It was the 17th minute of Canada and Australia’s 1993 CONCACAF qualifier for the FIFA World Cup 1994 at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium. As the fresh-faced young goalkeeper strode onto pitch to replace Australia’s first-choice shot stopper Robert Zabica, sent off seconds before, little did Mark Schwarzer know that this moment would mark the start of a glorious career for the national side.
Two years previously his fledgling career had taken a nosedive, with injury ruling him out of the finals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Portugal 1991. Seizing the opportunity in Edmonton, the 20-year-old stated his case for inclusion by contributing to an eventual 3-3 draw, then going on to shine in the return leg, saving two penalties to send his team through to the final phase of qualifying.
The Socceroos never made it to USA 1994 after being denied by Argentina in their next match, but 12 years later a now-established Schwarzer faced another South American side in FIFA World Cup qualifiers as Uruguay sought to impede Australia’s progress to Germany 2006.
Four days after an opening leg defeat in Montevideo on 12 November 2005, Schwarzer stunned the Uruguayans by repeating his feat of saving two penalties, a critical contribution that helped secure Australia’s first qualification for the finals of a FIFA World Cup in 32 years.
Last Thursday witnessed another milestone for the 6’5” giant as he became the first Australian to play 100 games for his country in an international friendly against Lebanon. FIFA.com caught up with Schwarzer to chat about his record-breaking achievement and the dream of qualifying for Brazil 2014.
FIFA.com: Mark, congratulations on making it into the century club. How does it make you feel?
Mark Schwarzer: It’s a great honour and a real milestone for me. I tried not to think about it too much and I reckon I’ll feel prouder of it when I look back later.
My teammates and I have one objective, which is to reach the World Cup finals, and we have achieved any number of impressive things along the way. The satisfaction and pride will come later.
Your first team debut was in a FIFA World Cup qualifier back in 1993. Did you ever imagine that you would come so far and achieve so much?
I never dreamed of getting this far. Qualifying for Germany 2006 was a massive achievement, especially because it came after a 32-year absence. I never gave a thought to anything beyond that, but getting knocked out in the Round of 16 gave me a real desire to fill that gap, which drove me to keep playing and make it to another World Cup.
As far as I was concerned South Africa was to be my last World Cup but then I just kept going. After 75 international appearances I began to think I might just make it to my century, and that’s what happened. But my main goal was always to qualify for the finals in Brazil and nothing’s changed.
You’ve had a slow start with only two points from your first couple of games, qualifying for Brazil 2014 is looking tough.
The first game was very difficult given the conditions we faced in Oman in June. Then we had to take a trip home, which lasted 22 or 23 hours, arriving just three days before our game against Japan, who had got there before us. It was hard, but I reckon we played well.
Australia have appeared at two Asian Cup finals, but were knocked out twice at the hands of Japan. Are they a particularly tough team to beat?
At the moment in the Asian Cup series, we've failed to beat Japan. But when you look to World Cup qualifiers, the roles have been reversed. We have beaten them in the World Cup qualifiers and in the World Cup as well. I think I'm happy with that result, with that scenario at the moment. Hopefully we can finish in the top two and qualify for the World Cup.
Which of the teams in your group pose the biggest threat to your chances of qualification?
All of the sides in Group B are a threat. They’ve all earned their right to be there. We cannot take any of them lightly, especially when we’re playing them on their home soil.
Oman have proved how tricky they can be at home and I am certain that Jordan will put on a good performance when we face them next week, though I’m sure we’ll play well and get the result we want. The same goes for Iraq. We’ve played them on a number of occasions and they have never failed to be strong.
We never take anyone lightly and we know that every game is difficult. These matches are qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup and the other teams want to go through just as badly as we do.
Just how important is competing in the FIFA World Cup to you and the rest of the Australian team?
It’s vital in order to ensure that the game in Australia keeps moving forward. Qualifying for a World Cup attracts a lot of benefits: sponsorship, financial support, even interest in the game. It motivates people in Australia to play more football, to want to make it into the national side or just to get involved in whatever way they can.
It’s also important that as a side we are well prepared as we can be. We are probably the most famous team in Australia, the nation’s favourites if you like. We must keep playing well and keep winning, because Australians love winning, they demand it. We have to give it to them.
Australia will be hosting the Asian Cup in 2015, are you looking forward for this tournament and do you want to take part in it?
I haven't been thinking that far ahead, all my focus is 2014, though I am aware of Australia hosting the Asian Cup. It's a tremendous tournament for Australia to host and I'm absolutely positive that Australia will put on a fantastic show for the Asian Cup. We'll see in what capacity I'm involved if I'm involved at all.