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Asian Classics: Australia v Japan (2006 FIFA World Cup)


Kuala Lumpur: Enter John Aloisi’s name as a Google image search and you will be greeted by dozens of different pictures of a single penalty kick taken almost 15 years ago.

That penalty, and those pictures, were taken on November 16, 2005, when, after a draining two-legged FIFA World Cup qualification play-off against Uruguay ended in a 1-1 aggregate draw, Aloisi assumed the responsibility as Australia’s fifth and final penalty taker in the shootout that followed.

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With three decades of near-misses since Australia’s only other appearance at the global Finals in 1974 weighing on his shoulders, the Adelaide-born striker confidently struck the ball into the top corner, putting an end to the nation’s most painful sporting drought, and igniting an eruption of joy, both among the 83,000 fans inside the stadium and millions more around the country.

The circumstances surrounding that one simple kick of a football means it has come to be remembered as the defining moment of Aloisi’s career, but, in truth, it sits among a much longer list of achievements.

He will always be the man who ended the drought, but Aloisi also scored in a Spanish Cup Final, is the only man from his country to score Premier League, Serie A and La Liga goals, and in Kaiserslautern, Germany on June 12, 2006 – 14 years ago today – he played a memorable role in Australia’s first ever FIFA World Cup win.

On that occasion, against future AFC rivals Japan, an Australian side coached by legendary Dutch boss Guus Hiddink produced a stunning comeback to turn a 0-1 deficit into a 3-1 win in the final eight minutes of the match.

For the second time in seven months, Aloisi would play a famous cameo role, but, as the former Osasuna and Deportivo Alavês striker explained, his very presence at Germany 2006 remained in the balance until long after Australia’s tickets had been stamped.

“You qualify, so everyone is over the moon and the euphoria was there for everyone in the country,” Aloisi told the-AFC.com from Australia. “But we had to head back straight away to our clubs and get back to reality, and when I was at Alavés we were fighting relegation. We were in a battle.

“In terms of my form, the second half season was probably the best form I had been in for a long time in my career. I scored 10 in the second half of the season, but unfortunately we did end up getting relegated in the last game.

“The thing that sticks out, for me - I was trying to make sure I was playing on a regular basis, to give myself the best opportunity of going to the World Cup - but it was staying injury free.

“I ended up injuring my foot in the second to last game against Zaragoza, and I remember being distraught on the bus. I thought that was it and my World Cup was over. It was a pretty bad feeling, and then we ended up getting relegated.”

Aloisi recovered just in time to earn selection in Hiddink’s 23-man squad, and gained valuable minutes in Australia’s pre-tournament friendlies – starting and scoring in their final hit out against Liechtenstein – but his interrupted lead-in and the presence of the likes of Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill meant it came as little surprise when he discovered he would begin the tournament from the bench.

But, as a starter or a substitute, and after almost a decade in the national team, Aloisi was determined to make the most of his chance to shine on the world’s greatest sporting stage, particularly in the opening match against Japan.

Australia had qualified as a member of the Oceania Football Confederation, but had become an AFC Member Association in January 2006, and while the two nations would become regular rivals over the next decade, the Socceroos then saw Japan as a side they simply had to beat.

“I didn’t think I was going to start, but I knew that was going to come on and hopefully make an impact, because, for us, the Japan game was our World Cup final,” declared Aloisi.

“We didn’t just want to qualify, we actually wanted to prove to the world that Australia can play football, and to do that we needed to get through our group. Japan was the game we had to win, because Croatia were a European force at the time, and still are, and Brazil were the World Cup holders. We thought that if we were going to get through, we needed to make sure we beat Japan.

“It was more: ‘you know what? we believe that we are going to win’. We felt that we were playing at the top of our game. We were fit, we worked well under Guus for that month leading up to it, we were getting good results in the friendly games and we knew that we could improve more.”

Australia’s confidence appeared well founded when they made a strong start to the match, but they found themselves a goal behind when goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer – the only player in the Socceroos’ starting line-up who had been alive the last time the country had appeared in a FIFA World Cup match – was unable to collect a speculative ball from Shunsuke Nakamura, which ended up clearing a row of players and nestling in the back of the net in the 26th minute.

It was a contentious moment for the Australians, who were adamant Schwarzer (pictured below) had been fouled by Naohiro Takahara.

“I remember that we were all pretty upset because we thought it was a foul,” recalled Aloisi.

“I remember ‘Schwarzie’ got a bit of a nudge, and usually keepers are looked after a lot more, and we thought we were hard done by. Plus, the team was playing well.

“I was thinking ‘this is going to get hard now’, because not only are they 1-0 up, we have to try and win the game and it’s never easy trying to come from behind. The team was still confident, because of the way that we were playing, but we were disappointed that we were 1-0 down.”

Australia had waited 32 long years to reach this point, but by the time Aloisi replaced Luke Wilkshire as a second-half substitute, they were just 15 minutes away from a devastating defeat.

“It’s important when you’re coming off the bench that you make a difference, you make an impact,” said Aloisi, recalling his mindset when he entered the fray.

“I remember getting a yellow card about a minute after coming on. I was ready. I was there to try and help lift our team and the players around me, because I thought with the players we had on the pitch, we were going to get chances, and we had to be ready.”

“I also thought that I was going to come on and not only make an impact, but I thought I would have a chance to score a goal, and I just wanted to make sure that I was there and ready for it.”

With players from both sides feeling the pinch in the mid-afternoon heat, the chances fell Australia’s way, and it was Tim Cahill who gave them a lifeline, profiting from the scramble which followed Lucas Neill’s long throw to become his country’s first ever men’s World Cup goalscorer with six minutes of normal time remaining.

Five minutes later, Cahill also became Australia’s second World Cup goalscorer, this time punishing Japan for giving him half a yard of space by spectacularly curling the ball in via the woodwork from just outside the penalty area.

From 1-0 down, Australia were 2-1 up, and for Aloisi, they were glorious, hectic, unforgettable minutes.

“The joy was unbelievable,” he said. “The first goal was a bit of scramble, but we knew that could happen. We had Josh Kennedy, we had Viduka, myself and Timmy, that were pretty good in the box, and it dropped to Timmy.

“My first thought (after we scored), because we had so many strikers on, was to celebrate, but then go to Guus and find out if he wanted to change the shape or anything, so I went over and asked him and he said “no, no, let’s go for it’

“That was a relief for me, because it meant I could stay a bit higher and keep pushing for the win. That was the beauty of what Guus was like. “Let’s take this risk, because we need to win”, and the momentum was with us."

“When Timmy scored that second it was like, “wow, this is happening”. I remember celebrating with the team, just saying ‘let’s just keep going because there’s not long left’.

“I don’t think it was relief, it was just excitement, like ‘this is amazing, what’s happening at the moment’. We were 1-0 down, with six minutes to go and all of a sudden, we’ve scored two goals. We’re going to win this.”

In between Cahill’s two goals, Australia had survived a major scare of their own, with Cahill himself colliding with Yuichi Komano (pictured above) in the opposite penalty area with the score still at 1-1.

Before the question can even finish being asked, Aloisi confirms his belief that the Socceroos benefitted from a slice of luck every bit as significant as the one Japan had arguably received in the first half.

“It was a penalty,” he announced. “This is where the experience of Guus came in. Guus waited for the referee after he came out of the changeroom at half time, and told him ‘it was a foul’, and maybe that played on his mind.”

“When you watch it again, that penalty shout - and I remember it live - It was a penalty. How he didn’t give it is beyond me.”

Rightly or wrongly, Aloisi’s side had avoided conceding a spot-kick, then gone in front, but his shining moment was still to come, when, in injury time, he added his name to Cahill’s on the rapidly expanding list of Australian World Cup goal scorers.

With momentum and fresh legs helping his cause, Aloisi dribbled through an exhausted Japanese defence before steering the ball past Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi and into the net.

It was 3-1, three points, and for Aloisi, the realisation of a lifelong dream.

“A goalscorer can’t explain how feels, but it’s the best feeling you can have, and it’s something that’s very hard to replace,” he explained.

“There’s this energy that comes to you from seeing the ball hit the back, hearing the crowd and then celebrating with your teammates… it’s some feeling. Then knowing that we had won, and we had achieved what we were there to achieve.

“After the game you start to go ‘wow. I had just scored a goal at the World Cup’. That had been a dream of mine, and as a striker you always want to score goals, especially in such an important game.

“I think you reflect more after your career, on what those moments felt like and what they meant to not only yourself, but people who follow the game. People who have been watching Australian football for years.”

Australia went down fighting in a 2-0 defeat to holders Brazil in their second match at Germany 2006, but their 2-2 draw against Croatia in their final group match gave them a place in the Round of 16.

The Socceroos’ odyssey would end where it began, in Kaiserslautern, where Francesco Totti’s successfully converted last-minute penalty meant 10-man Italy would advance at Australia’s expense.

Two weeks later they were world champions.

It may have ended in a ‘what-if?’ moment, but Australia’s performance at the 2006 FIFA World Cup remains its best ever showing in the tournament, and Aloisi – who provided glorious moments both before and during the campaign – remains immensely proud of a side now ubiquitously referred to as the nation’s ‘Golden Generation’.

“It’s funny, because sometimes you don’t feel like you were actually part of something like that,” Aloisi reflected. “It feels so long ago, but, 14 years ago? Where has that gone?

“It’s probably the highlight of not only my career, but I think all the players that were involved. It was a dream of ours to play in the World Cup.

“Most of us, if not all of us, had never watched Australia in a World Cup and, to finally be part of something special and go to the 2006 World Cup, we were privileged.”

Photos: AFP

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