Seven thousand miles, twelve yards and one small step

On 16 November 2005, in Sydney’s Telstra Stadium, John Aloisi, late of Coventry City and Portsmouth, among many other clubs, but at the time plying his trade with Alavés in Spain’s Basque country, held the fate of his nation’s footballing aspirations in his hands. Donned in the gold shirt of Australia’s Socceroos, he stood a little more than twelve yards from the goal line policed by Uruguay’s ‘keeper, Fabián Carini. The next few seconds would decide if the upstart Aussies would go to the 2006 World Cup Finals. If Aloisi could convert his spot kick, there was nothing that La Celeste, twice crowned as champions of the world, could do about it. Australia would be in Germany, and the South Americans would miss out.

As in the first leg played out in Montevideo, four short days earlier, Aloisi was late to the action. Thrown on with ten minutes left in the away leg, back in his native Australia, he had sat patiently – well perhaps not so patiently – for the call. He estimated he had been warming up for almost half of the game willing the coach, Dutchman Guus Hiddink, to give him his chance, until a few minutes before the break in the 30 minutes of extra-time required to break the stalemate. For Aloisi though, no matter how late he was to the party, he had a strong feeling that “something was going to happen.”

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Perhaps it was inspired by training the previous evening when, 24 hours earlier, in the same stadium, at the same end of the pitch, looking at the same penalty spot, he had converted six out of six attempts. That was then, in front coaches and teammates. This was now though, with 83,000 fans balanced on the edge of their seats in the stadium, and millions watching on television across the country and in South America. On four previous occasions, the Aussies had missed out in a play-off. Scotland won out in 1986, Argentina eliminated them in 1994. Four years later, it was Iran and in 2002 the Uruguayans were their nemesis, winning out 3-1 on aggregate. Now they were on the cusp once more.

Many long months of competition, controversy and compelling action had brought the two teams to this point, and all would now be settled as Spanish referee Luis Medina Cantalejo blew his whistle. John Aloisi with the green number 15 on his golden shirt took three paces forward, each increasing in tempo, and struck the ball left-footed. Less than a second later, the fates had made their decision.

Unlike the oft complicated system in Europe, where multiple groups of four, five or six countries play to produce winners, runners-up and sometimes even best third-placed qualifiers, CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, has a far simpler process in place. Each of its ten affiliated members play each other in a ‘home and away’ league basis, across a two-year period to arrive at a final table. The first four qualify as of right, with the fifth placed team heading into a play-off against the winners of 2004 OFC Nations Cup – in effect the champions of Oceania to claim the last place.

There’s a tendency to assume that two of those first four places will always go to the powerhouse countries of the continent, Brazil and Argentina, who have seven titles between them – the former being crowned world champions of five occasions, and the latter on two – and, fair to say that, of recent times, such has been the case. It is not always so, however, as the requirement for Argentina to secure their place in the play-off against Australia in 1994 illustrates.

Heading into the 2006 tournament however, there were no slip ups by the big two as both finished the gruelling 18 game programme on 34 points, six clear of the teams locked on 28 in third and fourth place, and a further three clear of the team who would have to face the 2004 OFC Nations Cup winners, although, the result of the very last game in the series, played against Argentina, would decide who that fifth place team would be.

With the top two places usually, at least, locked up it then often turns into a battle for the remaining berths between the likes of Uruguay and Colombia – often, Chile and Peru – occasionally, and the rest – rarely, as to who fills those places. The qualifying series for the 2006 World Cup though, would be one of those ‘rare’ occasions.

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On 7 September 2003, more than two years before that crucial game at the Telstra Stadium, Uruguay started their programme strongly. A five-goal romp in Montevideo, against Bolivia, suggesting that a top four place should be comfortably attainable. Three days later however, a visit to Asunción would immediately cast doubt on such aspirations. Despite going ahead midway through the first-half, thanks to a goal from Lecce forward Javier Chevantón, La Celeste’s defence was anything but heavenly as Paraguay hit back with four goals, including a hat-trick from José Cardozo.

A 2-1 home win over Chile a couple of months later had things back on track, and a storming 3-3 draw in Brazil three days after that was both impressive and valuable. It could have been so much better as well. After falling two goals behind in Curitiba, a brace by Diego Forlán and an own goal by Arsenal’s Gilberto Silva had the Uruguayans on the brink of a famous victory, only for Ronaldo, El Fenomeno, to bag his second of the game with three minutes remaining and rescue a draw for the Seleção.

If 2003 had ended on an upswing, the New Year would be less kind. A catastrophic 0-3 home defeat to Venezuela on the last day of March was the herald of things to come. Peru would also visit and come away with a victory, and a 5-0 thumping in Colombia saw hopes, and indeed, expectations of a comfortable qualification drifting away into the ether. A single goal home win over Ecuador was hardly a turning point, and then a 4-2 loss to Argentina and a goalless draw in Bolivia merely underscored the problems now apparent.

In November, only a late goal by Paolo Montero secured a vital win but, with the year now complete, Uruguay were clearly struggling. Unsurprisingly perhaps, in a country where qualification for a World Cup is seen more as an obligation, than a right, the year would also see the end of coach Juan Ramón Carrasco, who was replaced by the experienced Jorge Fossati, charged with fulfilling that obligation.

The New Year saw successive draws with Chile, Brazil, Venezuela and Peru. Undefeated yes, but four points from four games were hardly what the doctor ordered though. It wasn’t until Colombia visited in early September that Uruguay registered their first win of the year in the qualifying tournament and, even then, it was a dramatic ending. Two goals clear, and apparently coasting, thanks to a brace from Marcelo Zalayeta, with a mere dozen minutes to play, it took only three of them for the home team to be back in trouble again, with a fifth successive draw on the cards. Strikes by Soto and Aston Villa’s Juan Pablo Ángel had the alarm bells ringing loud and clear, before Zalayeta, then playing in Serie A with Juventus, scored a late winner.

It all meant that with two games remaining, away to Ecuador, and then home to already qualified Argentina, Uruguay would need to take a minimum of four points to ensure qualification. In any normal scenario, the Ecuador game would be the prime target for the win, as La Tricolor would be out of contention for qualification at this stage of the series. As mentioned though, this was one of those ‘rare’ years, and Ecuador were right in the pack fighting for that valuable place in the top four, and a goalless draw in Quito on 8 October was sufficient to see them safely to qualification. Paraguay’s 0-1 victory over Venezuela ruled out any chance of the vanquished team catching either them or Ecuador.

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All that was left now for Uruguay was to take the fifth position and then defeat the Oceania champions in the play-off. To that they had the chance to do that, however, they would need to defeat Argentina in their final qualifying game, to avoid being potentially caught and passed by either Chile or Colombia, should results go in their favour. As it transpired, the Colombians would defeat already qualified Paraguay, meaning that anything other than a Uruguay win would leave them adrift in sixth place, and without any chance of redemption.

The final series of game would be played out on 12 October. Brazil and Argentina were already assured of qualification taking their regular places as the top two in the series. Ecuador were also guaranteed their place in the finals in third place, as were Paraguay, in fourth.  Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario, had seen many crucial games, most of which were tight and tense. This would be no exception. The nearest either team came to a breakthrough in the first period was a free-kick from Inter Milan’s Álvaro Recoba, comfortably punched clear by the Argentine goalkeeper. A minute into the second period however, his luck would change.

A long punt forward was headed on by Forlán, and Recoba forced himself at the head of a queue of players seeking to, either finish or clear, to get the final touch and force the ball home. It was hardly a goal of rare beauty, but in this ‘rare’ qualifying series, it was worth its weight in gold. The stadium celebrated as if qualification itself had been secured, let alone a path to a play-off which was anything but confirmed. Had Zalayeta taken one of the opportunities that fell to him later, less fingernails would have been bitten, and while the score stayed at -1-0, Uruguay were vulnerable, and as the time ticked on, the tension grew inexorably.

From a corner, Sorin nearly broke more than 50,000 hearts in the stadium when he narrowly failed to connect with a near post header from a corner. At full-time though, the home team had completed the required victory. All that remained now, in order to confirm their qualification was to beat whoever emerged from the 2004 OFC Nations Cup. It was a task that most Uruguayan fans, indeed most fans of almost any persuasion, would think strongly favoured the South Americans. As discussed however, this was a ‘rare’ year.

With the 2004 OFC Nations Cup doubling up as the qualifying tournament for the play-off spot against the fifth placed South American team to decide who would journey to Germany for the 2006 World Cup, victory for the Australians was even more important than ever. Native manager, Frank Farina had been in charge of the Socceroos since 1998, and would be in charge of the team in pursuit of the success that would take the Aussies to that play-off game. As mentioned above though, by the time of that Aloisi penalty, it would be Dutchman Guus Hiddink sitting in the home dugout. A lot would happen between the start of the 2004 OFC Nations Cup and that denouement in Sydney though.

After a First Round group stage, that saw the Solomon Islands, Tahiti, Vanuatu and Fiji into what, in reality, constituted the competition proper, alongside Australia and New Zealand, the tournament was played out over a week in late May and early June 2004, to establish the top two in the group who would then meet in a two-legged Final played in October.

As with the South American competition, although the outcomes were never cast in stone, there were certain reliable scenarios occurring on repeated occasions. Inaugurated in 1973, although hardly played on a regular basis until 1998, when it took on a bi-annual cycle, ahead of the 2004 tournament, it had been dominated by New Zealand and Australia, each having won it three times out of the six occasions it was contested. In 2004, the Aussies would take the lead in this particular Tasmin Sea duopoly, as hosts.

On 29 March, at the Hindmarsh Stadium in Adelaide, Parma’s Mark Bresciano scored the only goal to defeat New Zealand in what may well have been the decisive encounter of the whole tournament. The 12,000 fans watching the encounter would be by far the highest attendance of the round-robin group phase, arguably outnumbering the cumulative attendances of the remaining games. Two days later, in the same stadium, they rattled in nine goals without reply against Tahiti, in front of around 10% of the number of people who had attended the New Zealand match.

On 2 June, they moved to the Marden Sports Complex in the same city and defeated Fiji 6-1 with a little more than 2,000 watching. A return to Hindmarsh Stadium brought a three-goal victory over Vanuatu and the series was rounded when Commins Menapi netted a brace for the Solomon Islands to earn a 2-2 draw with the Aussies, and second place in the group, ahead of a dispirited New Zealand team probably already resigned to a forlorn chase of the hosts.

It was therefore the team from the Solomon Islands that contested the first game of the two-legged final against Australia, on 9 October 2004 in front of a packed Lawson Tama Stadium in Honiara. A staggering 21,000 fans had been shoehorned into the ground to watch, and they were duly rewarded on the hour mark as Batram Suri scored for the Solomon Islands. By that time however, any of those home fans hoping for an unlikely victory had already been disillusioned by four Australian strikes. A fifth, with ten minutes to play, was hardly necessary to determine the destination of the trophy. Neither were the six goals – remarkably scored by six different players – rattled in at the Sydney Football Stadium three days later, when the return leg was played.

Strangely however, although the competition was marketed as the qualification process for the place in the World Cup play-off, the game to decide which country would progress was actually held separately. Australia defeated Solomon Islands again, winning 9–1 on aggregate in September 2005.

The victory not only took the Aussies to that play-off encounter with a place in the World Cup Finals as the prize, the OFC Nations Cup triumph also meant a place in the Confederations Cup competition. The tournament rapidly establishing itself as a ‘dry run’ for the World Cup hosts to test and hone their preparations ahead of the big day. It would also mark out a big day for Australian football, not because of what they achieved, but because of what happened following the team’s performance in Germany.

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Placed in a group alongside the hosts Germany, Argentina and Tunisia, no one was really expecting the Aussies to achieve a great deal, and a 4-3 defeat to Germany in the opening game was hardly an embarrassment. Successive defeats then, to Argentina and Tunisia called into concern the prospects for the game against the Uruguayans, and the Football Federation Australia took the decision to remove Farina.

In the guise of chairman Frank Lowy and CEO John O’Neill, the federation committed to throwing every possible resource into the contest that would offer the Australians a chance to visit the World Cup proper for the first time in 32 years. It was also a key moment for the game ‘Down Under’ with the encounter due to take place a mere three months ahead of the inauguration of the new A-League. Success against Uruguay would give the nascent league a running start. After dispensing with Farina’s services, just two games and three months ahead of the decisive encounters with the South Americans, Hiddink was handed the manager’s job.

From any kind of neutral perspective, it’s difficult to paint a game between Uruguay and Australia as anything resembling a grudge match. These things, however, are not the purview of neutrals, and can only be viewed from the perspective of the participants themselves. For Australians, there was more than a tinge of controversy involving their opponents.

In 1974, following Australian qualification, Sydney Hakoah striker Ray Baartz had been selected in the squad for the team to travel to the World Cup Finals, ironically again scheduled in Germany. He would, however, have his career ended before even getting to Europe. During a ‘Friendly’ between the countries, ahead of the World Cup he sustained what has been described as a ‘karate chop’ to his throat, felled by Uruguay’s Luis Garisto. The blow caused significant damage to the Australian’s carotid artery, and he never played professional football again.

Twenty three years later, at the Confederations Cup held in Saudi Arabia, following a win over Mexico, a draw with Brazil and a single goal defeat to the hosts, Australia triumphed against Uruguay in a tempestuous and physical semi-final thanks to a ‘Golden Goal’ by Harry Kewell a couple of minutes into extra-time, before getting royally beaten 6-0 in the final by Brazil.

Then, in 2001, they experienced that play-off defeat to the Uruguayans. Although the South Americans were the more accomplished team, the tie was marred by the arguably organised intimidating welcome offered to the Australians by a collection of voluble and aggressive ‘fans’ when they arrived in Monetvideo. Such things can leave a bitter taste in the mouth and, as the new game drew closer, memories of such actions were more and more brought to the fore.

The two-legged tie in 2005 was scheduled for 12 and 16 November, with the first leg allocated to South America. As the teams took the field in front of some 55,000 Uruguayans in the Estadio Centenario, Hiddink’s approach was clear: keep things tight, be solid, and still be in the tie when the second leg is played back in Australia. A strong back line, and a solid midfield meant that for most of the game, skipper Mark Viduka would be ploughing a fairly lonely furrow as the sole front man.

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On the other bench, Jorge Fossati was seeking that vital lead to take back on the long journey down under. Hiddink’s planning would be undone should the South Americans nab an early goal though, and when Diego Forlán fired in a second-minute free-kick, it brought the first chance of the game, but Mark Schwarzer efficiently denied the man who had topped the Spanish goal scoring charts the previous season and was enjoying an outstanding time with Villareal in La Liga.

The effort led to a period of domination for the home team, but the well-drilled Australian back line held firm, denying space and limiting opportunities. Indeed, just past the quarter-hour mark, the visitors had their first authentic attempt on goal when a long-range free-kick from Viduka was acrobatically palmed around the upright by Fabián Carini in the home goal. A few moments later, Uruguay suffered a blow as Forlán was compelled to leave the field with a muscle injury. Portsmouth’s Darío Silva took his place.

The game settled into a fairly static battle with the home team enjoying the majority of possession but without threatening too many alarms on Schwarzer’s goal. Australia still offered sporadic threats on the break, such as when another Viduka effort was parried by Carini just ahead of the half hour mark. The opening goal was on the way though.

Álvaro Recoba, then with the Nerazzurri of Inter Milan had a wand of a left foot, and his free-kick from out on the right flank was astutely whipped over the crowd of players congregating in the middle of the Australian penalty area to find the relatively unmarked head of Schalke 04 defender Darío Rodríguez, who stooped to thunder an unstoppable header past Schwarzer from point blank range. The crowd roared their approval as Fossati punched the air with both fists. It was the breakthrough the South Americans had craved, and now they could drive for a second, and possibly decisive, goal with the Australians rattled.

Now on the front foot, the Uruguayans pushed on, driven by the crowd’s vocal backing, as “I’m blue… I’m blue,” was bellowed out. The remaining time of the half would be vital. If the visitors conceded again, it may have been the death knell for their aspirations, but in typically redoubtable style, the defence held firm and the half ended with just the one goal recorded.

Australia began the second period in belligerent style, and a powerful shot from Viduka was
deflected over. Then, a long ball found Recoba running free towards the Australian goal. Schwarzer was quick from his line to avert the danger and, despite the screams of the crowd, Recoba’s claims for a penalty following the resultant collision were waved away by Danish referee Claus Bo Larsen. The Uruguayan’s theatrical tumble and triple roll having failed to convince the Dane of the merits of his case.

Increasingly, though, the game was becoming more and more one-way traffic with the earnest attempts of the South Americans seemingly lacking the clarity of purpose required to break down the robust Australian backline. Forays forward by the visitors were becoming less and less frequent, although a shot by Jason Culina that zipped low past Carini’s upright caused a brief flurry in the hearts of the home fans in the stadium.

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A header from Darío Silva was comfortably collected by Schwarzer, and then the ‘keeper thwarted Recoba again. Crosses followed into the visitors’ box but, at the heart of the defence, Lucas Neill and Tony Vidmar were both vigilant and dominant, keeping all but the odd danger away from Schwarzer. With ten minutes remaining, Hiddink sent on John Aloisi for Viduka. His vapid contribution in this game though, would be in stark contrast to that in Sydney a few days later. When the referee called the game to an end, that first-half goal was all that separated the sides. Which team were the happiest? Uruguay had their lead, but Australia would have been reasonably satisfied that they were still in the tie. It was all to play for in the second leg.

The teams faced a journey of some 7,300 miles, and precious little recovery time before playing out the second leg. Conscious of the inherent problems in such a timetable, Football Federation Australia had negotiated with sponsors Qantas to charter a customised plane complete with medical facilities, including massage tables, exercise bikes and other gym equipment to be ready on the tarmac as soon as the game in Montevideo was completed. The players, many still in their playing kit, were to be transferred from the Centenario stadium immediately after the game finished and boarded onto the flight to take them home. The aim being to both minimise the non-productive time between the games and to utilise the flight time as part of the recovery period.

The same was not true for the Uruguayans. Attempts to charter an aircraft of their own fell foul at the last, and they were compelled instead to take a scheduled flight with only limited places available in the more comfortable ‘Business Class’ seats. Some of which had been claimed by sponsors, condemning a number of players into the Economy section, including the tall striker Richard Morales, who unsurprisingly was less than enamoured by the situation. It caused ructions in the party, and was hardly the ideal preparation for team bonding.

With the tie still very much alive, the Australians upped their efforts a further notch or two. Skipper Viduka fronted a ‘Wear Gold’ campaign, designed to promote home support, and up its volume. Inside the stadium, the visiting fans’ section was sited away from the television cameras, and also selected to be distant from the player’s normal line of sight. Even the South Americans’ anthem was loudly booed as the home fans responded to their team’s call for support with a raucous response.

Reports of comments attributed to Recoba that Uruguay’s qualification was the country’s “divine right” merely poured fuel on the flames, although whether such reports were valid or not were later called into great question, with the player refuting that he had ever said anything resembling the supposed quote. Such questions were hardly considered at the time though, and the Inter Milan player was particularly targeted for abuse by the crowd. That the action appeared to genuinely unsettle a player who had long experience of playing in front of crowds in both South America and Italy, testifies to its vehemence. Some 82,000 Australian voices played their part in full.

Uruguay’s star player was also targeted on the field, and the ever-physical Tony Popovic was yellow carded for delivering a forearm to Recoba’s face. Recoba nearly had his revenge though in the timely manner. A long goal kick was headed on by Morales and, after evading a defender, his shot skimmed just wide of Schwarzer’s goal. Perhaps concerned that the player had become too wrapped up in the occasion, and fearing that another rash challenge would leave his team a man short, Hiddink cautiously withdrew Popovic on 31 minutes, sending on Harry Kewell in his stead.

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The change brought rapid reward. Driving forward, Kewell fed the ball into Viduka, on the edge of the Uruguay penalty area, peeling off for the return, which was duly delivered. Slicing his shot horrendously though, the ball merely squirmed off to his right. In the right place at the right time was Mark Bresciano, who fired high and powerfully into the roof of the net to bring the aggregate scores level.

The tie was nearly decided early in the second period when Viduka headed to the Parma midfielder who, this time, fired over from 20 yards. The game became increasingly tense, with each team aware that any goal now would surely be decisive, and tired muscles strained over the effort of this, the previous game and travels in between.

With nine minutes remaining, visiting skipper Paolo Montero was forced from the field with a muscle injury. Was the South Americans’ less than professional approach to the travel arrangements counting against them? At the end of 90 minutes though, there had been no further score, and early into the added period, Aloisi again replaced Viduka, but the added time trickled away with no change and penalties looming.

It looked like Hiddink was planning a dramatic change in the final seconds with 6’ 8” reserve goalkeeper Zeljko Kalac warming up on the sidelines, apparently in readiness to place his intimidating frame in the way of the Uruguayan shoot-out attempts. Hiddink’s plans, that would have pre-dated fellow Dutchman Louis van Gaal’s ploy in the 2014 World Cup were stymied though, when he was compelled to spend his last substitution replacing the cramped Brett Emerton with Josip Skoko, and Schwarzer remained between the sticks.

Spanish referee Luis Medina Cantalejo had, the previous day, been advised that, should a shoot-out be required, it would need to be played out at the ‘western’ end of the stadium for television reasons. In truth, the advice was less to do with broadcasters, and more to do with having the shootout in front of the home supporters.

Harry Kewell was first up for the home team. His shot went high to Carini’s right as the goalkeeper plunged to the other side, and Australia were ahead. To a huge chorus of boos, Uruguay’s first penalty was allotted to the man whose headed goals had given them the lead back in Montevideo. Facing a bank of gold and Australian national flags behind the goal, Darío Rodríguez’s stuttering run up did little to deceive Schwarzer, and his plunge to the left parried the ball away.

Lucas Neill calmly stroked home, and Gustavo Varela forced his effort past Schwarzer’s dive. Veteran Tony Vidmar sent Carini the wrong way, before late 23-year-old substitute Fabián Estoyanoff blotted out the booing to efficiently fire home. At 3-2, Mark Viduka, Australia’s skipper had the chance to ratchet up the pressure by netting the fourth penalty. Had he done so, Uruguay would have been staring defeat squarely in the face, but his effort was pulled wide of Carini’s right-hand post. If Marcelo Zalayeta, another substitute scored, it would be all square going into the last two penalties. The kick was struck well, and towards the left of Schwarzer’s goal. The big goalkeeper had guessed correctly, but it still took an upraised, stretching hand to claw the ball wide. With John Aloisi to come, the stage was now set.

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The fates made their decision. Aloisi took those three paces forward, each increasing in tempo, and then struck the ball left-footed. It crashed into the net eluding the despairing dive of Carini by inches. The stadium exploded as Aloisi took off on a run down the touchline, whirling his shirt in the air heading towards where he knew his family was sitting. A throng of Australian players chased him in forlorn pursuit, but Aloisi reached the point where he could, at least at a distance, share the moment with his loved ones before being engulfed by the golden tide.

Australia had made it, after those disappointments, they’d taken that step. Back in the penalty area, Fabio Carini knelt down watching the celebrations, and knowing it meant his team had fallen short. One step from the World Cup Finals, one small step, but one step too far.

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