- Australia secured one of the Confederations Cup’s most famous wins in 2001
- The Socceroos knocked over reigning world champions France
- 2001 ‘a big reason Australia reached 2006 World Cup’ said captain Paul Okon
Australia’s record against former world champions makes for impressive reading. The Green and Gold have knocked over six of the eight nations who have won the FIFA World Cup™. Only Italy and Spain remain off the Socceroos’ list of victims – nations they have met just one each. But, for all those headline triumphs, Australia have only once defeated a reigning world champion in a competition match.
The date was 1 June 2001. The location was Daegu in Korea Republic. The event was the 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup. And the opposition? None other than a France side in their pomp – one that had backed up a memorable 1998 World Cup win on home soil, with coronation as European kings in 2000. Australia in contrast, despite reaching the 1997 Confederations Cup final, had endured an anguish-filled 27-year absence from the World Cup.
The result seemed like a foregone conclusion. Perhaps even to the Australians. The result, however, was a 1-0 win for the Socceroos.
The Green and Gold line-up was filled with European-based players, yet it was an unlikely figure who figured in the most notable moment of the match. Unheralded forward Clayton Zane tucked away the only goal on the hour mark, after Josip Skoko’s free-kick was finger-tipped onto the post by France goalkeeper Gregory Coupet.
There was no Zinedine Zidane or Thierry Henry for France, while Australia were also missing their most influential attacking pair – Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka. The contest remained well-balanced throughout, but a desperate France finished with a wet-sail. And it took a truly remarkable eleventh-hour save from Mark Schwarzer to keep the scoreline unaltered. The Socceroo goalkeeper’s giant hand somehow pawed away Lauren Robert’s looping header from right on the goalline.
Rising above the radar
Australia captain Paul Okon takes up the story of that humid afternoon on the first day of the Korean summer. “I don’t think the French expected us to be at the level we were,” Australia captain Paul Okon told FIFA.com. “I really think they thought it was going be a question of turning up and they were going to beat us.
“We were always capable of performing like that. But up against world class opposition, you never know if it is going to be enough.
“That was still the days of Australia being very much an underdog. France weren’t at full strength – Zidane and Thierry Henry weren’t there - but that aside they pretty much were all there. Our thinking going into the game was to simply perform the best we could, and see where we were after 90 minutes. As it turned out, we more than held our own.”
The result helped give Australia self-belief about their capabilities at the highest level, and sowed the seeds for future success. “It was a bit surreal after the match when we got back to the hotel,” continued Okon, who skippered Australia throughout the 2002 World Cup cycle. “The French were staying at the same hotel and they were in disbelief.
“The lessons we learned (at the tournament) is a big reason we qualified for the 2006 World Cup campaign. But to get to that point we needed to go through a lot of heartbreak.”
Australia do not have to wait long for their next opportunity to tackle a reigning world champion. They will face the might of Germany in their opening match at next month’s Confederations Cup. Sixteen years on from that match in Daegu, will Sochi witness another famous Confederations Cup upset?
What happened next?
** Australia were eliminated in the semi-finals by Japan amid a monsoonal downpour in Yokohama, but then defeated Brazil for the first time in the third-place play-off.
France went on to win the tournament, a feat they reprised on home soil in 2003.
Les Blues’ return to the Far East 12 months later was not so pleasant, suffering group-stage elimination without scoring a goal.
Australia missed the 2002 World Cup when they lost against Uruguay in the intercontinental play-off in late 2001.
The Socceroos had their revenge over La Celeste four years later to end their World Cup drought.
Eight of the Australian players who featured against France were in the squad that went to Germany 2006. *