Australia v Iran by Thomas Esamie

Australia 2 - Iran 2

There's a few matches which are great because of the play it contains, some are great for incidents not neccessarily because of the game and some are great simply because of what is at stake. Australia's first appearance at a World Cup since 1974 was at stake here and Iran's since 1978. Of course thanks to some politics Iran hadn't been trying all the time the way Australia had. So as an Australian supporter it is sad that the match turned out to be glorious for Iran.

Here is a little extract I thought I should fit in somewhere in this report. written by Andrew Howe when the Asian qualifiers had barely begun. Andrew is a fan who moonlights as a government statistician.

If potential away support is gonna help whoever comes here on November 29,
then we better start hoping for Qatar.  The 1996 Census counted 111,000
Chinese born in Oz, compared to less than 200 for the Qatarians (163), and
Kazakhs (168).

If however these folk don't travel interstate to watch their motherland
play, then the story changes:

Should the game be in SYDNEY, then, with only 47 Kazakh-born in NSW, we
should pray for KAZAKHSTAN.  47 wouldn't be enough to fill two rows of Bay
62 or wherever they're gonna hang out!

But maybe the ultimate scenario would be us to play UZBEKISTAN in BRISBANE.
Only 1 Queenslander was born in Uzbekistan!  (Hey, let's trash their house
if they win!!!)

Persons born in selected countries, by state, 1996 Census:
             China  S.Korea    Japan     Iran   Kuwait
 NSW         65534    21908    10159     9285      834
 VIC         28162     2519     3972     2704      433
 QLD          7302     2792     5464     1082       84
 SA           3060      784      778     1369       41
 WA           4554     1259     1832     1438      155
 TAS           398      215      185       91        3
 NT            334       59      130       39        6
 ACT          1656      555      493      262       30
 AUST       111000    30091    23014    16270     1586

             Saudi      UAE   Uzbek-   Kazakh    Qatar
            Arabia             istan    -stan
 NSW           503      367       96       47       82
 VIC           264      214      129       52       26
 QLD           105      110        1       23       10
 SA             38       22       19       35        0
 WA            155      146        5        8       42
 TAS             4        7        0        0        0
 NT              8        0        0        0        0
 ACT            28       20       11        3        3
 AUST         1105      886      261      168      163

As for the first leg, I don't have the stats for Aussie born in these 10
countries handy...

Infact there are several aspects of this game which strike a curious chord. First the game was similar to the first in that the home side deserved to win the match but only managed to draw thanks to the away sides goalkeeper and well taken opportunities by the visitors. The match was another in the litany of close shaves Australia has had in past attempts at World Cup qualification.

The point has also been made that Iran was on it's third chance to qualify after having failed to win their group and also losing the playoff with Japan for the 3rd Asian spot. That is neither here nor there, those were the rules and while they suck there is little one can gain from arguing now. The one which really does hurt is that Australia now have the dubious distinction of having failed to qualify for the World Cup with a record of 6 wins, 2 draws and 0 losses.

This game, for better or for worse was scheduled at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Australia's largest stadium with a capacity hovering around 100,000. The problem is that as a Cricket Arena it is oval and not really suited to football both because of the shape and because of the centre square which, as cricket fans will know, is heavily compacted and has more in common with concrete than grass. As it turned out the pitch was superb to look at and looked like it played truly. The oval was slightly detracting btthe bumper crowd more than made up for the lack of proximity to the play.

The decision to play at the MCG was made after a guarantee of a 62,000 gate was made by the Victorian government (with financial compensation incase of a shortfall) which just shades the capacity of a full ANZ Stadium in Brisbane and is substantially ahead of a full house at the 'home' of Australian Soccer, the Sydney Football Stadium which accommodates 42,000.

For sad young (and old) men who have a large part of their lives devoted to football the location was largely immaterial, you have to be there. So with ticket in hand I left Sydney the day prior to the match and flew to Melbourne.

Since these records are as much a personal thing as a historical record of sorts allow me to indulge a little.

I arrived in Melbourne on Friday afternoon with a friend to be part of the day Australia would qualify for the World Cup once more. The taxi driver from the airport was suitably dull asking me if I was expecting a riot the following night and when probed for interesting things to do all he could suggest was a trip to the Casino. However the city itself more than made up for it. Melbourne is easier to get around in, has larger roads and sidewalks and feels more relaxed than Sydney. I feel slightly guilty for paying out on Melbourne all this time and promise to show more restraint in future.

That night I met up with a friend (Hi Rob) from my high school days and we finally worked out that it was 7 years since we had last seen one another. Some reminiscing over a beer or two was followed by some surprisingly tasty (and cheap too) vegetarian dinner and a game of pool. Thanks for beating me Rob you bastard.

Up until Saturday I had not been suffering the jitter of nerves which accompanied the failed attempt 4 years earlier against Argentina. That morning those telltale signs started to be felt. To be honest I don't know whether this was because I cared less, was more confident or just hadn't been exposed to the media frenzy that Argentina generated. It was of course a FIFA masterstroke to have Australia prove their claims for a World Cup berth by having to beat the team which were runners-up from the previous tournament. This time the task was more palatable, but as it turns out a bit too hard to swallow all the same.

I got a breakfast call and met up with fellow OzSoccer crewman Andrew Howe and bumped into Mick Kmet and friend as well. As a means to relax and to get a bit of a picture of Melbourne not confined to its drinking establishments Virginia and I decided to go visit Melbourne Zoo. We took the #55 tram and obviously had chosen well because the pantograph fell off the tram less than halfway through the journey and had to wait for a service crew to first try (unsuccessfully) to fix it and then have a truck push the tram to the nearest interchange and get on one of the services which had backed up behind us. Victoria on the move indeed.

The Zoo itself was thoroughly enjoyable, though I'd like to ban all people under 18 from being anywhere near me on occasions like this. Still the large cats, meerkats, reptiles and monkeys were probably the highlights and of course there were many other exhibits but that would probably stray just a little too far from the point.

On the return journey back into the city the tram itself didn't fall apart but some of its occupants were trying to do their best to do so by inhaling the fumes of a spraycan of gold paint being discharged in a plastic bag. Well I suppose that's better than having them use the paint for graffiti and take heroin for the rush.

Then as we strolled around town and had lunch at the Shot Tower the rain began to fall and just incase bought raincoats should it end up being a wet affair.

Sadly the pre-match meeting at the Cricketers Arms wasn't an appointment I could keep because walking around for over 4 hours straight and then braving the rain, well I'm getting old.

Eventually the hour drew near and the walk to the stadium was very easy to negotiate since there was a steady stream of people leading the way. Once there the enormity of the ground, the crowd and the occasion started to hit home like a freight train. It is at times like these, and especially after the game, that I wish that football would not play such a large role in my life. It would make coping so much easier.

There was no shortage of promotional activity going on. Face painting (for supporters of both kinds) flags and banners (just for the Aussies) and drum bands all added to an atmosphere almost carnival-like. I've no experience in big match occasions like these from another country but despite Australia's general reticence to embrace the football we all enjoy this seemed to be the real deal. Socceroo and Iran supporters both roamed and cheered freely outside the enormous walls of the Great Southern Stand of the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

It was my first visit there, I've seen the place often enough on the box but once inside the size of the place does get to you. Slowly as the ground filled up the palms began to sweat and the heart beat a little faster. I think I was losing control of my limbs too.

The pre-match entertainment was, as expected, trite and obnoxious but when the teams briefly appeared for their final warm up routines a promise of the noise to come was made with a primal-roar-come-cheer gretted the Aussies and hoots and whistles the entrance of the Iran squad. There appeared to be 3 seperate pockets of Iranian support with a few Iranian flags here and there dotting the landscape of Australian flags of all sizes and variety. I saw at least one Southern Cross flag and several boxing kangaroos.

The teams eventually lined up and their names were announced. Each Iran players name howled down in derision and each Socceroo cheered lustily. Then came the anthems. Iran were first and while I generally disapprove of disrespect to the opposing anthem the treatment Australia's anthem got in Tehran is hardly likely to sway my diplomatic tendencies. So 'Boooooohhhhhhh!' it was. Then came Australia's anthem. In Wales the Rugby tests are famed for the quality and particiaption of the Welsh anthem by the locals. The Australians were not quite as melodic but sang as one in a wave of sound that rose up and made the whole greater than the sum of of the parts. The feeling you get when an entire stadium, not just you and a few of your mates, all sing as one to show they are committed to a common cause just as fervently as you are is not one taken lightly nor forgotten easily. I'm not saying it was unique in football but I think it was unique in Australia and certainly unique in Australian football. It made me feel less like me and more like the member of some Socceroo Borg collective.

I sat in Bay M3 which was roughly in line with the diagonal of the pitch behind the goal the Australians attacked in the first half and had the opening minutes randomly interrupted by officials checking tickets because somehow the people:seat ratio was in favour of the lifeforms.

The match kicked off with Daei taking the ball first. I mention it only because he was first to touch the ball after the game ended. Once Australia gained posession a raking long ball by Horvat found Viduka on the flank and he struggled clear of some defenders and the ball into the centre found Aurelio Vidmar all on his own with only Abedazdeh between him and the goal. Australia should have scored then and there. Alas the keepers reflexes and Vidmars scuffed shot contrived to keep things scoreless. I can only assume Vidmar was unprepared for such an early chance. Doesn't exactly explain why he continued to miss.

While the screen at the ground was showing replays of Aurelio's miss he had another opportunity which was just palmed over the crossbar by the inspirational Iranian keeper. He even had the good nature to laugh about it as Australia was setting up for the corner. The corner from Slater came in and Viduka headed just wide. However Vidmar fouled the keeper in the process and the free kick was given. Still it was already looking reminiscent of the game against Canada where Australia created a glut of chances and converted just one.

There was action in the stands too. Some people, despite the best efforts of security who patted down every attendee, managed to sneak in some flares and let them off early in the game. This particular flare fell to the ground near the bag which contained more and ignited those too. The result was a thick red fog through which I could not see for a while and several small fires of discarded paper and unfortunately placed bags. The Police were also quick to move in and threaten to expel the entire section. They never would have been un-Australian. Back to the game.

A second corner from a blocked Slater cross was taken by Harry Kewell barely 4 minutes into the game. Abedzadeh flapped at it as it flew to the far post where Craig Moore had timed his run perfectly but his shot was miscued and ran back across the face of goal and was cleared rather than sneaking it at the post as he, presumably, had intended. It could have been 3-0. It should have been at least 1-0.

Abedzadeh was far better in plucking a Lazaridis cross out of the air before either Kewell or Viduka at the far post could do anything with it. His defenders also finally made a contribution in tracking down Vidmar as he prepared for yet another shot at goal. Another Lazaridis cross after 8 minutes or so was spilled by the keeper as he stretched to intercept it. Kewell was on hand to swing his leg at the ball and send it into the net but the head of the Iranian #20 was on the line to clear the ball for yet another Australian corner.

The corner came in and Moore had his header tipped over the bar by the keeper. I remember seeing this period of the match and thinking how great this team was playing. True enough they were, but on reflection they were being wasteful. This is not the sort of match in which to spurn chances as good and numerous as these. In this entire period Iran failed to threaten the Australian goal once, but more importantly they kept theirs intact. The first shot at goal came from Sadavi and that wasn't going in even if the goal were 10 metres high. That shot came after over 13 minutes of almost relentless Australian attack.

Bosnich wasn't getting much to do but you could see he was practicing saves while ball was busy making his Iranian counterpart do the real thing. However after Iran weathered this initial storm they started to get into the game. They held the ball longer and Australia wasn't getting into scoring positions at will anymore. Iran had done very well indeed.

When Viduka was fouled just outside the area by Khakpour the free kick was, again, never going to do anything useful for Australia. Again Vidmar made a meal of it, kicking the ball right into a defender. Iran were defending in numbers, well what else could you do, but they were certainly looking dangerous on a quick break when posession was gained. Australia again failed to send the score into something other than 0-0 after 28 minutes when a move by Lazaridis and Viduka had Vidmar take a shot from a long way out. It was almost a spectacular shot, but of course it missed.

After some renewed efforts by Australia a corner came and went but posession was held until Vidmar found himself on the left flank and managed to get a cross in from near the corner of the penalty box. The backtracking defender all missed the ball and it was Harry Kewell at the far post who latched onto the ball and sent the ball into the net and have the crowd go totally ballistic. I doubt the MCG has heard a cheer as loud as the one which greeted the goal. Finally it came. Finally. Curiously Alex Tobin was alongside Kewell as he scored. What was he doing there?

In the 44th minute Iran got their first serious attack on goal together, previously the final ball was intercepted before too much bother came to pass but when Azizi fed a ball through the middle, ostensibly to Daei, it took everyone by surprise when Mahdavikia surged through the middle and his first touch was only fractionally too hard and allowed Bosnich to run off his line and fall on the ball before the actual shot on goal eventuated. It was close though, and just before halftime it served as a timely reminder of just how close the score still was.

Halftime saw the crowd voice some cautious optimism and given the flow of play you could hardly deny Australia were looking like good things. A minute or so into the second half Lazaridis fed the ball to Viduka's feet who managed to shoot on the turn but the ball went just wide. Not inconsiderable was the presence of a defender (I think it was Pashedazdeh but I cannot be certain) who had both arms around Viduka and pulled him down as he was trying to shoot. This happened in the penalty box so a penalty seems to have been a valid outcome but in these situations it is better to make sure of the shot or not take it at all and hope the referee will decide in your favour. In this case neither happened and Puhl waved play on. It wasn't an outrageous error, not like the one which was still coming, but certainly a matter open for discussion.

It didn't seem to matter when Lazaridis again started things with a cross to the far post where Kewell nodded the ball back into the centre and Foster was on hand to head the ball goalwards. The ball only found the crossbar and bounced back into the field of play and at the feet of the rapidly closing Vidmar who _finally_ managed to make a shot count and sent it into the roof of the net. Australia led 2-0 with 42 minutes to go.

In the raucous celebrations for the second goal a person in the crowd jumped on the netting of the Iranian goal which disconnected from the frame of the goal and some 5 minutes were spent rectifying the problem. It is noteworthy that this same guy also disrupted the funeral of Michael Hutchence in Sydney and prior to that entered the racecourse as the Melbourne Cup was being run.

12 minutes (which was more like 7 minutes due to the interruption) into the second half Iran began made a substitution to try chasing the game. They needed at least 2 goals more to progress to France and the side had so far made little impression on the defence of Australia.

Had Kewell's intercept from some defensive dilly-dallying fallen to Viduka less awkwardly Iran may have needed 3 goals. However Viduka managed only to spoon the ball across goal and a goal kick was all that came from it. Viduka again, barely a minute later, again had a shot at goal after skilfully evading 3 defenders. This time it was struck well and on target but Abedzadeh was on hand to bat it down and away. The Iranian keeper may have a nasty tendency towards gamesmanship but there can be no doubting his ability.

Iran still were looking like the harsh schedule they had endured over the past 2 or so months hadn't wearied them as it appeared to have done in Malaysia against Japan. In a sign of things to come they managed a very dangerous move and cut the ball back across the face of goal only to suffer from a lack of people forward to capitalise. Immediately afterwards Abedzadeh made a mistake which could, and indeed should, have cost Iran another goal when a clearance went along the ground straight to Viduka. Almost overwhelmed by the opportunity Mark hurried his shot at goal and spooned it rather too much and it went wide of goal.

Not content with starring for the Iranians Abedzadeh also had to be an arsehole. At around 70 minutes (discounting the 5 for interruption) he cleared a ball played back by his defence well inadvance of Harry Kewell who was trying to charge the kick down. Having failed to do so Harry reached out and tried to avoid a clash only to have Abedzadeh lift his leg and turn into Harry and then fall to the ground like a sack of potatoes. I feel inclined to say a sack of shit but this opportunism seemed to have no real benefit to him and Kewell might have been overenthusiastic. Kewell stood over the keeper in admonishment and got yellow carded for his trouble. I don't know whether the card was for a foul, in which case it was undeserved, or for ungentlemanly conduct in which case the referee has a point.

Regardless the crowd cried 'Bullshit' in unison.

Somehow Iran were getting a bit of momentum though. I suppose looking back it's easy to say but being 2-0 up with 20 minutes to go there might be a tendency to relax just when the opponent is getting desperate. What would I have changed? I don't know 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. That would have been legal. Instead the goal came from a clear offside.

Bagheri shrugged off the attentions of Craig Moore and pased forward to Azizi and the #18 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 the #18 and ricoched 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.

So the goal should not have been allowed because 1) it was offside and 2) the defence should have taken care of it long before things came so far.

Alas it was now 2-1 and Iran had their sails up and 70 minutes of Aussie pressure suddenly reverted back upon themselves mainly due to profligate finishing. It was almost as if Iran were already in the better position and it didn't take long until they actually were.

Whatever was wrong with the first goal Iran's second was brilliant, and it pains me to say it. A Bosnich goal kick was contested and won by Iran in the centre circle and ran to 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 exaclty 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. The people around me though, as well as myself, had become deathly silent. For me I knew I had just seen Australia failt to qualify once more. Only this time I did it in person. It does exacerbate the pain I assure you.

Australia, to their credit, and after all they didn't have much choice, went on to play fervently looking to get the extra goal and made the substitutions they felt were required. Iran too did what they felt was required and this included some rather blatant time-wasting tactics. To make things worse Craig Moore managed to injure his calf in these vital few minutes.

Graham Arnolds first touch was a right foot drive at goal which was well saved by the goalkeeper but the game lost all its flow with numerous interruptions for injuries and substitutions. Abedzadeh too made sure every goal kick he took found the sideline as well as any fly-half could wish for.

Australia managed a series of half-chances, the best and last of which was a header by Graham Arnold destined for the bottom corner but again Abedzadeh saved Iran's bacon and while on the balance of play I cannot believe that Iran got through it is noteworthy that Iran took the few chances available to them and Australia wasted enough to have managed double digits had they been as efficient as Iran. Therein lies the sticking point. If Australia cannot take the chances they create then perhaps they are not good enough for the World Cup. Similarly if Iran can be so outplayed and yet get the required result then surely there is some merit to their inclusion. After all how often does one hear similar allegations laid against Germany. Dull, resilient fighters who will be outplayed but rarely outscored.

Oh the pain.

The final whistle went 8 minutes after the 45 minutes since it announced the start of the half had elapsed. Ali Daei in some bizarre, and no doubt unintended, mark of respect to the ground that had given Iran a favourable result caught the goalkick from Abedzadeh high above his head in true Aussie Rules marksmanship and ran to give it to Sandor Puhl. Sandor has now refereed 2 Australian World Cup draws, the 1-1 in 1993 at the SFS against Argentina which merely signalled the end of the first leg but this time he ended the the dreams of the Australian players, officials and fans. Of course he simultaneously fulfilled those of the overall victorious team and their supporters.

I was numb and shaking...literally. Sure it was cold and all I was wearing was my Gonzoliga T-Shirt and Socceroo top (and jeans and scarf etc...) but suddenly every movement was an effort not unlike the movement of a glacier. Time too slowed, painfully examining every minute detail of the pain which had unfolded for me and the majority of the stadiums occupants. Angry, betrayed, always seeks to blame the pain on someone or something but at fault was the time and emotion I had invested not only in this game but all games of all football. Every football book I buy, every game I watch deepens my dependency on this arbitrary game of 11 men who are paid so much they become arrogant and aloof simply because I will pay to watch them kick a piece of leather stitched together by some underpaid worker in the subcontinent or east asia.

Looking back you could blame Craig Moore for not booting the ball out of the stadium, the official for not spotting the offside, the pointless card for Kewell, the idiot who broke the net (I think his name is Peter Horne) 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, Ukraine and Russia have more to complain about than Australia.

It is now only a day since the match has passed and still I am irritable and silently cry when I think of what could have been. The Iranian people are certainly more supportive of their team as a whole. One guest at the hotel I was staying at made a point of saying "Go Iran" as I left for the game dressed in my replica top. He looked as Anglo-Saxon as I could ask, had no football gear on and seemed to do it merely out of spite. He didn't just not care about football...he was against it. Still people like myself who invest so much emotionally lose most.

The players of course are distraught but they play on and get paid well. On the flight back to Sydney the next day I shared the plane with some of the 1974 players (who had been paraded around the ground before the match), Damian Mori, Milan Ivanovic and Jason Petkovic, as well as the 1974 coach Rale Rasic. Their discussions seemed to almost entirely exclude the match and while I sat mummified in my seat Damian was telling the others how he had been made to play 'keep ball' sessions in training and how he thought Italian coaches were the best. Sacchi anyone?

I don't blame them, there is so much more to life and the World Cup will in all liklihood still be a great tournament with entertaining matches and somebody will play against Germany in the final. Nobody will miss Australia except the fans who will think back to last night and wonder how close we came. Again.

It is scant consolation since nobody cares and nobody will take the tournament seriously but Australia will play in the Confederation Cup to be held in Saudi Arabia in a matter of days. Matches against Mexico, Brazil and hosts Saudi Arabia are guaranteed, if Australia finishes in the top two of that group they progress to the semi-finals and will perhaps show FIFA that Australia are good enough to be at the World Cup, even if they failed to prove it against an Asian side they should have beaten.

In truth many of the players will feel pressure from their clubs to return for duty there and indeed one suspects Terry Venables, having his hopes to lead a World Cup team ended this time, may look for a more profitable position before long. Any Australian performance there is likely to be a return to the half-arsed team of second stringers treating the game like a friendly which is the only kind of game Australia will play for the next four years.

Written by Thomas Esamie