After two campaigns of direct qualifications, the Socceroos return to the nerve rattling World Cup playoffs with two legs against Honduras to decide a spot in the Finals next June. Moving to Asia was supposed to reduce the risk of having to play in these ties however a string of unsettling results plus an extra time win over Syria have brought the Socceroos to this stage. But before these games kick off, it is worth looking back at the (mostly heartbreaking) memories of the last few campaigns which have resulted in a playoff and reliving the joy of the successful ones.
Australia vs Israel – 1969
In Australia’s first playoff experience, they were a part of the combined Oceania and Asia qualification tournament. Having progressed through two group stages, the final stage of qualification took place in early December 1969 against an Israeli side participating in their final Asian tournament before being expelled from the AFC. It would be Israel progressing to the World Cup however with a 2-1 aggregate win thanks to a 1-0 win in Tel Aviv and surviving a Socceroos rally to progress with a 1-1 draw in Sydney.
Australia vs Scotland – 1985
Having progressed through the final Oceania group stage just ahead of Israel & New Zealand (somehow Israel was a part of Oceania for a while there), where they faced European battlers Scotland. Unsurprisingly, the raucous Hampden Park crowd cheered the Scottish side home 2-0 in the first leg. Liverpool’s Kenny Dalglish playing the crucial ball for Frank McAvennie to give them the two-goal buffer. At the return leg in Sydney it just did not happen for the Socceroos as they were unable to score and trouble the Scottish side who went onto the World Cup.
Australia vs Argentina – 1993
Having advanced past Canada on penalties, the Socceroos had the small task of defeating Diego Maradona and a talent-laden Argentina side in the second playoff tie of the campaign. Aurelio Vidmar nabbed an equaliser to get out of Sydney on level terms but an Alex Tobin own goal in Buenos Aires eliminated the Socceroos at the final hurdle once more.
Australia vs Uruguay – 2001
Four years after coming so close, the Socceroos faced a daunting Uruguayan side in the playoffs having comfortably strolled through Oceania once more. Having put 22 past Tonga and 31 by American Samoa, with a team full of European based players the hope was that this would be the year. Kevin Muscat’s penalty in Melbourne gave us hope but it was not enough headed to Montevideo. A hostile reception and a driven opponent resulted in a 3-0 defeat and the iconic image of Tony Vidmar leaving the pitch in tears.
Australia vs Canada – 1993
A surprisingly fiery tie saw the legend of Mark Schwarzer established before his most famous moment twelve years later. The first of two playoffs that year, the first leg in Canada had Robert Zabica sent off but Australia benefitted from an own goal to send it back to Sydney trailing just 2-1. Two future A-League managers in Frank Farina and Mehmet Durakovic scored the goals for Australia to send it to extra time and eventually penalties, however Farina’s bicycle kick was the pick of the tie. From there Schwarzer stepped up and it was Australia marching on. This one could have been much higher on the list had it been for a place in the World Cup instead of the right to play Argentina for a spot in the tournament.
Australia vs Iran – 1997
This one hurts whenever it is brought up, everything was set up for Australia to return to the World Cup with a second leg at home against Iran. A 1-1 draw in Tehran thanks to Harry Kewell only added to that confidence knowing all they needed was a win at the MCG. At 2-0 the party was starting to kick off and travel agents were being contacted in preparation for a trip to France in June. Then came the Peter Hoare pitch invasion resulting in a momentum crushing stoppage in play. Then came one goal for Iran, soon after the gut punch equaliser. There was to be no miracle comeback here, only heartbreak for the fans watching. This is definitely top of the list when it comes to frustration as it could so easily have gone the other way.
Australia vs South Korea – 1973
Long before the Uruguay shootout or Josh Kennedy’s dramatic header against Iraq, the Socceroos of the 1970’s established the national tradition of qualifying for a World Cup in dramatic circumstances. Playing in the Oceania/Asia combined tournament with just one spot on the line, Australia had to play South Korea. A scoreless draw in Sydney preceded a tense second leg in Seoul. South Korea leapt to an early 2-0 lead however the Socceroos ground their way back to level things up through Ray Baartz just after halftime. With no away goals rule, a neutral ground playoff was needed to settle the result and Jimmy Mackay scored the match winning goal with 20 minutes to play.
Australia vs Uruguay – 2005
There was only one option for the best memory of World Cup Playoffs and it was November 2005 in Sydney. While the 1974 side will be remembered fondly, for several generations of football fans this was the turning point for them as the Socceroos returned to the world’s biggest sporting stage. Any fan will be able to tell you where they were for Kewell’s miskick which lead to Bresciano’s equaliser. Securing progression inside 90 minutes would have been great, but the drama of extra time and the eventual shootout made it a night to remember.