The Christchurch Miracle

Sport is a celebration of the competitive spirit inherent in human nature that pitting opponents against one another in a test of both physical and mental superiority. Often these are even contests that push either side to their limits, other times they are one-sided demolitions. Sport rarely lies. The stronger individual or team more often than not will prevail. But what we love about sport the most is that in any even contest there is always a chance for a David-like upset over a perceived Goliath.

On April 25th, 1997 in Christchurch at Queen Elizabeth II Park the Australian U17s would face their New Zealand counterparts in what many saw as a mere formality for an Aussie team that in qualifying for this game had scored thirty goals while conceding none. The prize was a place in the U17 World Cup in Egypt.

“From memory we were very confident going into the match, we had been playing well in the lead up and perhaps we expected to win pretty easily,” Joeys’ midfielder Vuko Tomasevic told Football Central.

This generation of Australian footballers contained names like Jason Culina, Mark Bresciano, and Nick Carle who would go on to represent the Socceroos and were led by the doyen of Australian youth football, Les Scheinflug. The New Zealanders had Ben Sigmund. The stage was set for what would go down as one of the biggest upsets in Australian football history and thanks to a 15 year old Christchurch Boys high school player by the name of Blair Scadden.

“Going into the game we were obviously very nervous having watched the Australian team pretty much destroy all the other teams,” said midfielder, Scadden.

“We had an average tournament and personally I struggled as I managed to slightly strain my hamstring and then got a stud in the knee against Fiji I think.”

Australia versus New Zealand is a contest that both sides of the Tasman grow up on in a range of sports and one thing is certain: that neither side ever wants to lose to the other and won’t capitulate without a fight.

“The day of the final it was a classic Christchurch winter’s day with horizontal rain and really windy which probably suited us perfectly,” said the now PE teacher in Dubai.

Tomasevic also remembered the weather as being “cold, windy and pretty horrible.” To further even things up the Kiwis adopted tactics which they believed would work on the young upstart Aussies.

“I remember we pretty much kicked lumps out of the Aussies at every opportunity and they seemed to get pretty rattled with all the rough tackling and the horrendous weather,” admitted Scadden who had lined up out of position on the left side of midfield.

“The referee seemed to be rather lenient that day, I think he was from New Caledonia?”

person playing soccer in the grass field

The match would be decided by a solitary goal from Scadden who was surprised he was starting after not playing much in the lead up due to injuries. But sport is made for moments like this, for a team or individual to produce the unlikely and on this day it was one of the youngest on the park in Scadden who took his chance to go into the record books.

“As far as the goal went, it was a corner and Robby Clarke knocked in a great ball that seemed to float with no spin at all to the far post and Greg Williams and I had been hyping each other to get on the end of it,” recalled the goal-scoring hero.

“I just remember getting a good jump in and throwing the head at it. I had practiced a lot in my back yard heading a ball that was inside a stocking hung from a basketball hoop, which looking back probably helped with that goal.

“It got a good bit of assistance from the wet ground and the ball shot off the surface into the bottom left hand corner of the goal. Obviously a long wild celebration followed and we were all a bit shocked we took the lead.”

For Tomasevic he remembers the shock and disbelief of the impending upset.

“I remember the New Zealand player going up for the header and scoring the goal and I remember the emotions after the game, it was the first time I experienced such strong upsetting emotions,” said the former Northern Spirit player.

“I was marking one of the other players, I remember who should have been marking the goal scorer, we were pretty upset at him at the time but these things happen in football.”

The All-Whites had to hold on though against a determined albeit shell-shocked Aussie team for more than a half of football.

“The rest of the game was a blur to be honest. We were just holding on and our keeper Jamie Cross made some great saves, I got subbed off in the second half at some stage,” Scadden said.

“I think disbelief was the major emotion at the end, players and coaches. Our coaches never expected it, our build-up to the tournament was six months of training in Auckland with no international games, Australia had toured South America as part of their warm up.”

The Joeys were feeling a different type of disbelief after the final whistle with the realisation that their dreams of a World Cup appearance was over something almost unthinkable going in and that they had been on the wrong end of a major upset.

“From what I remember we were all pretty distraught, I don’t think much was said at all,” said Tomasevic who had a stint in the A-League in the 2006/7 season with Central Coast Mariners.

“We all knew that we missed an amazing opportunity to play in a World Cup, it was being held in Egypt in 1997 and I guess we were all thinking about the World Cup long before we qualified.

“The whole team was well aware that this was the biggest failure to date for an U17 team. Prior to the tournament we were being hailed as one of the best U17 teams to date. Looking back I don’t think we knew how to handle the big occasion.

“It was definitely a big life lesson for us.”

The plucky New Zealanders would go on to face a very tough group featuring Mali, Mexico, and Spain. There would unfortunately be no heroics in Ismailia to match that day in Christchurch as the gulf in class proved too much.

“Well we knew it was going to be tough but I don’t think we really realized how tough and how out of our depth we were until the first game. 3-0 loss to Mali, 5-0 loss to Mexico and then a 13-0 loss to Spain,” recounted Scadden.

“They (Spain) finished third and Xavi was in the team along with the golden boot ‘David’ who never went on to play professionally.

“We were 6-0 at half time and we were kind of laughing about it at half time and just wanted it to be over. I felt sorry for the Aussie boys actually because I think they were expected to make the semi-finals. Jason Culina at the time was the golden boy I think.”

Tomasevic believed had the Australians made it to the tournament with that squad that they could’ve achieved anything.

“We had a successful tour of South America prior to the qualifiers and we had quality all around the park so I believe we would have done well. That is the beauty of football that you just cannot take anything for granted.”