The year 1995 saw the introduction of the Internet, the establishment of the World Trade Organisation, the Oklahoma City bombing tragedy, and John Howard became leader of the Liberal party.
In football terms, Ajax were crowned champions of Europe, Robbie Slater won the Premier League with Blackburn Rovers, and Eric Cantona gave a Crystal Palace fan a close up of some of his fancy footwork.
For Australia, it saw the introduction of two of our brightest footballing stars in Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton to the international stage and a performance in South America we could be proud of.
The 1995 Joeys would qualify for the Ecuador Youth World Cup after going through Oceania qualifiers in Vanuatu winning all three games scoring 11 goals and not conceding. This would not only prove to be an opportunity to take on the best players of their age in the world but also prove to be a valuable learning experience for these young men and for many highlight of their footballing life.
They’d journey to Quito in July for a training camp, playing and winning all four games against local opposition with Kewell a standout with five goals.
“My memory of Quito is that it was hard going initially with the altitude acclimitazation,” 1995 squad member, Daniel Ucchino told Football Central.
“The first session there we were made to run and most players either vommitted either during or after the session. The other thing that stands in my memory was the poverty in the country and the fact we had armed security guards escorting us everywhere we went.”
These young men from a developed nation, who played a game that was under-developed in their home country, had never experienced anything like it before.
“We were 16 year old boys staying in 5 star hotels while outside the hotel there was hunger and desperation, which I’m sure was an eye opener for most of us,” said the former Marconi junior.
“A handful of us would sneak food out of the hotel restaurant and hand it out to the people on the street as we took our nightly after dinner walk.
“By the third or fourth night the guards caught on and told us that it was best that we didn’t continue taking food to the people because it would cause more people to come and wait for us every night.”
Being in a football mad country introduced the players to another thing that they wouldn’t have experienced much of in Australia, and something only a few would go on to experience in their senior careers.
“Ecuador was pretty good, signing autographs thinking you’re a superstar,” former Newcastle Breakers forward Luke Tomich said.
“All these people coming up to you…it’s just one of those time you never forget.”
The squad indeed had some players who would go on to be superstars although at the time this may not have been as obvious.
“In regards to whether you could tell if players were going to kick on with the careers. That’s a tough one because in hindsight you will say ‘yes’ but in reality I don’t think you can ever really know if a player is going to become a superstar or excel just because of his ability or ‘lack’ of ability at the age of 16,” revealed Ucchino.
“I believe that it’s your mindset and belief system that will get you to your goals, so to say that Harry and Brett were going to ‘make it’ wouldn’t have been a stretch but I could’ve said that about plenty of the others too.
“Harry was always a class act and Brett had a motor that never stopped running and never slowed down.
“For me, the player I had biggest wraps on was Chris Coyne. He was a hard defender that was good in the air and had decent feet and didn’t mind kicking the shit out of you if he had to.
“Ilija Prenzoski was also a player with an ocean of skill and ability.”
“They were all pretty standout players,” said Tomich, of his teammates.
“Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton, little Yane Talcevski, though he didn’t really do much after, was a really good player. The captain Clayton Bell, he wasn’t too bad. A good leader and a good bloke. There were a couple blokes who didn’t get a run that were good players, as well as (Michael) Cunico, (Michael) Galluzzo.”
Leading the team was legendary Australian youth coach during a very good nineties, Les Scheinflug who was assisted by former Socceroos coach the late Eddie Thomson.
“He was a good coach, he knew his football,” Tomich told Football Central.
“He was our main boss but Eddie Thompson as well, he came and played a part in Ecuador, helping out in the training camp.
“He (Les) liked to play a certain way, every coach has their own way of playing I suppose, and you just have to adapt to it and play your best. But yeah, he was a good coach, good person to look up to, you want to play for him you know? If you don’t like him, you’re not going to perform under him.”
Daniel Ucchino’s experience wasn’t quite as positive at the time but now the sweeper can look back and realise how important that time was for him as a player and can appreciate what Scheinflug was trying to achieve with his players.
“Les was not like any coach I’d ever had before,” said Ucchino.
“He was hard and direct and looking back on it many years later I realised that he was perfect for youth footballers. He sorted out the non self-believers with his discipline and toughness which I believe is why he had as much success as he did with young Australian players.
“I personally struggled with him but I now know it was my issue and not his, even though I disliked him at the time and for many years after.
“I was used to being spoon fed and patted on the back – I captained Marconi, captained the 3 time winning N.S.W squad, then captained the Joeys at all the initial camps until I missed the Chile and Argentina tour through ‘injury’, but after that tour Les was convinced that I should play in the holding midfield role rather than at sweeper which was my preferred and best position.
“He pushed you and cracked you to see how you would respond and if you got up off the floor you were in, if you stayed down then you were no good to him or the squad- which is fair enough I suppose.
“I would cry myself to sleep most nights because I wasn’t playing. It was a very tough time for me and an experience that shaped my thinking for many years after. I’m very grateful for what I learnt about myself and life during that time, even though at the time it was devastating.”
The tournament proper kicked off in August where Australia were drawn against Spain, Nigeria and Qatar in Group C.
The first match against Spain ended up 2-2 with both sides taking the lead throughout the match. Former Victory striker, Daniel Allsopp scored both of Australia’s goals.
This game was followed by a 2-nil defeat to Nigeria and a comfortable 3-nil win over Qatar which saw Kewell net a penalty and Allsopp again grab a double.
Australia’s future in the tournament was now out of their hands with the Aussies awaiting results of the final group game between Nigeria and Spain. Spain needed a win to leapfrog the Aussies while Nigeria had to avoid a big loss to drop out.
“From memory the mood was okay. We needed a result in the last game and then another result to go our way to qualify. We were already back at our hotel and the other game was still playing, we were listening to radio coverage and cheering when decsions went our way,” recalled Ucchino.
And results would go their way as Nigeria grabbed an 84th minute winner through Henry Onwuzuruike to send a hotel room full of plucky Aussies into raptures and set up the Joeys in a quarter final showdown with one of the most intimidating forces in world football, Brazil.
The match took place in front of a crowd of 12,000 at the Estadio Reales Tamarindos in Portoviejo. Brazil took an early lead through Rodrigo in the 14th minute but the Joeys responded through Allsopp in the 32nd minute when he grabbed his fifth goal of the World Cup which saw him finish joint top scorer for the tournament.
The second half saw the Brazilians pull away with two further goals from Kleber and Marco Antonio. The Aussies couldn’t respond and their run in Ecuador came to an end.
For the Brazilians, they went on to be Runners Up to Ghana 2-3 after comprehensively knocking out bitter rivals Argentina in the semis, 3-0.
Tomich who came on in the Brazil game in the 68th minute for Michael Cunico as Australia chased an equaliser couldn’t be more glowing in his praise for the experience.
“It was probably the best experience of my life, playing against the best in the world at a young age.
“Playing against Brazil in the quarter finals, it was amazing. It was a once in a lifetime experience, but I worked hard to get there. That’s what you play for I suppose, to come up against the best. It was magic.”
Tomich would go on to play in the National Soccer League, most notably for Newcastle Breakers, and in the NSW’s leagues while Ucchino had a small stint in Italy before returning home.