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First published in The Age on November 19, 1993
World Cup dream ends in tears
Buenos Aires, Thursday – A piece of woodwork and the resurgent genius of Diego Maradona provided the most telling contributions when the Socceroos’ spirited World Cup challenge came to a cruel end with a 1-0 loss in last night’s final playoff at River Plate Stadium.
“End of the road… dejected Socceroos Graham Arnold (9), Frank Farina (7) and Paul Wade (6) trudge off the Studio Monumental in Buenos Aires after their 1-0 loss to Argentina in the World Cup qualifying round. “Credit:Sydney Morning Herald
If fortune truly does favor the brave, then it was Australia, and not the Argentines, who deserved to be celebrating ultimate victory in the last game of the worldwide qualifying program.
Instead the tears flowed freely in the Socceroo dressing room while the Argentines lapped up the adulation and overwhelming sense of relief that flooded down from the terraces at one of the most intimidating stadiums on Earth.
Since the 1-1 draw on the first leg in Sydney 18 days ago, the odds were always leaning towards Argentina, which has wont the World Cup twice in the past 15 years. Yet never at any stage did the Australians seem overawed by the occasion of in any way subordinate to an opposing team with some of the most highly paid professionals in world football.
Over the two legs, Argentina – despite an impeccable pedigree – was no better than Australia, still regarded as a developing nation in soccer terms. The reason the play-off series to decide the 24th and final berth in next year’s World Cup finals in the US went the way of the more fancied side was simply luck, and it deserted Australia at the crucial junctures.
Face with the task of scoring at least once away from home, and presented with a parochial 75,000 crowd (officially 39,678 but that figure does not include media and VIPs), this was never going to be an easy game for the Socceroos.
But while the Argentines, thanks to the dominance of Maradona and the enthusiastic support he received from Diego Simeone, controlled possession for large parts of the game, in the final analysis they needed to rely on good fortune to scrape through.
The goal that ultimately separated the two teams and confirmed Argentina’s passage to the World Cup finals was almost comical in its execution, and a travesty of justice for Australian defender Alex Tobin, again among the best in the green and gold.
Fourteen minutes after the restart for the second half, and with the home side enjoying its best spell of the game, striker Gabriel Batistuta surged down the right flank with Tobin, as always, in close proximity.
Looking up, and with the space before the byline fast running out, Batistuta opted for the percentage ball – a cross to the goalmouth in the hope that something might happen.
It did, but in the most unexpected way. A split second after the ball left the right boot of Batistuta it deflected off the shin of Tobin and looped high in the air. Goalkeeper Robert Zabica, the savior of Australia twice in the first half, had moved towards his near post, sensing that it was where the danger might arise.
Instead, Zabica could only watch in horror as the ball arced over his head and towards the vacant space at the back post.
“I thought it was going out, but the breeze brought it back and it hit the goalpost and went in,” he said later. “It was unbelievable. A total fluke.”
Whatever, the history books will show that Tobin’s own goal decided the game, and brought the curtain down on yet another failed World Cup campaign for Australia.
Of the eight World Cups the Socceroos have entered since 1965, they have qualified for the tournament only once (1974), and now, once again, the dream is over for another four years.
The Australian players demonstrated admirable sportsmanship to applaud both the victors, and their supporters, before leaving the pitch.
But, once inside the sanctuary of their own dressing room, the sense of grief, and frustration, took over as they contemplated the exquisite agony of knowing they had come so close to achieving a famous victory.
“There was nothing, absolutely nothing, between the two teams,” said winger Robbie Slater. “It’s just so heartbreaking, the worst feeling ever.”
Beaten but not bowed, the Socceroos have every reason to believe they deserved something better. Maradona apart, they matched the Argentines in every department and could also point to a lenient decision by Danish referee Peter Mikkelsen in the 16th minute as a possible turning point.
Socceroo striker Graham Arnold, after having a rebounded clearance fall into his path, seized on the opportunity to advance towards goals and was making his way past stopper Oscar Ruggeri when he was unceremoniously dragged down by his shirt. Given that he had rounded the last defender, and had only the goalkeeper to beat, it was a textbook example of the professional foul – an offence which carries an automatic red card.
Mikkelsen, though, chose to compromise and issued Ruggeri only with a yellow card. The Socceroos wasted the resulting free kick from the edge of the penalty area when Aurelio Vidmar placed his shot high and wide.
It was a reprieve for Argentina and for Ruggeri in particular, and they prospered from it.
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