The construction of Stadium Australia, as the new Olympic Stadium in Sydney is called, was completed some months before this event and it has already played host to a BeeGees concert and a number of Rugby League games, indeed one played just 3 days before this game. This little fact serves to explain the presence of non-soccer markings on the field which you could make out from the stands, on TV they were even more obvious. That the official opening should feature a football game gives me a warm fuzzy feeling but for most people I expect the real opening was on March 6 when the Rugby League double header was played.
Going back some weeks I decided that I would go to this event, not so much for the match itself but for the fact that despite it all this was going to be a little bit of history. My resolve was sorely tested by the pricing which started at around $70 and didn't stop until it hit $250. Given that I was certainly not going to pay money to see Manchester United and that the Socceroos weren't exactly overscheduled I forked over my cash and waited just over one month for the game.
What a month.
With a capacity of 110,000 and the exorbitant ticketing prices the gate for this match was going to be massive. Of course most of this money wasn't going back into soccer, no that would not be the Australian way to do things. The profits would instead go back to the promoters Left Field Solutions who were staging their first event. One of the principals of the company is former Australian test cricketer Dean Jones. Yes, that's much more Australian isn't it...
Furthermore the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust, who run the "home" of Australian Soccer, the Sydney Football Stadium, piped up citing an agreement which stated that all Socceroo matches played in Sydney would be played at the Football Stadium. The rationale is clear enough, the big bad Olympic Stadium is already taking a vast number of events from the SFS and to have one of your guaranteed tenants contribute to the official opening of your competition, well it smarts doesn't it. On the other hand it would be difficult to stage the official opening of Stadium Australia in another stadium. So the upshot was that Soccer Australia were asked to vacate the offices at the Football Stadium. I doubt that it was this issue alone which caused this to happen but it certainly appears to form a large part of the reason.
Most of the intrigue came from the almost epidemic cancellations of players who were originally supposed to play. Among the touted players when tickets went on sale was Ronaldo, Romario, Zidane, Beckham, Giggs, Weah...the list was impressive but of the original "name" players used to lure the public only Vieri and Klinsmann actually showed up, much to their credit. It got to the stage where Mathew LeTissier was called into the squad by virtue of the fact that he happened to be in Australia on holiday. When it came for the announcement of the final squads at the stadium each of the Australian names got a cheer (Kewell, Viduka and Bosnich the biggest) but a large number of the opponents names were met with virtual silence so that you could almost sense the collective feeling of "Who?". Vieri, a player who actually grew up in Sydney, and Klinsmann managed to get a rousing cheer. For those who came to see the Worlds biggest names play it was highway robbery, for the faithful it was chance to cheer the Socceroos for the first time this year.
Timed to co-incide with the match a 3-day Football Expo was held at the adjacent Showgrounds which drew a lot of youngsters hoping to meet their heroes and another guest at the various seminars and sessions, Roy Hodgson, was the focus of more pre-match intrigue. Raul Blanco has been in the unenviable position of caretaker-coach of the Socceroos while Soccer Australia are openly looking for a "high-profile" replacement in that position after the success of the Venables reign. Hodgson is a man who has admitted to "having talks" with Soccer Australia and while his role as coach of the World Stars is why he is here officially it is tempting to consider his presence as a chance for him to look at his prospective charges.
The pre-match entertainment was to begin at 6:30 and I arrived with about 10 minutes to spare. I found my seat with a minimum of fuss, which is a credit to the layout, and couldn't help but find the fit a bit snug, which is a credit to the profitmongers. I'm of average build, unfit perhaps but by no means fat and the people either side hadn't been to overeaters anonymous recently either. It was decidedly chilly so perhaps the jackets, jumpers and coats played a role but there was no way I sit back without being in contact with the shoulders of both people either side. Compared to the crush at the train station afterwards it was desolate, but still it is a shame that the clamour for capacity prevented the planners from treating the paying customers as something more than sardines. Nice seats though, the number was missing off mine.....
The ceremonies were quite standard, a Greek dignitary handed over a piece of stone quarried from near Olympia as I started to pay attention so the significance of this was lost on me. I was later to find out that this was probably the most significant moment of the night. Then both the Prime Minister, John Howard, and the Olympics minister, Michael Knight took turns finally declaring the stadium open. This paved the way for musical numbers, fireworks and the kind of synchronised on field choreography so favoured for stadium events. The drawback of the fireworks is that they were displayed directly above the stand I was in. I don't mind craning my neck but the roof got in the way. Essentially the display was for those in the far grandstand and if the intelligence I gleaned from the lady who sold me my ticket this was almost entirely reserved seating for members and dignitaries. It was a pity but the woman sitting beside me was beside herself (I suppose this means she sitting on my lap) with anger. She had good cause, perhaps I'm just too jaded to bother kicking up a fuss.
The music was blaringly loud but the sound was surprisingly good. If you're used to hearing announcement but find yourself straining to comprehend what's being said then the sound at the stadium is of welcome relief. I've heard reports of people getting poor sound in other parts but in the bottom tier of seats along the sideline I was getting clear sound. It may have been the bloody huge speakers strung out along the athletics track, but it was still good.
There was a medley of tunes from other footballing codes. I'd heard rumours that in addition to the large inflatable Rugby League, Rugby Union and Australian Rules footballs there would also be a gridiron ball. Thankfully that did not happen and it was just the former three satellite to a large globe. There was a very nice version of "World in Union" followed by "Simply the Best" for Rugby League eventhough that particular song was canned as a marketing campaign long ago. Finally "Up there Cazaly" (you have to be Australian to understand) came and went before the central globe was peeled to reveal a soccerball to the tune of "Ole, Ole, Ole" and "Cup of Life" and a healthy cheer from those who'd feared the real football was going to get shortchanged once more.
Then Men at Work were introduced and belted out 3 of their most well known songs (be good, who can it be, Down Under) before INXS came to life at the other end of the field and began their set with Terence Trent D'Arby fronting in the absence of the late Michael Hutchence. Again a number of well worn favourites were performed (new sensation, kick, never tear us apart, what you need) to enthusiastic applause.
I briefly felt sorry for those sitting at either end of the stadium since they either got to see the back of the stage or were at best 150metres away from the stage, but then the grandstand seats were little better for seeing the performers. I could make out the individuals but apart from their general appearance I didn't see how looking at them directly was any improvement from observing one of the two large video screens at diametrically opposite ends of the stadium. It would be a theme which would be continued during the actual match, which I promise I will get to.
After the entertainment and the start of the match was a half hour plus break during which some kids displayed some skills and then kicked their Coerver soccer balls into the crowd and the squads were read out as outlined above. The place was pretty full but there were conspicuous bays of seating almost entirely empty, in any case the match was close and the teams were going through their final warmups before disappearing again.
Curious too that there should be such a healthy rendition of the anthem before the game. Usually only a few hardy souls join in and with the notable exception of crucial qualifiers the entire thing is more an irritation than a display of pride. This time just about everyone around me joined in, magic. The team photos were also a nice touch where the sides joined together to pose in the same shot rather than seperately. Yes, it was certainly not unplanned but a nice touch nonetheless.
When the match finally kicked off it was almost an anticlimax, the crowd was fairly quiet. Not that all matches are raucous affairs but still it was almost embarrassingly silent. There were pockets of vociferous support with occasional Aussie chants and ohhhs and ahhhhs in the right places, but you can hardly expect more for a game which was basically a friendly kick-around. The only mildly psychotic moments came from Rigobert Song who was eventually the only recipient of a yellow card.
FIFA v Australia is not an uncommon theme, it happens often enough. Rougly once every four years (is that quadrennial, or does that mean four times in one year....) at last count. There should have been more at stake than a $15,000 man of the match prize and I know exactly what. FIFA should have agreed that if Australia win this game there would be a direct World Cup spot for Oceania in 2002, a draw and we go through Asia and if we lose then playoff against South America. *That* would give the game meaning. I know it's arrogant to write off the Kiwis and our Pacific friends, perhaps they can make me eat humble pie in 2001.
Australia played well, I hesitate to say surprisingly so because at least they had some time together and had played before which is significantly more than the World Star team which probably got introduced to one another in the dressing room. It was somewhat against the run of play then when in the 9th minute the Australians conceded a corner and Murat Yakin was left alone in front of goal to head the ball past Mark Bosnich and the flat footed defenders despite the presence of two of them at either post. It was a lazy goal to concede and reminded me of so many other times when Australia, appearing to have the upper hand, squander many chances only to get suckerpunched once or six times.
Stan Lazaridis and Harry Kewell both had chances, as did others, and either tended to hold onto the ball for too long or shoot with too little care for direction. Others were guilty too and I would be doing Lama a severe injustice if I did not credit him with a large part in keeping Australia scoreless until halftime.
At the other end the All Stars didn't make Bosnich work too hard, thanks largely to the ever impressive Alex Tobin. When Bosnich was called on he was up to the task, I am thinking in particular of an effort by Leonardo where he chased down a seemingly hopeless ball. Having reached it before conceding a goal kick I would have thought the angle totally impossible to try a shot. Of course he tried the shot and it was going in (I was right behind Leonardo) and had it not been for Bosnich's blindingly fast save I suspect we would have been 2 down. Late in the game Kalac was facing a similar shot from Rufer but rather than keeping his feet Kalac went to intercept the anticipated cutback and Rufer drilled the ball inside the far post through the space Kalac had just occupied.
Infact the World Stars did put the ball into Bosnich's net before halftime but Klinsmann's clinical put-away from a cross was ruled out because one of his fellow players had strayed offside. Infact I thought the Klinsmann-Vieri partnership was looking quite good considering they'd probably had all of 5 minutes to train together.
At halftime, as I imagined, a raft of changes were made to the World Stars side and I couldn't keep up with them so I left it. Normally I would have written them down. Most notable though was Lama leaving for Campos. The half had barely kicked off when Zelic, who'd been dazzling the field for the entire game, found himself with space inside the opponents half. He decided to stride forward and seeing Campos ridiculously far off his line just pinged over his head. To his credit Campos got a hand on the shot but was unable to stop it coming in just under the crossbar for the equalizer. Campos was later to have more success when he stopped Australia getting their fourth when he came outside his box to chest a ball away from Aloisi (?) only for it to reach the feet of another Aussie (Zelic again?) who also tried a long shot. However in that brief time Campos got back into his box and flew through the air horizontally to clasp the ball before it got past him.
Of course before that happened Australia got a second. First Kewell had suffered an injury when Bartlett(?) came in on his calves and Blanco played it safe and eventually substituted him for Emerton rather than risk something. Emerton was barely there for a minute when that man Zelic fed him a pass which Emerton took, ran at the keeper, and slid the shot under his body to give Australia the lead. It was one of those substitutions that make a coach look like a genius. By this stage the World Team was definitely playing second fiddle but still showed enough to suggest the game was far from over.
I apologise for not being able to relate the names of the players involved in the play but I normally tape the match I go to watch live to make these references, this time I did not. Suffice to say that Australia scored their third from another good buildup down the right which saw an Aussie on the goalline outside the six-yard-box. Being less than Leonardo he went for the cutback which was intercepted by Javier Margas, but too forcefully so and the ball eluded Campos as it trickled over the line for a deserved but surprising 3rd goal.
Earlier in the game, during the first half, much comment was made of the Aussies' inability to put chances away by the couple on my left and the two gentelmen on my right. It was clear they had all spent too many hours watching performances similar to those in that half, and they were far happier in the second. That is to say nothing of the 3 Manchester United and 1 Liverpool (go figure) supporters behind me who greeted every Socceroo mistake or failure with comments like "typical Aussie soccer" and "it's not as good as European soccer". They had Australian accents and probably watch all their soccer as a highlights show from England on a Monday night, it was kind of sad.
It was after the third goal that the crowd started to enjoy themselves and not only started the odd wave and threw around a beach ball but I also noticed a large number of paper aeroplanes sailing out from the tier above me. The free paper flags handed out at the gate were getting a lot of air.... The sounds eminating from above me tended to indicate that the apprentice aeronautical engineers were getting some hassles from security, and of course that they enjoyed getting the planes onto the arena, none made the playing surface. I'll tell you why as well. All the planes I saw were of the dart variety, once they cleared the upper tier the cold air pushed the things into a divebomb of the patrons below. What they needed was the gliders or maybe even the circle/loop design....I'll have to sit there next time and show them.
Ah well it wasn't going to be a true Socceroo game if they didn't go to sleep for the last couple of minutes. As such Wynton Rufer came back to do New Zealand proud and scored against Kalac as Rufer ran onto a throw in and scored from a tight angle as I've already explained.
After the whistle went Ned Zelic was given the TAG watch as Man of the Match and Alex Tobin was presented with a serious looking trophy. Both Alex and his opposing captain Juergen Klinsmann spoke a few words about the stadium and the Olympics before I decided that I should try to get home.
The trip home was something else entirely. I don't have a car and rely on public transport and took the train to central station. Unfortunately about 60,000 other people wanted to do the same thing and I ended up queueing for about half an hour in the kind of crush that gave me panic attacks and probably served as a pickpockets heaven. I literally had no control over where I was going once I got into the queue and I still have no idea how I got on the train without having my ribcage collapse. Suddenly I understood why people were starting to walk out 10 minutes out from the end of the game.