In the absence of a proper Oceanic championship (unless you count the Tasman Cup) the Oceania Football Confederations representative for the Intercontinental Cup was decided by this two legged tie between the champions of these Oceanic sub-regions. The Intercontinental Cup is scheduled to be played in late 1997 and involves the Continental Champions of Europe, Asia, South America, Oceania, Africa, North&Central America and the World Cup holders Brazil and hosts Saudi Arabia. Of course later this year Saudi Arabia would qualify both as hosts and Asian champions so the UAE, Asian runners up look set to join.
There is a whole political other stirring in the Oceanic region and much of it revolves around Charles 'Steptoe' Dempsey and David Hill. For the sake of everyones sanity I shall confine myself to the football aspect which was predictable enough. The first leg took place on the 26th of October in Papeete and in the lead up to the game the David and Goliath aspect was played down with suggestions that Tahiti has wangled some players from the French league and that they were actually much more formidable than their FIFA ranking (around 150th) would indicate belieing their true strength.
The pitch in Papeete was, according to caretaker Australian Coach Raul Blanco, subjected to heavy rain in the days leading up to the game and was a little on the lush side. The former coach Eddie Thomson was also there in an advisory capacity...I'm not sure what that means but I guess the Argentinian one-touch philosophy espoused by Blanco might need the hyperdefensive Scottish influence of Thomson. Again, this is another story.
The game was not televised in Australia and despite the attraction of a few days in the South Pacific all the French would only spoil it. So all I have to go on are a few sketchy details and the result. That result was an emphatic victory by Australia to the tune of 6-0. The game was more or less one-way traffic and the star of the show was Kris Trajanovski who plays for UTS Olympic and he only got his chance due to an injury to Warren Spink suffered during training.
Tahiti managed few meaningful attacks but apparently could have scored once or twice given better luck and/or skill. I may be being overly harsh as they were very poor in the second game (which I saw) but even if the humid and warm conditions were in their favour I cannot see them doing so well as to score more than a lucky goal.
The first game duly completed the circus moved on to Canberra for the second leg on the 1st of November. I managed, thanks to fellow OzSoccerite Greg Stock, to travel to Canberra to attend the match. It wasn't really worthy of a road movie but fun nonetheless and since this was to be the last game longstanding Socceroo and captain Paul Wade would play for Australia it was going to be a historic game one way or another.
The match was relatively well attended with an official figure of just under 10,000 (9421). However when you consider nearly 5000 turned up in Papeete there is room for concern. Still with the result of the tie assured for a sport which has drawn poorly in Australia for quite some time it is not entirely surprising.
Watching from the stands of Bruce stadium on what turned out to be a bitingly cold night was certainly different to the encounter in Newcastle vs New Zealand almost a year earlier in that while the crowd was bigger there was very little atmosphere. The view was splendid though and while a good old-fashioned shellacking was to be anticipated it was the Tahitian No 11. Tahitoterai who got the first real attack of the match after 5 minutes of very little interesting.
Australia finally managed to score the first goal after 11 minutes when Kris Trajanovski helped Robbie Hooker score one of the few international goal he will ever put away. Still it made the crowd happy and also seemed to relax the players who started to take more control and basically started playing more to expectations. Ernie Tapai almost became the second goalscorer of the night when his shot came off the post and after regaining posession from the rebound the ball again came to Tapai and as if to prove that his accuracy with the first shot was no fluke he again struck the post with his second shot within 15 seconds.
A minute later Kris Trajanovski continued his streak of good luck by taking a ball from Tony Popovic and tucking it neatly into the net, about five minutes later the Goalkeeper Heinis made a great save from a similarly promising goal oppertunity. Sadly for Heinis his defenders were somewhat unfamiliar with the concept of marking a player even when he didn't have the ball and the best player on the field for Tahiti Jean Rousseau was a lone figure at the other end of the field and eventually he was inexplicably replaced, possibly due to injury.
A lucky goal for Trimboli (though in truth it was more of an own goal to one of the aforementioned defenders) completely frustrated Heinis' attempt to get near the ball and to round out the half Trajanovski made sure of another good night when he scored 10 minutes before the interval and the ball snuck out from under the net beyond the goal and continued on its merry way. Someone in Canberra needs to learn how to peg a net into the ground. Of course it may be that Trajanovski's red shoes made the ball go faster than could be expected, hey it works for cars...the red ones are always the fastest. For the record Matthew Bingley also sported red boots, though the effect he got was infinitely more subtle.
Halftime was an experience I shan't forget in a hurry. Thankfully the break meant that the group of pre-teens seated behind me did not get the chance to shout 'unlucky!' at every move that did not result in a goal, though at least they were enjoying themselves, however worse was to follow. One feature of halftime was a rugby choir singing favourites like "You'll never walk alone". Anyone acquainted with Rugby players and their song will know that what they lack in tone and key they make up for in volume and while in the right setting with suitable alcohol consumption this sort of activity is strangely appealing in its bonhomie done as halftime entertainment over a PA system it really lost any appeal it might have otherwise had. Another feature was the parade of Olympic champions from the area (the Australian Institute of Sport is a stone's throw away) and other sporting personalities. The purpose of all this was to appeal to the organising committee of the Sydney 2000 games to allow Canberra to host some of the Football events of those games at Bruce Stadium. Anything Australian and called Bruce is certainly a major drawcard and roughly 2 months later Canberra was nominated as one of the towns to host Olympic football events. Of course whether this was because of the eforts of that night or inspite of them remains a mystery to me.
When Fijian referee Intaz (sp?) Shah whistled for the resumption I was more than pleased. Though the second half soon became less than entertaining not so much for the Australians inability to get their shots on target, for example Craig Foster still in halftime mode in the early moments of the second half, but for the linesman on the far side of the field having severe difficulty in holding his arm by his side. I can only hope that the Australian players know how to stay onside and when presented with such an eager official (it was either Fred Lensi of Vanuatu or Suresh Bihali of Fiji) know how to make it very hard to make the linesman call offside unless he wants to make himself look like a pancake. In reality I wonder if this is so because towards the end of the game most forward thrusts were called offside and one Tahitian defender has his blushes saved when his own goal was disallowed for an offside call. Remarkable.
Still nine minutes into the second half a Trajanovski header from a cross by Foster the crowd was permitted a cheer for an Australian goal for the last time that night. Of course leading 11-0 on aggregate and possibly being somewhat cold and tired isn't a great motivator to attack but for all Tahiti's improvement during the match it was a rather dull affair from there.
The electronic scoreboard made a contribution when, after Matthew Bingley was fouled for what seemed like a penalty went by without the Referee's intervention, it flashed up a pair of glasses and a question mark. It's nice to know that the scoreboard agrees with you. To Bingley's credit he did get up again quickly and managed to retrieve the ball before it went out of play, sadly his shot was well over the bar.
21:32 1/11/1996 was the last time Paul Wademade his way off the field as a National Team player. He had announced his retirement previously and decided that this match should be his last after many years at this level. Paul has been a credit to himself and the game in this country and there is much that we, as fans, owe to him. Of course there had been mumblings for some time that Paul was past his prime and due to be shuffled off, something which perhaps encouraged him to make his retirement but certainly no blemish on a long and eventful career. One hopes that at the Cosmos and on an administrative/promotional level for Football generally that Paul continues to contribute. The player who came on for him was Jason Polak (himself something of a fringe player) and the entire team and several cameramen/journalists surrounded Paul and gave him a farewell he so richly deserved. The crowd too, myself included, cheered and clapped as some small token of our appreciation for what he has done. The referee was not at all pleased by the proceedings and ordered the game restarted before order was restored on the field, perhaps this sort of thing isn't provided for in time added on.
Farewell Paul Wade. Australia's most capped player. Now back to the game.
Half an hour into the second half Tahiti got what I believe was the second of their two corners that night and the ball was eventually held by Kalac on the goal line from a looping header. There was some excitement among the Tahitians since Kalac was travelling backwards to catch the ball and perhaps he might have carried it over the line. Hope springs eternal and while it might be stretching the truth to say the Tahitians deserved a goal on this performance it may have made for an interesting match had they got one in order to find out whether the Australian team either didn't care very much or if they were actually quite crap.
As it happens we did not get the chance to find out as some more offside calls and an injury to Ernie Tapai saw the match out and sounded Australias qualification for the Intercontinental Cup. The crowd cleared out while Charlie Dempsey made some presentations and a speech nobody wanted to hear, least of all David Hill. I almost lost my programmes, match notes and copies of the lineup sheets (thanks to some friends among the press) to a man who thought they had been discarded, eventhough they were on the seat right next to me. The cheek of some people :-). All in all the game will probably be remembered as Paul Wades last appearance, one in which he tried desperately hard to score just one more goal but sadly not many of his teammates were similarly enthused.