. However it was a good attempt and I was not unhappy at this stage.
Jose Chamot was on the ground after a Farina tackle, and despite the referees request to get up he stayed down and required medical attention. Soon afterwards Mehmet Durakovic was shown a yellow card for a late tackle on Maradona, I wasn't happy but on replay it seemed like a fair decision. Argentina were making good buildup in the middle but Australia worried them on occasion. So much so that when van Blerk was bearing down on Vazquez, the last man, Vazquez felt obliged to kick the ball over the sideline.
The rampaging Simeone was brought down by Aurelio Vidmar at about halfway. Vidmar got a yellow card for his troubles. This was encouraging in the sense that the referee wasn't going to stand for rough play, but his application of that theory was very inconsistent, especially in the second half.
Argentina though were finding space in the middle and Perez benefited from that by being allowed to run down the flank and get a shot away. Although the shot was on target it wouldn't have troubled even me, let alone Zabica. Next Milan Ivanovic was cautioned for another tackle on Simeone. This time it seemed rather a harsh decision, but like it or not the referee is there to do a job and the players have to abide, thankfully Australia didn't concede any more cards but the threat of being sent off for another offence is a difficult thing to play with. Especially as a defender.
After regaining possession in Australia's half Maradona played a quick one two with Batistuta, before threading a perfect ball to Balbo. Balbo controlled the ball and rounded the keeper with the goal at his mercy, but just as he was about to perform the formality of scoring Durakovic took the ball off his toes and over the goal line in a last ditch tackle. Brilliant football by both sides and there was more to come. The ensuing corner was deflected by an Australian via Maradona attempted centre into the path of Batistuta. Batistuta scuffed the shot and it was left for Ruggeri to head over Zabica's head. Zabica pulled off a flying save and tipped the ball over the crossbar. Very entertaining if you're impartial, but heart-stopping for a poor soul like me. Zabica was certainly proving that they lost nothing with Bosnich's absence.
At the other end of the park Australia too were slightly unlucky after Slater crossed the ball into the centre for Arnold. MacAllister challenged for the ball and it fell behind them with Vidmar and Simeone chasing. Vidmar got there first and Simeone clipped his feet and brought him down. It didn't look intentional on the part of Simeone, but I can't help but believe that a legitimate penalty was denied the Australians.
To rub salt into the wound Argentina built up from there and Balbo was denied a goal on a tight angle by Zabicas legs. Perez then suffered a cut after he akwardly tried to tackle Slater, and needed some treatment.
Australias first corner kick came after 36 minutes and Robbie Slater swung the ball in, but it was cleared without too much trouble.
Australia managed to get another free kick after Vazquez put a blatant body check on a surging Farina. The yellow card got it's last airing for the night and a free kick in about the same position as Australia's ealier one was taken by Robbie Slater, with exactly the same result. This time I was hoping they'd try to drift the ball across the goalmouth and try for a header but I guess I'd have to become a player to make the judgement, rather than making fatuous suggestions from my chair.
From there the half got a little scrappy, not only the play but the referee too became erratic. As an example Paul Wade cannoning into Maradona as Wade was chasing a ball was ignored by Mikkelsen and play-on called.
As half time came I was relieved that the score was still 0-0, but also hopeful that Australia might be able to capitalise on the pressure this might exert on Argentina. Certainly the crowd didn't seem happy with the 0-0, and Argentina know all about having many scoring oppertunities only to have a one-chance goal sink the dominant team. Only in 1990 it was Argentina who were being battered by Brazil's many chances.
Straight after halftime Redondo was lucky not to concede an IFK for dangerous play when he virtually stuck his foot into Farinas face. Argentina, however, began the second half of the game very much in control. Some of the play was not very pretty (I think you all know what I mean) but it was effective and Australia couldn't hold the ball for long enough to build an attack, their only hope lay in a quick counter attack. Without an out and out class striker Australia would be hard pushed to do so.
So it came that luck, which had deserted Australia, worked heavily in Argentinas favour. Redondo and Perez brought the ball out of their own half and passed to Batistuta who was making a run along the dge 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 Tobins outstretched leg, hoping to cut it out. Zabica had come to te near post and the ball looped over his head, bounced on the line and hit the far post before going into goal. Graham Arnold and Paul Wade had arrived too late to do anything about it, Australia were shit out of luck. The crowd, of course, erupted and the relief on the faces of the Argie players was indicative of the pressure they faced, and had now lessened.
Australia had about 1/2 an hour to force a goal of their own. Argentina had other ideas as anti-futbol worked overtime to ensure as little football as possible was actually played before half time. Eddie Thomson sent on Carl Veart, Australias best hope for a good striker in the future, to replace Tony Vidmar. Ironically it was almost another own goal which might have levelled the score. Slater took a free kick which drifted into the Argentine penalty box, and Simeone tried to clear the ball just after it had bounced in front of him. The miskick took the ball in the direction of the far corner of the goal before Sergio Goycochea intervened by turning the ball beyond the far post with his fingertips.
Australia put the ball into the net after the corner had gone too far. Slater had retrieved the ball and sent it back into the centre where Paul Wade headed the ball in. Unfortunately Argentina had moved out and caught three Ausralians offside, well unfortunate for Australia anyway.
Soon afterwards Australia had another semi-chance when Slater again took a free kick towards the goalmouth which was cleared by MacAllister but straight to Veart. The force of the ball didn't allow Veart to control it though and it was booted upfield successfully by Argentina at the second attempt.
In order to take up some time, and to shore up the defence Balbo was taken off and Zapata replaced him. Redondo still showed he was a threat as he ran onto the Aussie goal only to be foiled at the last moment by a good van Blerk tackle. Argentina, for the most part, were content to let Australia have the ball in the Aussie half, and concentrated on defending. Durakovic's speculator for 20metres was just what Argentina were hoping to restrict Australia to. Not that Argentina had completely dismissed the thought of more goals. A Maradona free kick was passed forward to I forget who and then crossed inch perfect to Ruggeri's head. The header was saved at point blank range by Zabica. An excellent save, which gave Australia the hope that they might yet pull one goal back, they certainly could not have recovered from a 2-0.
Argentina were not holding back in their tackles, and in comparison to the fouls which got a yellow card in the first half one wonders what changed the referees mind. Some fouls were not even called, Australia too joined in but were overshadowed by the masters of this type of game. Australia too often looked frail at the back as they began to surge forward at every oppertunity looking for the equaliser. Of course the night wouldn't have been complete without some very severe injuries which were accompanied by some proportionally miraculous cures. I can't blame the Argies for doing it, after all a spot in the World Cup is a lot to play for, but is it really neccessary? Can't Argentina survive without it? Well I guess it didn't matter and if an hour of time were added on Argentina always looked more likely to increase the score than Australia did in equalising.
Simeone eventually did get a yellow card for a foul on Paul Wade, made worse by the fact Wade didn't have the ball on him at the time. Durakovic also got the ball into the net, again from a Slater cross, and again Argentina had pushed up and caught the Aussies offside. Argentina were very effective in what they did and on balance they were probably the more deserving winners, but the despair I felt when the final whistle killed Australia's hopes once and for all was pretty much the lowest I've felt for a long time. Much worse than when Arsenal scored in the 120th minute of the FA Cup replay of 1993.
About 2 1/2 minutes of time was added on, and the whistle sent the crowd, and the Argentine players, into raptures. In some small way Australia can be thanked for making qualification such a precious thing for Argentina in the end. "Cruel End", and "Valiant Socceroos" headlines did little to soften the blow, but my excursion to the movies that night brought welcome relief.
Argentina 1 - Australia 0 (Tobin og 57)
In the aftermath of the game there was criticism for playing the second game in Argentina. Personally I agree that having the deciding game at the SFS would have been better but hindsight is a wonderful thing, and something Eddie did not have. As disappointing as this loss is, many things can be learned from it, not the least of which is a world class goal getter. Someone who can be our Romario, our Batistuta, Papin, van Basten.
The OFC and AFC (Oceania and Asia confederations) have agreed to a scheme which would see the Oceania champions playoff against the third placed Asian team for a World Cup berth. Which, using this years results, would have seen Australia play against Japan after their New Zealand game to qualify. Something I firmly believe they could have done this time, next time it won't be as easy, no matter who we meet.
It is interesting that the planned tournament in Australia next February involves some of the unluckiest losers in the tournament for WC 94. Denmark, beaten by a 10 man Spanish side and Irelands goals scored, Ghana showing promise but not delivering and Japan, sunk by a 90th minute goal in their final game.
Well done Aussies, I am proud of their achievements. Who knows maybe Argentina will withdraw because the US won't allow Maradona and Caniggia into the country.......NOT! Yeah clutching at straws really is pathetic.