Football: Bosnich may have to be at his best for Australia

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The Independent Online
Today Australia or Iran will become the 32nd and last qualifiers for the World Cup finals in France next year. For Terry Venables' Socceroos, much will depend on a goalkeeper who, when he was a youngster, wanted to be a Test cricketer. Richard Yallop reports from Melbourne.

When the 12-year-old Mark Bosnich was setting batting records for his junior cricket club in Sydney, his dream of playing at the Melbourne Cricket Ground involved wearing the baggy green cap of the Australian Test cricketer, not the goalkeeper's jersey.

Perhaps that explained why, in the middle of the Australian team's training yesterday for today's crucial World Cup qualifier against Iran, the brilliant but idiosyncratic Bosnich started turning over his arm and bowling, as though he was dreaming of catching England on a green wicket.

At Bosnich's old cricket club, they remember how he helped to put on 201 for the first wicket in one match, and how he was a diving slip fielder with safe hands. But, in the same year he was starring for his junior cricket team, he went for a coaching clinic at Sydney Marconi football club, encouraged by his father, who had emigrated from what is now Croatia.

The Marconi goalkeeping coach was Ron Corry, who is now on the coaching staff of the Australian team, and he saw a natural in Bosnich. He was big, confident, and had everything needed by a goalkeeper - agility, reflexes, courage, and, most of all, determination.

Within a year, Bosnich had set himself the goal of becoming a goalkeeper in the English Premier League, and in 1988, at 16, he risked everything by leaving Sydney and flying to England for a trial with Manchester United. He persisted through the cold English winters, and all the difficulties posed by the fact that he had a student's visa, and so could only play for United as an amateur.

After playing for Australia in the World Youth Championship in 1991, and being voted the best goalkeeper in the tournament, he returned to England to find he had been given seven days' notice to leave the country, because he had no work permit.

Bosnich remained utterly determined to make it in England and, after a spell with one of the Sydney clubs, he was finally offered his chance with Aston Villa in 1992. He established himself in the first team, and won a poll in one English magazine as the League's best goalkeeper in 1994.

With most of his English goals realised, the 25-year-old Bosnich today tackles another of his goals, providing the foundation to Australia's push under Terry Venables to reach its first World Cup finals since 1974.

While the Australian team has other talents, such as Harry Kewell, the 19-year-old Leeds United striker who scored in last weekend's 1-1 draw in the first leg in Tehran, and Mark Viduka, the Croatia Zagreb striker, together with all-round skill and experience, much will depend on the confidence that spreads forward from Bosnich in goal.

The general view of last Saturday's first leg was that Australia had been fortunate to escape from Tehran with a 1-1 draw. Venables disputes that, saying the Australians held up well against a skilful Iranian side in an intimidating atmosphere.

Certainly there is room for Australian improvement, as only Bosnich and Kewell impressed in Tehran, and Venables is confident that the side will play better on the flat, green MCG pitch than it did in the patchy, bumpy Azadi Stadium.

The only change Venables has made is to replace Tony Vidmar, one of the flank players, with Stan Lazaridis, of West Ham, who helped lift the Iranian siege when he came on late in Iran. The key to the match is whether Australia, buoyed by an 80,000-plus crowd, will lift themselves collectively and reproduce the attacking form which had brought them 12 successive wins under Venables up until Tehran.

There is an Australian expectation of victory, but Iran showed in the first leg that they can play good football. The Iranians will be strengthened by the return of Karim Bagheri, their influential German-based midfield player, who missed the Tehran game because of suspension.

With Iran's other two German-based players, Khodadad Azizi and Ali Daei, who proved so dangerous in Tehran, lurking in front of Bagheri, the Australians will be grateful that the teenage Bosnich gave up cricket and decided to opt for a career in goal.

l Today's match will be televised live (9.15am GMT kick-off) by Eurosport, who will repeat the game in full at 2pm.

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