Australia entered their final Group E match at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Malaysia 1997 requiring just a draw to reach the knockout phase. The overwhelming consensus was, nevertheless, that Les Scheinflug’s charges were all but out.
For standing in their way in Kangar, 15 years ago to this Saturday, was an Argentina side who were considered even better than their triumphant predecessors of the previous edition. It included future senior internationals such as Leo Franco, Walter Samuel, Diego Placente, Lionel Scaloni, Esteban Cambiasso, Juan Roman Riquelme and Bernardo Romeo.
It took just nine minutes for the latter pair to compound the notion that the Young Socceroos were exit-bound and that Canada would join La Albiceleste in the Round of 16, with Riquelme setting up Romeo for the opener, and the underdogs were fortunate to be at just a one-goal deficit after a first half-hour in which they were dominated.
Thereafter, though, David began to throw punches back at Goliath, with Ivan Zelic, Vince Grella and Brett Emerton looking threatening, and they got their reward on 39 minutes. Kosta Salapasidis employed lightning pace to get to the ball before Diego Markic, rode his opponent’s challenge, and dinked the ball into the back of the net with the outside of his boot. Stunningly, the same player made it 2-1 within 90 seconds, slotting home after Bill Damianos had cheekily nutmegged Markic.
Argentina raced out of the blocks following the restart, but despite dominating possession, they were hit on the counter-attack ten minutes into the second period. And for the third time, Salapasidis proved their nemesis, completing an 11-minute hat-trick following superb work from Emerton down the right.
Thereafter, it was all Argentina. Yet time and time and time again, their attacks were repelled by defenders Hayden Foxe, Con Blatsis and Lucas Neill and goalkeeper Danny Milosevic, who denied Diego Quintana three times from one-on-one situations. Finally, after what seemed an age of constant pressure but was actually just 15 minutes, Jose Pekerman’s charges halved the deficit when Placente pounced on a rebound.
Australia had 20 minutes to hang for a victory which would have earned them a last-16 date with Japan and handed their opponents the trickier challenge of facing England. More dogged defending appeared to have secured them that unlikely feat, but on 88 minutes Foxe handballed inside his own box and Argentina were awarded a penalty. Riquelme coolly dispatched it to make it 3-3, but that failed to satiate the Argentinians, who laid siege to the Australians’ goal.
In stoppage time, however, Neill made a superb tackle on substitute Pablo Aimar and lauched a counter-attack. From it, the hypersonic pace of Salapasidis provoked Scaloni into conceding a penalty, which the No12 took himself and duly scored to complete a personal quadruple and a jaw-dropping 4-3 victory.
Scheinflug had been criticised pre-match for maintaining Salapasidis in his starting XI at the expense of Danny Allsopp – the former had failed to find the target during the 173 minutes he appeared in Australia’s first two group games, while the latter had scored his country’s hitherto only goal in just seven minutes of action.
“Was that enough of a vindication for you?” the Young Socceroos’ coach joked post-game. “Argentina are a great side full of players who will go on to play at the highest level, but they simply had no answer for [Salapasidis]. They couldn’t handle his pace and his finishing was of the highest order.”
The 11th edition of the tournament would ultimately belong to that star-studded Albiceleste side, but their one dark day definitively belonged to Salapasidis and the Young Socceroos.