It’s a steep climb from the centre of Kaiserslautern to the Fritz-
Walter-Stadion, formerly known as the Betzenberg after the
hill that looks over the small
town in south-western Germany.
For the Australian fans making their way there on a baking
June day in 2006, it was just another few steps at the end of a
long and often agonising
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to the World Cup finals since the Socceroos’ only previous
appearance, in 1974, also in Germany.
The landmarks of that barren run are all too familiar: New
Zealand, Scotland, Israel, Argentina, Iran and Uruguay had all
left their scars on the memory. It would be hard to argue
against John Aloisi’s penalty against Uruguay in November
2005 that ended that run as the single most critical and
emotional moment of Australia’s recent World Cup history. But
you could also easily make the case that the last 10 minutes of
the opening game in the finals,
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against Japan in
Kaiserslautern, meant as much.
Les Murray, having lived every moment of the journey, called it
“a poignant moment” as he introduced the SBS coverage.
“After a 32-year wait, Australia will walk on the pitch behind
me, face the sun and engage in a game of football that will
captivate all in our country like few
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Even he could scarcely have imagined how true that would
turn out to be.
The context was critical. The A-League had just completed its
first season and Australia had recently been accepted into the
Asian confederation, potentially putting both the domestic and
international side of the game on a whole new footing. The
Socceroos had their finest crop of players in decades – of the
14 players who ultimately got on
the field against Japan, seven
were with Premiership clubs, two in Serie A, one in La Liga and
two in the top divisions of Switzerland and the Netherlands.
All this meant Australia had both their greatest opportunity to
make progress at a World Cup, and the most urgent need to
do so, to reinforce the mood of change and optimism. And with
Brazil and Croatia completing the group, a win against the
relative minnows Japan was crucial if the Socceroos were to
have any chances of making the knockout stage.
The narrative of Australia’s return to the biggest world stage
was matched by the setting: Kaiserslautern’s wonderful,
steep-sided stadium was packed with 46,000 fans, most of
whom had made their way there from the other side of the
world. For many Australians it was the first
taste of the incredible noise of the
disciplined Samurai Blue fans that would become all too familiar
in the years to come.
If Murray, the fans and the thousands watching at home in the
middle of the night were in danger of getting swept away by
emotion, coach Guus Hiddink was there to keep the players’
heads clear (although he too would lose his cool as events
unfolded). Hiddink recalled years later how he had tried to add
self-belief and tactical nous to the Australian players’
“They had passionate hearts, [but] tactically and strategically
it was not in balance with the super commitment of the guys.”
He was so successful that the tactics website Zonal Marking
rated Hiddink’s Australia one of the teams of the decade for
its “highly unusual formation”, using three defenders and a
single striker (Mark Viduka), with the six others in various fluid
But for most observers the tension blotted out any
appreciation of tactical niceties. Viduka had an early double
chance awkwardly kept out by Japan’s keeper, Yoshikatsu
Kawaguchi, and for the Socceroos all the old anxieties came
flooding back when they went behind in the 26th minute.
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from the right seemed to be routine for Mark Schwarzer, but
the goalkeeper was edged out of the way by a combination of
Japan’s strikers Naohiro Takahara and Atsushi Yanagisawa,
and the ball bounced gently in. Schwarzer later claimed the
Egyptian referee admitted he had made a mistake, but that
was of little use on the field, as Australia faced the prospect of
the tamest elimination imaginable.
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