On November 15 2005, John Aloisi made a snap decision in a deserted Sydney Olympic stadium. After training concluded on the eve of a now famous FIFA World Cup™ qualifier against Uruguay, the Australia striker enlisted third-choice goalkeeper Ante Covic, and along with Lucas Neill, the trio practised penalties. Twenty-four hours later it was penalties again, but this time in a very different scenario.
Australia and Uruguay had just completed 210 gruelling minutes of high-intensity football played across different sides of the Pacific Ocean, all within the space of four days. But two well-matched teams remained deadlocked, with Dario Rodriguez's goal in Montevideo cancelled out by Mark Bresciano’s strike in Sydney.
For the first time, a penalty shoot-out would determine passage to the FIFA World Cup. For two-time World Cup winners Uruguay and their fierce Charrua spirit, there was a proud history of achievement to maintain. And also, perhaps, a sense of expectation.
Australia’s pressure was a very different kind. Despite significant achievement in many sports, football remained a massive untouched frontier for Australia in global terms. The Socceroos had reached the World Cup just once – 32 years ago. Heartbreak and heroic failure were a constant theme throughout those three intervening decades.
It was the moment that not only myself, but the whole country, had been waiting for. It was not just my dream, but a lot of people’s dream.
Big Australia goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer made two remarkable blocks from Guillermo Rodriguez and Marcelo Zalayeta during the dramatic finale – reprising his World Cup qualifier shoot-out heroics against Canada as a raw-boned 21-year-old some 12 years earlier. Though Mark Viduka angled his effort wide of Fabian Carini’s goal, Aloisi knew his fifth penalty could seal progression.
For many, the tension was close to unbearable. Yet Aloisi, it seems, was about the coolest person among 83,000 there that night. “I was feeling really good leading up to the penalty,” Aloisi told FIFA.com recalling his memories of that night. “The only time I got a little bit nervous during the shoot-out was when Viduka missed his penalty, but as soon as Mark Schwarzer saved the next one I knew my penalty was the next one to qualify.
“I took five penalties the night before and hit the same corner, so I was more than prepared come the penalty shoot-out. I had picked my spot the day before.
“It was a funny feeling walking up to the penalty spot because I couldn’t really hear noise of the crowd, I could only here murmurs. I just said to myself, ‘Do what you did the day before and you will take us to the World Cup'. They say the walk from halfway to the penalty spot is the longest walk in football, but that was probably the best walk I ever had. I felt like I was in that zone.”
Aloisi struck his kick perfectly and Carini had no chance to make the block. Aloisi and Schwarzer sprinted to the other end of the field in sheer adulation as equally jubilant team-mates raced after them in pursuit. Confetti rained down and a nation exploded with joy.
Good things come to those that wait
This was no ordinary qualification for a World Cup. Aside from ending an unimaginably long three-decade drought, qualification proved perfect timing as the game sought to reinvent itself Down Under. The A-League had commenced only three months earlier, and a move to the Asian Football Confederation followed just weeks later. Qualification and a subsequent strong showing at Germany 2006, where the Socceroos reached the last 16, provided football in Australia with a priceless impetus.
An anecdote from former Australia fullback Alan Davidson - father of current Socceroo Jason - who played in three failed campaigns during the 1980s, neatly encapsulates the mood. "Jason says he didn't realise what it meant to play for Australia until we qualified," said Alan. "We watched the match together and when he turned around he saw I was in tears and then he understood what it meant."
Aloisi was also in his third and final campaign. “There was probably added pressure as it was probably our last chance to play in a World Cup for many of us,” he said. “We didn’t talk about it but we just felt it was our turn. Everyone at the time was playing in a pretty high level in Europe and at the top of their game. Everyone felt confident about themselves.
“We spoke about history in a few camps before that game. That the last time we went to a World Cup was also in Germany in ’74 so we thought history would repeat itself, and that it was our time.
“It was the moment that not only myself, but the whole country, had been waiting for, and everyone that had followed our sport over 30-odd years. It was not just my dream, but a lot of people’s dream.”