In a way the match itself was secondary to the 'event'. In the past few weeks a great many things have happened and while I am unsure of whether this was the original intent but it turns out that only a few weeks after rumours that Australia was seeking to leave Oceania and join the AFC, and mere days after the AFC president Bin Hamman endorsed this move, Australia play Asian opposition twice in the space of a few days. The news is generally seen as a positive move and not purely because it will get Australia away from qualifying for the World Cup against a South American side. The added benefits (read income) from involvement in things like Asian championships, Club competitions and so on start to boggle the mind. Of course it does nothing for 2006 qualification.
You sort of know there's bigger things at play when the AFC president and the Prime Minister of Australia rock up to shake hands with all the players before the start of the game. I mean you might expect it at a big match, like a World Cup qualifier.. not some "meaningless friendly". John Howard, who for a variety of reasons is the current Prime Minister and political leader of Australia, is a well known cricket fan. A 'cricket tragic' infact. I wondered idly, as he was doing the handshake thing, if he was even aware of who the players were, and I mean the Australian ones. Perhaps I'm selling him short.
The other noteworthy thing was the number of Iraqi supporters. There's been a bit of history of visiting teams beaing better supported than the locals, and while the overwhelming majority were there to support the Socceroos the colour and noise from the Iraqi fans was much more impressive than the show for the locals. In a way you can understand why. It's been some time since it was acceptable to feel good about being an Iraqi. Again I exaggerate, but really... you know what I mean. So here's this chance to go out and be as nationalistic as you want and boy did they take advantage. I should add that they were often waving Australian *and* Iraqi flags and very jovial about the whole thing. They assembled early and during the curtain raiser match between the Aussies and Japan (womens) they practiced their Iraq chants. Then while the main event was drawing close a massive cheer went up for the Iraqi players. In a way I started getting Solomon Islands vibes, and not the good kind.
On the bright side my initial discomfort about the venue was dispelled. The Olympic Stadium, or Telstra Stadium if you want to keep the sponsors happy, is rather large and playing a friendly invites a poor turnout which makes a poor crowd look worse in a large venue. The normal place to play, the 40000+ Sydney Football Stadium, or Sydney Football (Aussie) Stadium for the sponsors, was in use for the Super 12 game involving the NSW Waratahs. I'm not sure if it was the adjoining Easter Show, better advertising or just a change in the general popularity of football but in excess of 30,000 people showed up. This on a day when it had been raining.
So yes, there actually was a match but it kicked off over 20 minutes late. The Iraqi anthem can take some of the blame for that I think. For some reason the announcer kept mentioning that this was the 3rd meeting of these two sides ever. Well at senior level, there was that Olympic match... and Iraq won that one. They also won the toss of the coin.
The early minutes I thought looked promising for Australia (apart from a Falcon by, I think, Stan Lazaridis) as they managed to hold most of the possession and looked to be the more technical of the sides. The Iraqi goalkeeper was kept busy in this opening period and he looked competent, though he did seem to enjoy flinging himself around even when it wasn't strictly required. I'm tempted to draw parallels with the Iranian keeper circa 1997 (was it really that long ago?). For their part the Iraqis showed a great deal of speed and a good dose of close control.
My thoughts at this stage was that the Iraqis would play on andrenaline for the first half hour or so and then tire and fold. I guess I don't know a lot about football at all. I should mention that as I write this the day after the game I have read several people very disappointed with Australia's performance and I agree they could have done better but it really didn't look that bad to me.
Well after 11 minutes though...
Like I said it all looked like Australia had it under control when Iraq were playing the ball across their backline. Then, in what now looks like a masterstroke but seemd a bit hopeful at first the ball was launched forward. The only people more surprised than me were playing in Australia's back line. I'm not sure whether to blame Moore, Popovic or Schwarzer. I'll go for a 25-45-30 split between them. In any event the fleetfooted Mohammad Nasir outpaced the defenders and stretched his boot towards the bouncing ball and looped it over the stranded Schwarzer. Cue pandemonium in the south eastern section of the stadium.
This, as you would expect, changed the game somewhat. Iraq suddenly were as convinced as their supporters that thay could pull this off and in their rush to equalise Australia suddenly looked a lot less methodical and, well, superior. Small surprise then that the referee pulled out a yellow card to remind Australia what happens when you try too hard to shortcut your way to an equalizer. Actually that particular event resulted in a free kick for Iraq and the ball registered on the radar for Sydney Airport for a while.
It was then interesting that a similarly positioned free kick at the opposite end barely two minutes later had such a markedly different result. In Marco Bresciano it seems Australia finally has someone who knows what to do with a free kick and not a moment too soon. The Iraqi keeper did get his hands to it as he dived to save the shot, but was eventually only successful in palming the ball into his own net. The roar of the crowd this time was much louder.
About this time I noticed a flag in the crowd that looked suspiciously Iranian. Not sure if someone got to the shop after they'd sold out all the Iraqi ones, mispronounced what they wanted or were just plain taking the mickey.
The match ebbed and flowed for the remainder of the half. Australia never quite regained the confidence they started off with and Iraq tried hard but didn't get that luck they enjoyed when they scored. Towards the end of the half Schwarzer managed to fumble the ball and Ahmed Assad failed to beat him to the slightly loose ball. At least I think it was Assad, since the match programme and the shirt numbers on the field didn't really match. For example Nasir was wearing 17 but was listed s 9. Very irritating since I was hoping to point out some of the better Iraqi players.
At half time Stan Lazaridis made way for Tony Vidmar, I hardly noticed Stan so I guess it was fair enough. Problem is I didn't notice Tony much either. I got a little distracted early in the half when the Iraqi substitutes had a ball go into the stands. Either it went to some people who were unaware you're supposed to give the ball back, or they were just being wankers. A security guard eventually sorted that out after the Aussie contingent started chanting "GIve them the ball back" without much success, but to their credit.
In the 8th minute, or so, of the second half Assad (or at least the guy in number 11 who I think was Assad) managed to thread a pass forward to Nasir who ran onto it beautifully and took his shot at goal. Schwarzer had spread himself and I had a suspicion it had clipped him, but the absence of a subsequent corner suggests I was wrong. However it did clip the side of the post, but as far as Iraq was concerned it was the wrong side of the post. People have drawn parallels with the actual goal Iran scored in that fateful match in 1997, and I guess it's a fairly similar sequence with a wildly different result.
The rain started falling for about 10-15 minutes soon after that. Not heavily but enough to make me think of the final result being decided on some goalmouth pinball after the goalkeeper failed to handle a cross, or something similar. I guess the pessimist in me was taking over and I was imagining this scenario with Iraq scoring.
In an attempt to spark some change Frank Farina subbed off Bresciano and Chipperfield and brought on Sterjovski and McKain. Oh yeah, take off Bresciano... I have to say it sparked a change in me. Not a good one. Akram Salman went for some fresh legs too bringing on Moaid Salim for Kadhum.
That man Assad kept threatening to score though. Notably hustling the Aussie defence so that when an underhit pass across the back took its time making the intended target he hared through and forced Mark Schwarzer into another save.
It wasn't all bad though, Australia were still presented with opportunities of their own. Craig Moore managed to get his noggin to two corners and though he didn't score he did well enough to force the Iraqis to come up with something creative to stop him scoring. So more or less the to and fro started to suggest we'd seen the last of the scoring.
Then when Farina took off Emerton and Cahill and put on Elrich and Culina I just couldn't understand why. A few seconds later I realised that there's a resaon I'm not coach. With his first touch of the match Elrich controlled the pass from midfield (Skoko?) and with his second he stroked the ball cross the face of goal, it bobbled over the outstretched hand of the Iraqi keeper and slid neatly into the side netting at the far post. Elrich ran to the fans justifiably elated and probably got a few thrown out for jumping the perimeter fence. The crowd rose in a wild cheer. It was just the tonic for a game in serious danger of petering out in a mediocre draw. Given the fact that the game was, apparently, being beamed live across Asia there would have been a few suits in the corporate boxes breathing a sigh of relief for some other reasons.
Not content with showing off with the winning goal Ahmad Elrich then has another shot at goal barely 2 minutes later which ends up over the bar. A few substitutions later and 3 minutes of added time ended up seeing the game out. Overall a performance not the best Australia is capable of, but at the same time you can't argue with a win.
Farina was fairly clear in his agreement that Australia is capable of better, but the Confederations Cup should make a much clearer case about how well Australia can pull together before the crucial World Cup qualifiers against the Solomon Islands and, hopefully, an as yet unknown South American opponent.