Australia’s Arabian Knights

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No football issue this year has courted as much controversy as the continued probe into the awarding of the 2022 FIFA World Cup to Qatar.

While the football world still searches for answers, we look back to the year 1995 when Qatar would come to the rescue of the international football community.

The U-20 World Cup was staged in Qatar after it was deemed Nigeria – who were originally awarded the tournament were unable to stage the event due to “reluctance on the part of international insurance companies to provide guarantee cover and problems concerning health and security.”

Former FIFA president Dr Joao Havelange wrote of his gratitude towards Qatar for taking over at the last minute in the FIFA Technical report of the tournament:

Seldom, if ever, in the history of FIFA has a national association come so willingly and so dramatically to the rescue of one of our major competitions as the Qatar Football Association at the 1995 FIFA/Coca-Cola World Youth Championship .

At little more than a moment’s notice, Qatar succeeded in putting at FIFA’s disposal facilities of the highest quality, as well as agreeing to take over the responsibility of organising one of the world’s most important football events.

The Qatar F.A. did this with knowledge and enthusiasm, committing human and material resources to the project in a spirit which emphasised that country’s love of our sport and its ambition to play a central role in the game’s development.

Thirty-one of the 32 games of the tournament were played at two stadiums, Al-Ahli club (14 games, 48,000 total att.) and Khalifa Stadium (17 games, 405,000 total att.) respectively.

Australia’s U-20 team would play their first two games out of Al-Ahli and the last two at Khalifa in their run to the the quarter-finals.

Mark Rudan who was a member of the ’95 squad spoke to Football Central about the tournament which was held in April 1995.

“I didn’t think it was organised remarkably only because Nigeria were supposed to host it and in the last minute something happened and FIFA took it away from them,” the former Australian youth international said.

“I remember there was a lot of sand around.

“In terms of organisation, the buses were always on time and the facilities were quite good. The hotel and the food itself were quite good .

“The weather was very humid and hot, even though we had late kick-offs it was still quite humid.”

The Young Socceroos from March 1994 until the Qatar tournament had twice had training camps and tours to the Netherlands playing up to fifteen matches together in that period including the Oceania qualifiers.

These matches included big wins over PSV Eindhoven and Ajax as well as a dramatic one goal win over New Zealand in the Oceania final, courtesy of a solitary goal from Rudan.

“We worked on the understanding of each other as players and on cohesion. There weren’t so many patterns of play, we had a very good team and it was a lot of games being away trying to toughen up the players and get them playing against good opposition,” recalled the former Sydney FC defender on how the lead up to Qatar helped the team.

“I remember playing against against Ajax with Patrick Kluivert playing; we won that game 3-1 (Viduka with a double and Aloisi with one), Patrick and I were sent off in that game funnily enough after a bit of an altercation. That was probably the biggest game we played (on tour).

“I remember the late Eddie Thompson was there and talking to a few of us about these Ajax players like Patrick who had already played a few first grade games and how it was going to be a very good test for us.

“It just enabled us to get some tough games under our belt and for Les and his coaching staff to work out what he thought was going to be the best eleven. We were able to experience how European teams play and the chance to be together as a team.”

Mark Viduka was the standout player for what was a very strong Australian team.

The former Melbourne Knights marksman scored 21 goals in a seventeen games for the Young Socceroos between 1994 and 1995. It was evident to all that he was a special talent.

“Yes, right from the start. We were at the Australian Institute of Sport together as well. We got to know each other extremely well, and Viduka and myself, as many would testify, were pretty inseparable during our time at the AIS,” reminisced Rudan.

“You could just see from the outset he was a special talent, the way he held the ball up, his movement, and finishing.

“He then left the AIS and was of very few players in that Australian side playing regularly at the National Soccer League level. Not just playing regularly, he was Player of the Year, top goal scorer, the Youth Player of the Year – he was picking up awards left, right, and centre. A special, special talent.

“I remember telling a friend of mine when I got out of the AIS to watch out for Mark Viduka.

The recent Hall of Famer inductee, as mentioned earlier, was a standout in a very good group of players that included names like Skoko, Enes, Middleby, Bolton and Talay.

“Robbie Enes was a phenomenal player. He was probably the other one at the AIS in terms of the quality he had; his vision, touch and passing. I can say this quite openly that he was a better talent than Josip Skoko in midfield,” said Rudan.

“Ufuk Talay was made up our midfield at the World Cup but he didn’t go to the AIS. He was already playing with Marconi in the NSL under Frank Arok.

“Robbie Enes was the pick though, an absolute superb player. When we had the ball, Craig Moore, who was at the AIS with us, and I would play it to Robbie and he’d play the ball short, long over the top, little chips he was the one who really stood out for me.”

Australia were drawn in Group D along with Costa Rica, Cameroon, and Germany.

A considerable challenge for a small footballing nation but Australia had by this time established itself as one of the leading nations in terms of youth football.

Australia would go into the tournament with a libero in a 5-3-2 system although Rudan would reveal that coach Les was more about picking the best players for the team than tactics.

“It wasn’t like it is today where there’s more impetus with tactics. Les picked a team he thought was strong enough to win any given game, and he played to those strengths.

“Les was a motivator if nothing else, he had a good eye for young talent, and his results speak for themselves. His teams always qualified for World Cup’s (the exception being 1997) and they did extremely well, particularly in the 90s. He was a real motivator.

“One thing I remember from Les is he was nicknamed ‘the Boss’  for a reason; it was his way or the highway. He was very strict and disciplined in the way he coached, he understood that he was trying to prepare us all for life as a professional footballer.

“He really made you feel proud to wear that Australian jersey and represent Australia. Some of his talks were spine-tingling.”

First up was Costa Rica who were led by former Derby, West Ham and Manchester City striker Paulo Wanchope; the second game would be against the always dangerous Cameroon and the last group game was a tense match up against the Germans.

“I remember Paulo Wanchope playing for Costa Rica. He was a tough customer to deal with. He was really big, tall, and lanky. All arms and legs,” said Rudan.

“He didn’t look quick as most tall players don’t, but he was quite elusive. I remember winning that game 2-0 (Viduka 51′, Enes 74′) .”

Next up Australia would face Cameroon. Leading by a solitary Viduka goal at the break, the Aussies would eventually succumb 2-3 to the African side which would prove to be the decider for topping the group.

“Cameroon was a tough one. We gave the game away in the last minute (Ntamag 90′). I was surprised we had lost, but Cameroon were African Champions and we knew that was going to be a big test for us.”

Rudan was suspended for the do-or-die clash with the Germans. A win for Australia would guarantee qualification to the next round.

The Germans went into the tournament missing a few key players but they still provided a tough test and even grabbed the lead in the 23rd minute through Marcel Rath.

The Germans faded in the second half though and Australia’s captain and talisman would grab the equaliser and his fourth in three games as the match would finish 1-1.

The Cameroons 3-1 win against Costa Rica favoured Australia, setting up a clash with a familiar foe for our youth teams, Portugal.

The Portuguese had won the 1989 & 1991 editions of the tournament knocking out Australia in the latter at home 1-0.

The quarter-final would be a tight contest for both sides. A game that would go down the wire into extra time after an Agostinho goal and Portugal own goal saw regulation finish 1-1.

It would prove the only contest of the tournament to be settled by a Golden Goal.

“Portugal had a very strong side again. I remember we were always in the game. Skoko scored a goal (officially accredited as a Carlos Felipe own goal) to send it to extra time.

“Portugal pressured us quite strongly, they pressured our back five, and then we tried to bypass the midfield to try and get Viduka into the game. I remember when it was 1-1 Les saying ‘look boys this is our moment do we want to be in the semi-finals?’

“We had a fantastic opportunity, I think we hit the post through Skoko in extra time and that would’ve got us through. I think it was a counterattack and Portugal ended up scoring a breakaway goal (Agostinho 100′).

“I remember the ball going through Clint Bolton’s legs and it was just heartbreak for us because we definitely thought we were good enough to get to the next round.”

Portugal would go on to finish the tournament in third, while Australia ended the showpiece equal seventh with Japan.

But once more Australia would deliver performances that made the footballing world take note. The world game was on the rise Down Under and the Aussies could match it with the best.

The following is an extract from the FIFA Technical report summary on Australia:

In defence the team made a very compact impression. The two stoppers man-marked the opposing strikers while the two outerbacks made sure that little space was available on the flanks. Valuable support came from both midfield and from the forwards (one or other of the two forwards would always be back when needed).The offside trap was hardly used at all.

When they were attacking, play down the wings was favoured with the two backs doing the pushing forward. They would be looking for Viduka, avery dangerous player who had headed the goalscorers’ list in the top league back home.This tended to make their game a bit stereotyped. Only Skoko coming through from mid- fieldand the tricky Middleby caused moments of surprise with individual efforts.

 The strengths of thet eam were to be found in their traditional sound team play. Uniformity throughout the team, lots of fighting spirit and the will to win were the foundations stones of yet another good performance. Sound organisation in defence made them hard to score against and the individual talents of players like Skoko, Middleby or Viduka could have won matches on their own. 

Adam Howard

Adam is one of the founders of Football Central and the creator of OSAussies.com.  He has followed the career paths of Australian footballers playing in leagues all over the world.  Born in Adelaide and currently residing in Hiroshima, Adam brings a unique perspective to Australian football.  He is an ardent supporter of Australia's domestic competition and national team.

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