Australia are quite good at doing well at meaningless games and failing specatcularly in anything vaguely important. You need only look at the one (narrow) success in qualifying for the World Cup in 1974 and failing to do so in 1966, 1970, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994 and 1998. Of course there are other examples, and indeed exceptions however this match was not one of those.
The Oceania Nations Cup was revived into a semi-organised tournament because of the FIFA/Confederations Cup whose next edition is in January 1999 in Mexico. The qualifying nation was widely believed to be Australia and if anything the Australians were guilty of believing it too.
The caretaker coach Raul Blanco opted to call only on the locally based players. It is debatable whether there would have been much joy in calling on the overseas based Australians. The managers of many European clubs find the notion of the Confederations Cup itself as little more than a waste of time and another harebrained FIFA scheme to appease the lesser continents. Being asked to release the players for the qualifying tournament would certainly met by a very terse no. It is, I suppose, a saving grace that Raul Blanco will not have to ask for anyones release for the final tournament after all. In any case the local players were not yet participating in a season of football but at best had been playing a series of warmup games, the season itself begins next week. Amusingly enough the local coaches were also making adversarial noises about having to release players should Australia progress to Mexico. Again this argument has been avoided.
It should also be noted that since Oceania has been granted full confederation status by FIFA there has been an opening of the purse strings and the qualifying teams from the preliminary competitions (a 5 team Polynesian group and a 5 team Melanesian group both provided 2 finalists to join Australia and New Zealand) were able to send 20 man squads to Brisbane. The exception was New Zealand who are even harder up for cash than Australia, the latter spending big on their way to fail to qualify for the 1998 World Cup, and could only send an 18-man squad, many of whom are based in Australia anyway. Furthermore they were told their tracksuits had to be returned at the end of the tournament, a source of humour for their Trans-Tasman cousins until, of course, they won and were able to keep their outfits. For all the behind the scenes intrigue there was absolutely no interest from the public. Attendances were consistently below 1000 and even that appears optimistic.
So Australia on a 4-1 win, flattered by the score, and New Zealand relying on a late goal to vanquish Fiji 1-0 met in the final at 15:40 on a Sunday afternoon in front of a few die hard souls and me on the box some hundreds of kilometres south.
The match started quite dull, not much happened in the way of attack from either side and it seemed both sides were prepared to play themselves in slowly. The first noteworthy moment was a yellow card to Chris Zoricich for a heavy challenge on Kasey Wehrman. The two are teammates at Brisbane, this being their home ground, and Wehrman is still coming back from a serious leg injury. The Kiwis were here to win, or at least die trying.
New Zealand also got the first shot on target, it was an optimistic long shot but still it forced Petkovic to dive low and catch the ball. Australia had to wait for 13 minutes before they managed to get a shot at goal, and it wasn't even on target. Damian Mori, who was at least trying, managed to break forward and laid off the ball to Paul Trimboli who had managed to support Mori. However a New Zealand defender (Hay?) managed to put Trimboli off with a lunge in his shooting stride and the ball went just wide. The TV guys thought it was good enough and changed the caption to AUS 1 - NZ 0....if only.
New Zealand got another shot on target when they were awarded a free kick outside the area and Petkovic did well to turn the ball away for a corner. Meanwhile Australia did nothing, it was so sterile and mind-numbingly dull I honestly believe I could have made a contribution to the team. I suck. The midfield hardly strung two passes together before some aimless ball upfield was comfortably taken by the Kiwi defence and whenever a cross was attempted it invariably sailed high over the goalline. No use was made of the flanks, partly due to New Zealand having done their homework and that's why Lozanovski was substituted. The other part was just ineptitude. Australia was unable to penetrate the Kiwi defence with any long balls (the aforementioned chance to Trimboli excepted), and they were unwilling or unable to run at the defenders.
All the same the New Zealanders were not exactly beating down the door to Australia's goal either, however after after 24 minutes they gave an exploratory knock and Australia fell over themselves to let New Zealand in. Vaughan Coveny got the ball to the edge of the area and skirted around trying to find a shooting angle. He couldn't get one and passed the ball to Burton, but Kasey Wehrman was tracking back and slid in to intercept the ball. However the intercept was too strong to allow Wehrman to keep posession and too soft to send the ball to Petkovic. So Mark Burton just stepped forward and slotted the ball past the stranded keeper. Ouch!
Of course the way Australia had played this goal could have been a good thing and made them face up to reality and actually start to play. Or at least try something different. There wasn't a lot of evidence of this, some players did show some greater determination. Wehrman in particular did all that could be asked of him, well except maybe score.
The remainder of the half was punctuated by a series of yellow cards. Lines for tugging on Lozanovski's shirt, Jackson for a late tackle on Wehrman and the reciprocal card for Wehrman on Jackson for a similar offence barely a minute later (yes I know, that's not a proper sentence...but you didn't pay to read this). Most interesting was a late tackle by Zoricich which was certainly deserving of a card on what had come before. However there was no call and there is the suspicion that the early card to Zoricich had something to do with the referee's reluctance to produce another card. Indeed the match was played competitively enough if the apparent vigour of the players was anything to go by, for a while I was expecting a fistfight to break out. It would have been more entertaining.
At halftime Lozanovski was substituted, for whatever reason he was simply unable to make an impression on the game and Scott Chipperfield took his place. There's more obvious players on the subs bench to my mind, but I'm not the coach. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to be. New Zealand remained unchanged both in personnel and style. For their part Australia finally improved and showed the urgency which was missing previously, however they were still short on ideas and Jason Batty wasn't terribly troubled in the NZ goal.
Apart from Wehrman Damian Mori was also doing his best to extract a result from this situation. Mori's a fast player with an eye for goal, he's not what I'd call a 'goal-maker' though. He just wasn't getting the service and was left to make his own. Just before the hour mark he did fashion a chance of sorts when he turned inside some defenders and tried to curl the ball into the top left corner of the goal. Of course the score tells you he failed, but it was more than that. Instead of sparking renewed efforts to try again there was no discernible difference in Australia's tactics and attitude to the game.
If it wasn't clear enough to the players as it was New Zealand provided a metaphor for the contest when a stray elbow sent captain and record breaking cap winner of Australia Alexander Tobin sprawling on the grass of Suncorp stadium unconscious. As he lay there motionless in a match that should have brought him much to celebrate it would not be inconceivable that the rest of the players might have found that extra gear, the extra 10%, frame the cliche as you wish.
I don't mean to belittle New Zealands efforts, on the day they deserved nothing less than the win, no argument. However it would be a brave soul who would suggest that New Zealand were a superior team to Australia in general terms and that New Zealand should represent Oceania at the Confederations Cup is an affront to me. Seriously. No matter what happens there Australia will be seen as second to New Zealand on the strength of this game. It's not as if we weren't aware of the dangers, the 1997 U17's, the 1982 World Cup indeed the 1990 World Cup all involved New Zealand 'pantsing' Australia and I'm sure there are more examples. Yet Australia persist on letting these chances to present themselves in a decent light slip away with games like this.
No doubt it is good for Oceania generally to have a variety of representatives if nothing else to dispel claims that the region is Australia and a dozen or so wannabes. Notwithstanding that this is exactly what Oceania is. I wish New Zealand well, honestly, but I'd be surprised if they get a point from any of their games. Again, it is not New Zealands fault for playing well but Australia's fault for failing to take this game for what it was.
Anyway, Alex Tobin was stretchered off and Dominic Longo came on to replace him. Longo had a brief spell overseas and was one of Eddie Thomsons perennial selections. The common wisdom is that if he had not been overseas he would have been unlikely to ever see a Socceroo shirt, there is this feeling that if someone else thinks a player is good enough that we should think so too, something of a cultural cringe. The whole phenomenon is worthy of an article in itself I'm sure.
Having had his hands forced by the Tobin injury, he recovered later and watched the remainder of the game but was kept under observation at the local hospital overnight, Raul Blanco made his final substitution and brought on Kris Trajanovski for Troy Halpin. Simon Colosimo then showed some of what he can do when an evading solo run ended with a shot at goal which Batty beat away from the New Zealand goal. Things were starting to look up and there were still 20-odd minutes to go.
Then in the 69th minute Chris Jackson followed up a shot by Mark Burton which had been saved by Petkovic and only a well timed tackle stood between New Zealand and a 2 goal lead. Then followed some more cards and a pair of New Zealand substitutions, Che Bunce and Ivan Vicelich both coming on to defend the precious goal.
Then as the minutes went by and hope had faded we found ourselves in the 92nd minute and Kris Trajanovski was in the penalty area, being pushed wide when Gavin Wilkinson lunged in for a tackle which he might have lived to regret. Trajanovski fell and appeals for a penalty were loud and prolonged, but declined by the referee. Infact Trajanovski was carded for a dive. Now I wished for the penalty as much as anyone but Australia hardly deserved one on this performance, nor did New Zealand. Also the referee is human and he too knows that at this stage of the match players will use any means to pull a game out of the fire, by whatever means and even if the penalty was deserved, and it did look like a penalty to me, the more likely scenario is that there is a con in progress.
Soon afterwards the improbable was real and New Zealand were champions of Oceania, and Australia second. (For what it's worth Fiji was 3rd and Tahiti 4th).