As if to reinforce that football and fairytale finishes rarely go hand in hand, the four retiring legends of Australian football were last night robbed of a dream winning end by an injury time own goal from poor Michael Beauchamp.
The equaliser was an unfortunate way to finish for Tony Vidmar, Stan Lazaridis, Tony Popovic and Zeljko Kalac, but will take little away from their marvelous green and gold careers. Winners they mightn’t have been on the night, but winners they have been for over a decade, invariably making themselves available for the Socceroos and always playing with totally commitment, best summed up by a Lazaridis kiss of the crest as he left the pitch.
There’s little doubt they leave the Socceroos in much better shape than when they started. When they came onto the scene in the early to mid-90s, the Socceroos were a once-every-four-years phenomenon, rousing the nation at crunch world cup qualifier time, but largely in the background in between.
Today the national football team is mainstream, names and faces instantly recognised not only around the nation, but around the world. Even the odd late night drink and sleep-in is big news nowadays.
It is a legacy all four of these guys, and the 500 or so other Socceroo pioneers, should be proud of.
This was a night for nostalgia. Certainly the mind skipped back to my first ever world cup qualifier, in 1993, the Socceroos v Canada at the then Sydney Football Stadium, Tony Vidmar helping the Eddie Thompson led team to a pulsating penalty shoot-out win that gave us one of our most memorable Socceroo occasions, a date with the Diego Maradona led Argentina a few months later, where Vidmar laid on the only Socceroos goal for his brother Aurelio in front of what is today known at the Cove.
Across town, in the National Soccer League, a young kid of Croatian heritage was becoming one of the youngest ever skippers in NSL history, captaining his beloved Sydney Croatia/United and playing some marvelous football as an attacking fullback.
It wasn’t long before Tony Popovic became one of my favourite NSL players, and he was soon joined by the charismatic Kalac at the back of potent Edensor Park outfit. Soon enough their feats at club level were recognised by call-ups to the national team, much as the likes of Beauchamp, Mark Milligan and David Carney have been recognised for their A-League performances.
Fast forward to 1997 and the sight of a marauding left-winger tearing strips off Iran, delivering ball and ball as he burnt defender after defender. The performance of Lazaridis against Iran at the MCG was one of the best I have been privileged to see live, instantly making him a Socceroos great, and while no Socceroo player deserved to be on the end of that results on that night, Lazaridis did more than most to all but send the Socceroos to France. Vidmar was also there, off the bench shortly after Azizi had miraculously restored parity and with little time to make a difference.
Kalac, invariably, was in the background, offering wonderful back-up, great banter, plenty of antics and always placing pressure on whoever was number one at the time. Every time he was called up he would show, even though most times he knew he wouldn't get a game.
A few weeks short of nine years later, it is great to see these four legends bow-out at the same time, honoured fittingly by a brilliant Suncorp atmosphere, in a city that holds fond memories for Popovic as it was the place he made his Roos debut. Once known as Lang Park, the ground is less memorable for Kalac, the place his Sydney United lost the 1996/97 NSL grand final to the Brisbane Strikers.
On this night though it was kind to both of them, at least for the 92 minutes they were on the pitch. Shortly after Popovic had given Australia the lead in the 88th minute with a delightful near-post header from a Marco Bresciano free-kick, both were replaced, only to see Paraguay send off their own retiring great, Carlos Gamarra, with a 93rd minute equaliser.
In truth, no-one deserves to end such stellar service to their nation a loser, and after giving 110 exemplary performances to the red, white and blue, Gamarra can at least be happy he isn’t one of those who bowed out with a loss. His performances in helping Paraguay to the second rounds at both France and Korea/Japan will certainly live in the memory, clean and classy.
But for Australia, this was a night about honouring our own greats, and while the play in the front third broke down at times, the control in midfield and at the back was excellent, in the main.
After seeing the second-and-third-stringers cautiously tread their way through the past couple of games, it was great to see the likes of Vince Grella, Brett Emerton and Lucas Neill, three players who will form the backbone of the next Socceroos generation, having such assured nights.
While the play often broke down at the final delivery, their distribution and reading of the game was, at times, a reminder of the gulf in class between the top European-based players and the second tier Europeans and top A-Leaguers. These days, there is a certain beauty about watching Grella go about his work, and this was another accomplished display in the holding role, mature and in control.
Despite Neill being given the captains armband, there's little doubt who sets the on-field tempo. Grella is boss.
While the Socceroos only had, according to Graham Arnold, one and a half sessions to prepare, it was clear that this set of players were essentially on the same wavelength, linking up well and understanding their roles, the clear advantage of continuity.
Grella, Neill and Emerton weren’t the only ones on song, Popovic and Vidmar doing their bit, while, early on, Lazaridis gave us a couple of reminders of his ability to run at players, teasing right back Carlos Bonet.
While the Socceroos dominated possession in the first period, they lacked a spark and composure in and around the box, biting too quickly at a couple of half chances and failing to provide enough service and support to lone front-man John Aloisi.
While it wasn’t Alosi’s greatest night, he certainly could have done with more help from the likes of Bresciano, Tim Cahill and Josip Skoko, particularly as Paraguay seemed content to defend deep and in numbers, as is their way.
As was the case in Germany, where I was fortunate enough to see them play live against Trinidad and Tobago, they are extremely well organised, with two four-man lines essentially sitting behind the ball. Gamarra and his central defensive partner Julio Manzur, screened by the defensive minded Roberto Acuna and Cristian Riveros, offered little change to Aloisi, while Paraguay rarely pushed forward in the wide areas, Edgar Barreto (right midfield) and Jose Salcedo (left midfield) spending more time in their own half than Australia’s.
It was left to tricky livewire Nelson Cuevas, such an eye-catcher in the abovementioned match at the Fritz-Walter, to provide the spark from in behind striker Oscar Cardozo, and he did give the Socceroos a few headaches with his neat dribbling ability, forcing a number of not-so-clean challenges to stop him.
Cardozo was unlucky not to be given the benefit of the doubt after twice appearing to beat the Socceroos offside trap. Indeed, the standard of the officiating was a concern the whole night. While the Socceroos felt they may have had an early penalty, Paraguay will be wondering how the Socceroos were allowed to get away with a couple of rash challenges, as Japanese referee Joji Kashihara appeared to enter into the festive mood.
All it did was allow the game to become spiteful as players started to push the limits.
The Socceroos certainly didn’t settle into the second half until Archie Thompson came on for Lazaridis and Jason Culina replaced Skoko. With Culina suddenly pulling the strings and Thompson’s confidence flowing from his recent great A-league form, the Socceroos were able to pin back Paraguay and apply the pressure. Eventually they caved, Thompson forcing a late challenge from substitutes Paulo Da Silva and Diego Gavilan near the edge of the box.
Cue for Popovic to provide his feel-good moment and send Suncorp, the Socceroos bench and the nation delirious. Surely it would to be the winner? Alas, as was the case late on against Italy, this great game proved it is full of ups and downs, and, a fraction after all four retirees had played their final hand, there was one last twist.
Good-bye and thank you Mister’s Vidmar, Popovic, Lazaridis and Kalac.