Remembering a match against Croatia in 2006

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On the eve of the World Cup in Brazil, I revisit one of Australia’s most exhilarating World Cup matches, of which there aren’t many. Our final group game against Croatia in 2006.

“Graham Poll, the English referee from Hartfordshire”. Just a casual aside from the commentator, before the kick off. Who knew how big an impact Poll would have on the game.

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Golden ages are always overblown, but this, this was as Golden as Australia got. Kewell and Viduka, Emerton and Cahill as good as they were ever to be, and Hiddink at the helm

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An early spike to the heart. Srna’s free kick, was hit so hard, and though Kalac was big, he was slow across the line. The shot wasn’t exactly in the corner, not in that postage-stamp sized ideal area, but the power was such that it didn’t matter. It was a hammer blow, so early, 2 minutes on the clock. We’d had the highs of Japan, the expected lows against Brazil. This was a fixture against a European nation, but expectations were cautiously optimistic. And the early goal, and Croatia’s good early play, tempered our hopes. 1-0

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Penalty appeal from Viduka; a stonewall penalty every day of the week, and twice on Sundays. The Croatian defender’s arm was around the striker, a rugby tackle. It wasn’t given, Poll’s first error, to be outshone by his later ones. It was Simunic, of all people who tackle Big Mark. Would he play a starring role later on? Big Mark was such a cultured target man…

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It was such a brave new world for us, we were buoyed by our naivety at this level. Expectations had already been exceeded before a ball had been kicked at the World Cup Finals. Viduka spurned a chance with bad footwork, after being sent through. But running onto balls was never Mark’s strength.

This was a time when a flitting dance forward by Harry Kewell was a site met with hopeful expectation, not with an assumption of impending disappointment, or catastrophic injury. Well, maybe injury.

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Brett Emerton was a good defender, such a hard worker. He was playing at left back here. One of the fittest players you’d ever see, according to most of the men he played with.

Kewell smacks a shot from an audacious distance. He had such a sweet left foot.

A bizarre whistle against Tim Cahill, Poll’s second mistake. Literally no reason to see that Cahill had impeded the defender, or committed a foul of any kind. He’d already lost the Australians watching by now.

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We grew into the game, and began to dominate possession, with our passing crisp and sharp. There was tight work from Culina, Sterjovski, and Grella distributing from deep. Hiddink obviously had an effect on the team in this regard.

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The long balls were an option when you had a target man the calibre Viduka was. He was one of the best back-to-goal strikers ever. Cahill headed a chance at goal, without the power it needed to trouble the keeper. Kewell warmed the palms of Pletikosa moments later with another vicious strike.

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Srna gives away a free-kick, a kick out at the Australian man who had harried him off the ball. Pressing in midfield, a concept that married perfectly the hustle inherent in Australia’s sporting DNA and the Dutch desire for quickly winning back possession.

Culina sliced a powerful shot wide, that looked off the boot as if it would fly into the corner. But it spreads away, dashing hopes after Culina’s balletic foray forward.

Neil was always willing to make a run forward with the ball, as if he was Rio Ferdinand or Gerard Pique. Grella fashioned a chance, via Sterjovski, for Viduka, a raking ball cross field (his fourth in the game so far) to Mile then was put in the mixer, and Viduka nearly had it under control, but it got muddled and the chance was gone.

FIFA 2006 World Cup Playoff - Australia v Uruguay

PENALTY! Australia awarded a shot from the spot! The defender Tomas punches the ball away from an Emerton cross. He didn’t complain, knowing it was an obvious call. Craig Moore, our centre back stands and… delivers! We’re level! Moore’s only ever scored 2 international goals before this one, and he hits it down the centre, cheeky. Moore seemed an unlikely choice to take the penalty, but then he stepped up, a hero, and converted it. 1-1

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Oh god. A sign of things to come. Kalac nearly throws the ball into the net from a corner. He fumbles the inswinger, and hearts are in mouths. I’ll bet Hiddink, at that moment, was already regretting his choice to leave out Schwarzer.

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Kalac threw out just about every ball he collected, a deliberate tactic as Emerton was always striding forward as soon as Australia’s keeper grabbed a cross, or a shot.

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Half time. We were thoroughly the better team in the first half, more energetic, more forward thinking, more positive, and faster and stronger than Croatia. We’d had 4 or 5 good chances, to their 1 or 2. This team was a collection of European based players, our A-league was only two years old in 2006.

We started the second half well, the Croatia surge was expected, making up for the meekness they displayed for most of the first half. We countered dangerously twice in the opening minutes, with only poor crosses from Sterjovksi preventing us from capitalising on the breaks.

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Emerton was one of our chief counter attacking weapons, his pace and power so dangerous on the break. He was tireless as well, and constantly open for outlet passes.

As the second half settled, we were passing around the back, controlling the pace, and soaking up any attack that Croatia fashioned. Long shots, hopeful crosses, these were the best that Croatia muster.

Grella was a wonderful hinge player, able to collect the ball deeply, then have the skill and composure to turn around a would-be challenger, to look up and see where the best forward pass was. Such a vital outlet and Bresciano can play this role in Brazil.

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Then the horror. The horror for Kalac. Brought into the team, playing in the biggest game of his career, and he commits an absolute clanger. A long shot, after a mazy run, a shot that any keeper should save. It dips and bounces before it gets to Kalac, but not enough to warrant the shameful ineptitude that follows. It slips from his hands, after meaningful contact, and flips over his prone body, spinning into the goal. The least that Zeljko must do is get his body behind it enough to turn it away from goal if he can’t catch it, which he should be able to. It was awful, and Croatia didn’t deserve such a gift. 2-1

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John Aloisi was the first sub for Australia, on for Grella. He’d scored the third against Japan, and had, of course, scored the penalty that put us through to the Finals. It wasn’t the most subtle of substitutions from Guus, but sod it, we needed a goal, so send on a striker.

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Bresciano was warming up. With Grella off the pitch, we had little midfield presence, just wingers. Sterjovski came off. And then there was a golden chance for Harry. After a free kick from a deep, wider position, the ball was brought down and steered towards the penalty pot. Harry arrived and put it right at the keeper. Had it been a foot to either side, that would have been 2-2. Pressure building.

Then another chance. A goal line decision. The ball never crossed it, and really, there were about 4 fouls on the keeper before it got near it. A corner was re-crossed in by Bresciano, and Cahill and another Australian crashed in on the goalie as he caught it.

Luka Modric comes on, of Dinamo Zagreb. “Baby faced” as the commentator describes him.

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Josh Kennedy comes on, Chipperfield off. Jesus arriving to perform a miracle.

A shout for handball, and again, it seemed to be an accurate appeal. Tomas again! Leading with his hand, he deflects it away! Another penalty should have been awarded! Not given by Poll, another error.

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And then it happened! It was our boy! Our Golden Boy! Harry! A cross was swung in and it went over everyone, flicked on to the far post. Harry caught it his foot and it popped up for him to smash, with relish, past the keeper! It was his first goal of the Finals! And we adored him even more for it! 11 minutes to go. 2-2

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We had to soak up the Croatia response, Emerton got a card that ruled him out of the next game. Kennedy dashed away on a counter attack. But it was all in the balance.

The game became very chippy, tempers flaring, kicks flying in on the shins of both teams. Croatia made a substitution. Ivan Klasnic came on, a striker. He had 7 minutes to deliver a victory for Croatia.

And then flurry of cards. Dario Srna and Niko Kovac surround Poll. Dario Simic gets sent off after he gets embarrassed by a sublime Kewell flick to avoid a challenge. Croatia down to 10 men.

Craig Moore cleared a goal off the line, after a long ball drops to the feet to the Cratia striker. The a minute later, Emerton is sent off. A deliberate handball gives Poll no choice but to send the Blackburn man off. The free kick is whipped in but is cleared.

The atmosphere is electric, crackling with tension and desperate aggression. Kennedy wins a fortunate free kick, and there’s less than one minute to go. Every action is messy.

And then, hold on. Simunic wrestles Viduka to the ground. The commentator is sure he’s been booked already (in 61st minute, to be precise) and bids him farewell. But he stays on the pitch! Poll runs away, back to the play after cautioning the big Croat. Nothing else happens. What an oversight from Poll! It’s utter mayhem in Australia’s box, meanwhile. Poll awards a puzzling foul against Croatia to relieve the pressure.

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John Aloisi tries to hold the ball up the other end, and wins a free kick. We’re 50 seconds away from progression to the next round. We take it into the corner, to waste the few seconds that remain. At one point, two balls are on the field, after a mix-up at a throw in. It is bedlam. The ball flies into Croatia’s box. Viduka stabs it into the goal, but Poll’s blown the whistle! The final whistle! Then he eventually sends off Simunic for complaining!

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The feeling in those final moments was a strange mixture of outrage and euphoria; we had had a goal disallowed, but the reason for it’s chalking off was that the game had ended, confirming our progression anyway. Poll ruined his career on this game alone, and Australia had achieved something nobody had expected. What a game!

View it below in all it’s glory!

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