Socceroos in Melbourne

Words by: David Mcgaw and Ian Kerr

Photos by: Tom Griffiths

Tram number 35 rattled over the William St intersection and down La Trobe St. Flagstaff Gardens were dark. Aboard the tram were suit-wearing corporate types, repairing to their Docklands apartment for a well-earned snifter, no doubt. A handful of tourists sat in one corner, city maps spread on their laps, glancing at the city facades, listening for the announcement of their stop. The rest of the passengers on Melbourne’s free tourist tram were bound for Docklands Stadium and had allegiances to either Jordan or the Socceroos

The dramatic 1-1 draw in Japan a week earlier had energised locals, who until that point had shown little interest in the World Cup Qualifier against Jordan. Australia’s campaign for Brazil 2014 was in the doldrums. Tickets for the game were easy to come by. Inside the stadium, a hot pasty proved to be elusive – stadium management once again failing to stock enough pasties, focusing instead on pies and unappealing, overpriced battered fish.

The crowd was a healthy enough size: 43,785. Not bad for a cold winter night in Melbourne in a stadium with a capacity of just over 56,000.

There was uncertainty in the stands. While the draw with Japan had boosted qualifying hopes, the memory of dismal showings against Oman and Jordan had not faded. That anxiety was eased early in the game when Bresciano scored for Australia – his net-munching celebration reminiscent of Rashid Yekeni after scoring for Nigeria in USA 94.

In the second half, when the result was safe, the crowd fell into old habits and staged a Mexican wave. The final score of 4-0 put Australia within touching distance of qualification for the 2014 World Cup Finals.

This was the fifth time that the Socceroos had graced the Docklands neighbourhood (aside from nightclub appearances). In all, the national team has played at Docklands five times for three victories, one draw and one loss, scoring eight goals and conceding only one. Australia has not conceded a goal at Docklands for over nine years and has won comfortably both times the stadium staged World Cup qualifiers.

The stadium sits by the Yarra River and overlooks the old Victoria Dock. Opening in 2000, Victoria Stadium became Colonial Stadium and then the Telstra Dome (named after the national phone company, and notorious for terrible mobile phone coverage). In 2004 the first international football match at the venue saw the sublime skills of Hakan Sukur lift the Turks to a 1-0 victory in front of 28,953 fans – a match also notable for the way the Turkish fans sat wherever they wanted, making a mockery of pre-booked reserved seats and the Docklands security staff.

The Socceroos returned four years later as recent inductees to the Asian Football Confederation to play a World Cup qualifier against Qatar on 6 February 2008 in front of a heaving 50,969 supporters. Australia won 3-0 in coach Pim Verbeek’s first international on home soil.

The arena was renamed Etihad Stadium by the time Australia met Oman in an Asian Cup qualifier on 14 October 2009, where a Tim Cahill winner appeased the crowd of 20,595. Well, most of the crowd. The Omanis probably weren’t too pleased. Two years later Australia hosted Serbia and they treated the crowd of 28,419 to a drab 0-0 draw.

Melbourne and the Socceroos have a long-standing relationship. Australia’s most European city (well, after Burnie and Geelong, of course) contains suburbs of tree-lined avenues, elegant retail spaces, aromatic cafes, less aromatic alleyways, manicured parks and gardens, moderately efficient public transport and a sense of order. It’s a city that prides itself on being the world’s sporting capital: it hosts a Grand Slam tennis tournament, a Formula 1 Grand Prix, an overblown horse racing carnival and is home to one of the world’s great sporting stadiums. And it was a World Cup Qualifier at that stadium – the Melbourne Cricket Ground – that almost ruined the Socceroos’ relationship with Melbourne forever.

The quadrennial cycle of World Cup qualification began in 1965, yet it was eight years later before the Socceroos first played in the Victorian capital with anything meaningful on the line. A 0-0 draw at Olympic Park in front of 10,684 fans against Iraq saw Australia make steady progress towards that historic maiden berth at Germany 74. Four years later, 17,000 came to Olympic Park, yet the Socceroos were unable to rise to the occasion and stumbled 0-1 to Iran who eventually went onto Argentina 78 and their own maiden appearance at a World Cup.

The ill-fated 1981 campaign which saw New Zealand venture to Spain 82 at least gave Victorians some joy. Melbourne witnessed multiple World Cup qualifying victories with a gritty 2-0 success over Indonesia and a 10-0 demolition of hapless Fiji. This match included a notable seven-goal haul from Gary Cole inside 40 minutes. Qualification for Spain though was already derailed and only 13,000 witnessed the two matches combined; a pitiful 3500 attended the Fiji thrashing at Olympic Park.

At this moment in history, World Cup qualifying matches in Melbourne bore little resemblance to anything noteworthy, but this changed abruptly and permanently with the spirited 1985 qualifying series and national coach Frank Arok whipping the Australian football public into frenzy to pack the terraces for two huge matches. After a mighty victory in Tel Aviv, the Socceroos returned to Olympic Park and were greeted by 27,000 fans. The 1-1 draw with Israel left the hollow atmosphere of previous Melbourne matches consigned to the past. After conquering Oceania and Asia, FIFA gave the Socceroos one more mountain to climb and the visit of Scotland in December 1985 saw an unofficial attendance of 30,000 cram into Olympic Park. The official attendance is still unknown and Melbourne had never experienced a game like this one. The explosive atmosphere was exacerbated by brawling fans on the terraces as the ultras of South Melbourne Hellas, Heidelberg United and other local teams refused to give up their ground to the kilt-wearing hordes of the famous tartan army. Flares were unleashed onto the athletics track and the Socceroos received incredibly passionate support. Despite this, Scotland survived immense pressure for 90 minutes, escaped with a 0-0 result, and gladly received a ticket to Mexico 86.

There would be no more monumental qualifiers in Melbourne for another 12 years. No matches during the Italia 90 campaign were set for the southern capital. In 1993 a comfortable 3-0 win over New Zealand became memorable only for being the last World Cup qualifier to be played at Olympic Park as Australia chartered a course towards Argentina and inter-continental playoff heartbreak in the USA 94 qualifying series.

1997 promised to be Australia’s finest hour and a ticket to France 98 was almost guaranteed. After disposing of Oceania opposition, the playoff against Iran loomed as the most important 180 minutes of football in 24 years. A credible 1-1 away result in Tehran saw the Socceroos return to Melbourne for what would be a night no one would ever forget.

The Socceroos were the hottest ticket in town and packed the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The deafening roar of 85,022 nervous fans including around 5000 Persians was unforgettable. The match though was bipolar, lurching from cathartic celebrations as Australia lead 2-0 to catastrophic and gut wrenching silence as the match ended 2-2 and Iran went to the World Cup. It is unjust to judge Melbourne on this night alone, yet many will never forget where they were that horrible night or that the MCG was a place of such immeasurable pain.

Melbourne hosted another massive qualifier in 2001 and Australia won 1-0 against Uruguay in front of another cauldron of 84,656 at the MCG. The match went some way to cleansing the memory of the events of four years earlier, but the Australian qualifying campaign ultimately failed in Montevideo. Nonetheless, the days of Australia playing in front of a few thousand against Fiji were a memory.

The Victorian capital did not host any matches as Australia ended its 32-year drought and headed for Germany 2006, yet the two most recent campaigns have seen Qatar visit in 2008 and another blockbuster against Japan some fifteen months later in June 2009 when over 74,000 jubilant fans saw the Socceroos come from behind and defeat the Blue Samurai 2-1 on the way to South Africa 2010. Saudi Arabia visited Melbourne and it was AAMI Park that hosted its first qualifier where over 24,000 created an atmosphere that lifted Australia to a 4-2 victory and consigned the Saudis to elimination. In 2013 Jordan became the twelfth different national team in forty years to visit Melbourne for World Cup duty.

The Iran game of 1997 tarnishes a pleasing set of statistics: Australia has played 13 qualifiers in Melbourne for eight victories, four draws and just one loss way back in 1977 to Iran. Along the way, the Socceroos have scored 32 goals to just seven conceded, keeping eight clean sheets.

Melbourne is overall a very happy hunting ground for the Socceroos. Just don’t mention 1997.