The Original Socceroos

Thirty two years before Guus Hiddink’s Australian team reached the 2006 World Cup Finals in Germany, a rather more rag tag and earthy brand of Socceroos achieved precisely the same feat.
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Thirty two years before Guus Hiddink’s Australian team reached the 2006 World Cup Finals in Germany, a rather more rag tag and earthy brand of Socceroos achieved precisely the same feat.

After arriving in Europe in 1974 prior to the tournament, the Australian team, comprising expats like Peter Wilson and Adrian Alston who’d failed to make the grade at home, sons of Croatian emigrants who’d crossed the Pacific in the 50s, and a clutch of players born Down Under, checked into a plush Swiss rural training camp which nearly bankrupted the Australian Football Association (AFA), and “for the first time in our careers were afforded the respect due to international footballers,” in the words of Vice Captain Johnny Warren. By accident and design, the visitors created a series of bizarre headlines which resonate three decades later. Although Australia made a predictably speedy first round exit from their group with both Germanys and Chile, the whole adventure, in Warren’s words, “represented a massively significant step in our country’s often rocky football history.”

Predictably for a man who prided himself on forthright speaking, the title of Warren’s tome: Sheilas, Wogs, And Poofters, An incomplete biography of Johnny Warren and Soccer in Australia, made waves across several continents. “The book title was a reflection of the fact that white Australians tended to look down on the sport – and footballers - with contempt. For years, they called it ‘Wogball,’ as football was played by immigrants, and the 74 team were treated like second class citizens in some quarters,” Warren explained in 2000. Their path to the Finals was a long and winding one. Forced to play eleven matches in 21 months, the eclectic mix of milkmen, miners, teachers, and scrap metal merchants scrapped for their lives in assorted hostile outposts. In November 1973, they played six games in 21 days, in seven different cities spread across six countries. Their aggregate victory over Iran sparked riots on the streets of Tehran (when the Iranian team flew home, they were pelted with rocks and rotten vegetables by furious supporters) , and a hysterical crowd in Seoul saw Warren’s team mates draw with South Korea after trailing by two goals for much of the tie. Seventy two hours later, in neutral Hong Kong, a Jimmy Mackay effort (still regarded as Australia’s finest football moment) settled the match, and meant the Aussies qualified for Germany. News of the victory took more than a day to filter back home.

Bowled over by the quality of their training camp in Hamburg prior to the group stage (“A guy was on hand distributing Adidas footballs and boots” recalled Warren), word had filtered out, much to the consternation of the squad, that “we were little more than a gang of desperados,” in striker Adrian Alston’s words. This was partly due to the persona and unorthodox approach of coach Zvonimir “Rale” Rasic, who’d emigrated from Bosnia to Melbourne in the 1950s. Trained in the Yugoslav army, and forced to march 19 miles a day in freezing conditions, he’d “learned what barriers the human body could push through.” He fed his boys red raw steaks at their training camps “because I need blood from each and every one of you every day over the next few years” and insisted that his players endure long cross country runs (maps were often provided for those epic runs in far outposts) in order to boost their fitness levels.

Several members of the squad found themselves in Germany under bizarre circumstances, and a raft of stories quickly leaked out. Manfred Schafer had failed to make the grade as a player in East Germany, emigrated, and combined his football career with delivering milk in Sydney. Midfielder Ray Baartz had been assaulted by Uruguayan defender Luis Garisto in a friendly shortly before the World Cup, lapsed into a coma the following day, and finally awoke partially paralyzed. The squad voted to keep him in for the World Cup 22 anyway. Captain Peter Wilson, who’d made a solitary appearance for Middlesbrough in the late 60s, before “disappearing off the face of the earth”, (for the first time) informed Shoot readers “It can be difficult at home when employers aren’t as accommodating as you’d like them to be,” and Adrian Alston confirmed it was “pretty shitty living on coke and bananas in Vietnam;” a reference to the team’s tour to war torn Saigon in the late 60s, as American bombers droned overhead.

White Australians tended to look down on the sport – and footballers - with contempt. For years, they called it ‘Wogball,’ as football was played by immigrants, and the 74 team were treated like second class citizens in some quarters.

In the absence of Sir Alf Ramsey’s England, Peter Wilson and Adrian Alston were the only players born in England at Germany 74, and this afforded them their fifteen minutes of fame from the British speaking press. There was also huge interest in the first aborigine to play football for the national team – Harry Williams. Treated as freaks by the German media, newspaper Bild Zeitung ran an article which asked: “Why have we got these kangaroos at the World Cup? How have we ended up with this bunch of no hopers at the world’s greatest tournament?” and Australian fan George Myers, who followed the team to Germany recalls: “They were regarded as just a bizarre side show, who’d emerged from nowhere. Remember these were the days before widespread long haul travel, Crocodile Dundee, and Kylie Minogue! They travelled around in this plush green and yellow bus with ‘Australien’ on the side, and when people in the street saw it, they’d hop around, imitating a kangaroo. I swear that most people reckoned they’d be lucky to get home without having ten goals knocked past them in every game.”

Famously, Sir Arthur George, President of the Australian Soccer Federation, was dismayed at the group they found themselves, exclaiming: “One Germany would have been bad enough. But two, I can’t believe it.” Australia’s first match was against East Germany. Although Georg Buschner’s men won comfortably enough, the match was noteworthy for a nugget of World Cup trivia. A day before Johan Cruyff executed his “turn” past hapless Swedish defender Gunnar Olsson, the lanky Soceroos striker Adrian Alston crafted a similar piece of trickery, and bamboozled highly rated full back Konrad Weise. “It was just a piece of skill I picked up somewhere along the way, and I did it a day before him (Cruyff). Maybe he was actually copying Adrian Alston!” he recalled. Weise exacted his revenge and proceeded to kick Alston “all around the park for the rest of the game,” in Johnny Warren’s words. Having irritated Buschner’s team (Wolfgang Blockwitz recalled: “From the bench, you could tell that Australia were very well drilled and combative, rather like us. I think even Buschner reckoned he’d probably taken them a bit lightly”) Rasic’s men then faced their Western counterparts in a fractious clash in Hamburg which appeared to push Schon’s men towards the brink of self destruction.

It wasn’t until the second half that West Germany scored the three goals which secured victory, and before that the Hamburg crowd spent much of the ninety minutes booing Beckenbauer, who played for arch rivals Bayern Munich. “We placed the Germans under a great deal of pressure,” recalled Alston, “and Franz naturally grew frustrated, because he wanted to put on a good show in front of those fans. None of us could believe how the home crowd could have the nerve to boo their national team captain. It would never have happened back at home, and it surprised all of us, I think.” Uncompromising Australia skipper Peter Wilson also pressed forward, in order to put pressure on “Der Kaiser” and, after a series of stray passes, culminating in cat calls from many in the 70,000 crowd, Beckenbauer spat in the direction of the crowd. Famously, he also refused to shake hands or swap shirts with Wilson after the match. With a little more luck, Alston could have scored a brace, and recalled: “I went past Schwarzenbeck and Beckenbauer a few times in the match, and that displeased both of them no end.” It caused further tension between West Germany’s captain and his manager, particularly as Helmut Schon had publicly warned the nation on German television, and his team in the dressing room before the match: “We have nothing to fear from Australia apart from Adrian Alston.”

Despite Beckenbauer’s annoyance at Alston’s cheek, it was the Aussie striker who was privileged enough to receive Der Kaiser’s green shirt after he’d simmered down in the dressing room afterwards, and it still takes pride of place in Alston’s Wollongong home. In the final game, although by now eliminated, the Socceroos at least settled a score with Chile and their skipper Francisco Valdes, who’d previously claimed: “I’ll give up football and start tending chickens if Australia get anything out of us,” by gaining a 0-0 draw. Midfielder Ray Richards wrote himself into World Cup history that day by being shown three yellow cards, before the referee realised his mistake, and sent him off after an eight minute delay. Despite earning a solitary point, and scoring no goals, even Bild Zeitung offered a profuse (if slightly patronising apology): “When Australia was drawn to play in the same group as our national team, everyone laughed…What could these greenhorns be dreaming of playing East and West Germany…We would like to apologise for the statements we made. We were wrong…The Australians have been a wonderful squad. Thank you very much and goodbye and good luck, Aussies.”

The vast majority of the squad returned to relative obscurity back home, and those that didn’t quickly realised the error of their ways. Despite interest from Hamburg and Eintracht Frankfurt, Alston plumped for a spell at Luton Town, which he later described as “the worst move I ever made.” He later wound up at Preston and Cardiff, where “my son couldn’t stand the freezing cold weather, so we headed back out to start all over again in Australia.” Many of the 74 squad eventually returned full time to the farms, mines, and factories once their football careers ended; Rasic and Warren gained fame and fortune Down Under, and Peter Wilson’s reclusive lifestyle has gained him his fair share of notoriety.

They settled a score with Chile and their skipper Francisco Valdes, who’d previously claimed: “I’ll give up football and start tending chickens if Australia get anything out of us,” by gaining a 0-0 draw.

Rale Rasic, much to the consternation of his players, was sacked after the 1974 World Cup, and replaced by Englishman Brian Green, who eventually fled the country after being arrested for shop lifting. Rasic and many of his squad claim that he was fired as he wasn’t regarded as a “real Aussie.” “They took from me something I was doing better than anyone else. I was a true blue Aussie and nobody can deny that. I taught the players how to sing the national anthem.” He coached throughout Australia after the tournament ended, and is now a highly regarded football panellist on television. Johnny Warren, up until his death in 2004 from lung cancer, campaigned relentlessly for the promotion of the game in a country dominated by other football codes, claiming “I’m sick of us saying, ‘When are we going to qualify for the World Cup? We should be saying: ‘When are we going to win the World Cup?”’ He frequently argued for the abolition of the Oceania Football Federation (OFF), claiming that the Socceroos, so dominant within the OFF, were being strangled by a lack of serious competition. In the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, Australia defeated OFF opponents 11-0, 22-0, and 31-0. Additionally, the OFF did not have a direct qualification route to the Finals, resulting in the sudden death series against either South American or Asian opponents for the final World Cup berth.

At the 2006 World Cup, the team, in a mark of respect, adopted Warren’s mantra: “I told you so,” as they progressed to the last sixteen. Ironically, the class of 74, whom reserve ‘keeper Alan Maher admitted “weren’t on a very good wicket” in Germany, finally got more public awareness on the back of Hiddink’s side’s success in reaching the Finals, and were paid £1500 a man as part of an ongoing Gillette advertising campaign. Several of Warren’s former team mates were also critical of captain Mark Viduka’s complaints about his side’s long journey to the play off (in a private jet) against Uruguay in November 2005, a match watched by half the nation.

Rale Rasic’s squad arrived in Sydney for the Gillette sponsorship deal in a replica of the gold and green bus they used in Germany all those years ago, and 17 of the original members hopped aboard. Absentees included the deceased Warren and Jimmy Mackay (who died in 1998), and most intriguingly, skipper Peter Wilson. After making 115 appearances for his country, he worked as a miner on the outskirts of Wollongong, and could often be seen in his favourite post shift watering holes during the evening, heavily bearded, plastered in tattoos and with hair down to his shoulders. A German fan corresponded with him, asking him for his shirt which he wore against West Germany. Wilson responded by sending him the shirt with the badge ripped off, and asked for motorbike magazines in return. In the vain hope of enticing him to speak after two decades of silence, I despatched my contact near Sydney to Wilson’s remote mountain pile, ringed with barbed wire. With a Harley Davidson parked on the drive, the imposing former national team captain was in no mood to break his silence. “I’ve got nothing to say to your mate,” he bellowed from the drive. “You tell him that.”

When Wilson’s team arrived back home after the 74 World Cup, around 1500 supporters greeted them; several of Hiddink’s side, mindful of yet another interminable ‘plane journey, simply stayed put in Europe during the close season and opted against returning to Australia. George Myers, who followed both Socceroos teams to the respective World Cups in Germany claims: “Both squads have their nationality in common, but that’s about all. They didn’t benefit financially at the time, but the 74 team had more soul. They showed what could be done. It’s just a shame that no one put them on a pedestal at the time.

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