Portugal ’91: A forgotten odyssey

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Without question, the squad that travelled to West Germany for the 1974 World Cup were the first Australian national football team to announce our arrival on the world stage with our first appearance in the tournament. It would be a long time between drinks before Australia would once again – in a FIFA international tournament – announce to the footballing world that it was a country with unlimited potential in the world game.

The stage this time was Portugal and the 1991 U20 Youth World Cup. Australia had qualified by going through Oceania and then a playoff with a highly-fancied Israeli side. Former Johnny Warren medallist, Brad Maloney, remembers this time as one of the best he has experienced.

“The 1991 Youth World Cup was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Maloney said.

“We qualified through Oceania relatively comfortably, but then had to face Israel in a playoff. Due to the Gulf War hostilities, both legs were played in Sydney, and Israel were rated the favourites who were captained by Eyal Berkovic.

“We managed to get through to the finals in Portugal and found ourselves in the heart of the football world.”

The Aussies lost the first leg of the playoff one nil but despite also conceding in the second leg went through on the away goals rule thanks to strikes from David Seal and Kris Trajanovski.

The qualification process started in June 1990 when thirty players were invited to a week long selection camp in the nation’s capital, where Les Scheinflug and his assistants ran the rule over them. There were further camps as well as tours around Asia where the team travelled to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, playing age group national teams and club sides before another two week camp back in Australia. It was a gruelling schedule for the young players and many were professionals at club level, but at the time there was no remuneration for these camps.

The preparation was very demanding. I recall being in a three week camp and training two or three times per day prior to leaving Australia,” the former Perth Glory and Marconi star revealed.

The final selection for the squad to go to Portugal once qualification was assured was made at the last minute on the 20th of April,1991. According to FIFA’s Technical Report the selection criteria was based on speed, vision, and an ability to play from the back. After this selection the Young Socceroos flew out to a 16-day camp in Holland. At an average age of eighteen years and nine months, the Aussies sent one of the youngest squads but did boast eight first team players from clubs such as Manchester United, St. George, Preston and Marconi.

“The final squad was only named twenty hours or so before we flew out, so obviously there were a few disappointed individuals that had given everything they had that didn’t make the final cut.

“We had six warm up matches in Holland, ironically in the final match Mark Schwarzer broke a finger and was sent home to be replaced in the team by Zeljko Kalac.”

Australia were drawn in Group C alongside Trinidad & Tobago, Egypt, and one of the favourites, the USSR, who had lost to host nation Portugal on penalties in the Youth European Championships preceding this tournament. However as history would prove, this crop of young Aussies had the players to not only take on the world’s best, but write their names in the history books as some of the finest talents the country has ever produced.

“I don’t think we necessarily had high expectations in the tournament, but we certainly had high hopes and belief in our ability and preparation. It was a good crop and it was fantastic to follow many of those players’ careers and now some are coaching.

“There were always a few of those players that were special and already playing in Europe, but there were others that had such a great work ethic that the were able to forge decent careers for themselves too,” said Maloney.

Against the odds and everyone else’s expectations the Australians would top the group by winning every game without conceding a goal, a fantastic achievement considering the USSR had the tournament’s joint top goalscorer in Serhiy Scherbakov.

“The first match was against Trinidad & Tobago. We’d heard a little bit about this Dwight Yorke fella,” recalled Maloney.

“He was a standout in a team that was very competitive. We managed to get two goals [Paul Okon 52', David Seal 76'] and take the three points which was all that mattered then.

“The Soviet Union was one of the favourites and they had a couple of gun strikers that our defence didn’t give much space to. I was lucky enough to run onto a ball from Paul [Okon] and I had half a yard to have a shot. It was incredible to see the ball beat the the keeper and go in.

“We managed to hang on to the one nil lead in what was one of the best overall team performances in the tournament. It was only then that we had beaten one of the favourites that a few critics started to give us some hope.”

Australia wrapped up the group stage with a lone first half strike by Kris Trajanovski enough to beat the Egyptians, setting up a quarter final clash against Syria. The Syrians came through a tough group unbeaten, finishing ahead of England and Uruguay and only below Spain on goal difference.

“Syria was always a tricky nation to play against and I’m sure we would’ve felt hard done by if we didn’t win the shootout. We did have our fair share of chances in normal play but failed to convert them.

“My distinct memory of that match is watching Robbie Stanton score the winning penalty and the whole team chasing him towards the corner flag to celebrate like we’d won the World Cup.”

Mark Bosnich saved the sixth penalty after the scores were locked at one apiece after extra time. The Syrians cancelled out a first half Seal effort with a nice volleyed effort by Mando in the second half. Australia hit the woodwork a couple of times in extra time but thanks to Bosnich’s keeping and the cool nerve of our penalty takers which included Okon, Seal and Kevin Muscat, the young Aussies progressed.

What was to follow would go down as one of the biggest matches in Australian football history, the semifinal against Portugal in front of an official crowd of 112,000 parochial home fans. The Aussies were sent out with the Scheinflug’s succinct instruction to “bring home the bacon” and came ever so close to doing just that.

Here we were, a bunch of 19 year olds from Sydney’s west, Melbourne’s outer suburbs etcetera, accustomed to playing in front of two or three thousand fans at best, all of a sudden in the middle of one of Europe’s most famous and historical stadiums, in front of 120,000 fanatical fans,” recalled Maloney.

“There was about 75,000 in the stands already an hour and a half before kick off and another few hundred thousand in the streets. I think the Aussie contingent in the crowd added up to about 20 people or so. So it was an amazing experience, and a great game in which we were beaten by a wonder strike and a bit unlucky not to score ourselves.

“Portugal went on to win the tournament, and many of their players also went on to be great players in world football, as did their coach, Carlos Queiroz.

“That match and playing in the bronze medal match at the 1992 Olympics at the Nou Camp are two of my fondest memories.”

Despite the admirable effort of a group of underdogs from a country not known for its footballing prowess, the group ably led by Scheinflug were disappointed to go out.

“Les had a very good record with limited resources at that level. He was able to get the best out of players and get them to rise to the occasion.

“It was a good group of players that had been in the trenches together many times and were match hardened [8 of the squad had participated in U16 FIFA competitions before]. We knew it was a good effort but you’re never completely satisfied when you lose.”

The Australians would meet the Soviet team again in the third place playoff, where a goal by Seal and a Scherbakov penalty sent the game into extra time and ultimately penalties. The Aussies this time couldn’t repeat the penalty heroics of the Syria match and lost 4-5 on penalties with standouts from previous matches Seal and Stanton failing to convert.

Many plaudits would come the Young Socceroos way following this World Cup, both as a team and individually. FIFA’s Technical Committee for the tournament headed by Gerard Houllier and Carlos Alberto Parreira singled out players such as Paul Okon and Mark Bosnich for their positions. Okon was in fact named in the Best Seven who were judged as the outstanding players in the tournament, alongside Portugal’s Joao Pinto and Emílio Peixe, and Brazilian pair Giovane Élber and Djair. More impressive considering Luis Figo and Rui Costa were omitted from this group.

Australia was the only team to use a ‘libero’ in a 1-3-4-2 system  with most other teams opting for a more defensive sweeper. As the libero, Okon was noted as being the perfect example of the improvement of defenders as all-round footballers with good touch and being more comfortable on the ball.

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Bosnich was praised for being an outstanding director of his defence and was considered the chief reason it was such a miserly unit. He and England’s Ian Walker were noted for their ability to “anticipate and intercept the ball” that many other of the young keepers hadn’t developed yet in their game.

The Australians had shown themselves to be a tactically astute and tough team to beat, capable of producing individual players who could control and dictate matches. The eyes of the football world would now be cast southward in the hope of unearthing the next Aussie gem.

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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