In September 1973, 116,956 fans flooded Melbourne's footballing temple to witness the final of Australia's championship. The figure was commonplace. The sport was, after all, a religion inside the country's vast borders.
It was, however, commenced by a siren, played with an oval ball, by backmen and ruck rovers, whose acts include checkside punts, bumps and marks. Football, Down Under, is what is known as Aussie rules elsewhere. The game, along with cricket, rugby league and rugby union, monopolised the sporting spectrum in a nation in which inhabitants had been vaccinated against the soccer bug.
That all began to slowly change six and a half weeks after Richmond upset Carlton in that 1973 VFL Grand Final. Australia had come the closest they ever had to a place at the FIFA World Cup™. They had drawn 0-0 in Sydney and 2-2 in Seoul in their two-legged intercontinental play-off with Korea Republic, so the teams headed to the neutral turf of Hong Kong for a decider.
It unfolded on 13 November 1973 to the transfixion of South Koreans and the oblivion of Australians. Seventy goalless minutes had transpired when the ball fell to Jimmy Mackay, fully 30 yards out, and when he retracted his right leg to pull the trigger, some of his team-mates later admitted they were willing the non-prolific fullback not to shoot. Seconds later they were immortally grateful he did, as the ball torpedoed into the top corner of the net.
It instantly put football on the map in Australia. The global media jammed the switchboards of the team hotel, while a sea of supporters – a few hardened, many newly impassioned - were there to greet the triumphant players, amid rapturous scenes, at Sydney Airport. “It was incredible,” Mackay later recalled. “It's like that goal invented a new sport!”
Football is, by now, firmly established in Australia. It still nevertheless trails Aussie rules, cricket and rugby league on the popularity scale. That's something Tommy Oar wants to help change at the FIFA U-20 World Cup. The Utrecht left-winger, who has already won four caps at senior international level and was part of Pim Verbeek's preliminary squad for South Africa 2010, envisages soccer outranking the pre-eminent sports, and he believes a prosperous campaign at this FIFA U-20 World Cup can help propel the movement.
“Soccer's growing very, very fast,” he said. “It's on the road to hopefully becoming the biggest sport in Australia soon. The Socceroos have made great progress in recent years, the U-17s did well in their World Cup a few weeks ago, and if we could do the same, it would definitely help the image of the game in Australia.”
Oar certainly played his part yesterday, The Young Socceroos were losing 1-0 to Ecuador and looking bereft of ideas when they were awarded a free-kick, 35 yards from goal. Some of his team-mate perhaps felt it was too long a distance to go direct for goal. The No11, though, subscribed to the same urge as Mackay did 38 years ago. The outcome was identical: an exceptional thunderbolt into the top corner.
“On a personal level I'm happy I scored the free-kick, but I'm happier that it helped Australia get something," said Oar. "Coming into the game we were looking for a better result, but obviously given the position we were in we're relieved to have got a point. Australian mentality is to keep on fighting, and all the boys did. Luckily enough, we got our reward in the end.
That reward, Oar reckons, is also indebted to the team's vociferous supporters: “Australian fans are always fantastic, and today was no exception. They really were our 12th man. Our next goal is to get a result against Costa Rica, and that's what we're preparing for now.”
The Socceroos met Los Ticos at the FIFA U-20 World Cup two years ago, and although they suffered a one-sided 3-0 defeat, Oar believes the experience will set them in good stead for Wednesday's match in Manizales. The left-winger is one of four members of Australian's current U-20 squad who played in that Port Said contest under their current coach Jan Versleijen – the others being Ben Kantarovski, Rhyan Grant and Kofi Danning - while Dylan McGowan's older brother Ryan was also in the party in Egypt.
Oar said: “I saw a little bit of Costa Rica's match against Spain, but I was mainly thinking about our game. But we played against them at the last [FIFA U-20] World Cup, so we know the sort of team they're like. They're definitely a tough side to beat.
“But we have four of five of the boys who were here at the last [FIFA U-20] World Cup, so we have older heads in the team. I think that helped carry us through [against Ecuador], and hopefully it will help us against Costa Rica.”