Football: End of the world for Australia

Australia 2 Kewell 32, Vidmar 48 Iran 2 Bagheri 77, Azizi 80 ( Aggregate 3-3: Iran win on away goals rule) Attendance: 85,022; Double life and double strife for Terry Venables: His Aussies are beaten by Iran while back in Blighty his League club take a fall
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Australia and Terry Venables will have to wait another five years to compete in a World Cup after a catastrophic five-minute loss of concentration 15 minutes from time allowed Iran to score twice and qualify for France on the away goals rule.

Iran's Brazilian coach Valdier Vierra had only been appointed three weeks ago after the Iranian Football Federation sacked the entire coaching staff following the national team's failure to qualify from the group matches. The 3-2 loss to Japan in the Asian Group play-off was the Brazilian's first game in charge.

Sitting next to a crestfallen Venables, who could still smile, but only just, Vierra said: "If you ask me why God was with us, and not Australia, I can't tell you. We were lucky. It happens in football, it's not the first time."

For Venables, who had witnessed a crowd of 85,022 filling the Melbourne Cricket Ground - more than double the previous record crowd for a soccer match in Australia - the disappointment was crushing.

"I don't think I've ever played in a game with such a cruel result," he said. "I've not witnessed a game like that. Everything we wanted to do, we did - except finish them off. I feel really low and the boys are devastated. I don't think they deserved that. I was very proud about the way we went about the game."

Australia, lacking attacking cohesion in last weekend's 1-1 draw, had come out smoking. Within three minutes Aurelio Vidmar had three chances to score, and in the next five minutes Iranian defenders cleared off the line from both Craig Moore, the Rangers defender, and Harry Kewell, the Leeds striker.

"We should have scored at least one in the first 10 minutes," Venables said. "I thought we looked as good as any team in the World Cup competition. Anyone who saw the team tonight wouldn't paint them as lightweights."

Venables was justifiably proud of his team. The introduction of Stan Lazaridis, of West Ham, on the left flank gave the side an attacking potency it had lacked in Tehran, and the two front players, Mark Viduka and Kewell, were a constant threat.

It had seemed that Australia might be punished for their early wastefulness in front of goal but after 31 minutes their relentless attacking paid off, with Kewell, the hero of Tehran, again making the decisive strike.

Australia's second goal, three minutes after half-time, seemed to seal the home side's place in France 98. Lazaridis, surging up the left flank like a steam train, did well to get in a cross, and it was headed back from the far post by Kewell. Craig Foster headed on to the bar, and Vidmar drove in the rebound.

The game was held up for five minutes after a spectator damaged the Iranian net. Unfortunately, the Australians relaxed - and sloppy defending allowed the first Iranian goal in the 76th minute. Khodadad Azizi, so impressive in the first leg in Tehran, fought for the ball just past the right-hand post, and two Australian defenders and Mark Bosnich, the Aston Villa goalkeeper, seemed to stand and watch as Azizi knocked the ball back to Karim Bagheri, the Arminia Bielefeld playmaker who had missed the first leg because of suspension, unmarked in front of goal.

Five minutes later Azizi, who plays for Cologne in Germany, outwitted Australia's offside trap to run on to a superb through-ball from his fellow striker Ali Daei in the 80th minute. Azizi, scorer of Iran's goal in the first leg in Tehran, calmly slotted the ball past the advancing Bosnich before being engulfed by celebrating team-mates. Venables put on three substitutes, but the situation was irretrievable. "When they scored I think we panicked a little," Venables said.

Vierra said that the match was a reversal of last week's match, when Iran had dominated, but ended up with a 1-1 draw. But that ignores the fact that Australia had far more chances to score in Melbourne.

At half-time Vierra told the team to play with joy, which it had not been doing, because of Australia's dominance. That joy was evident long after the final whistle, as the celebrations of the Iranian team and its supporters reverberated around the MCG.

Vierra harboured no false illusions after the furore of the result had died away: "Australia deserved to win the match tonight but my players showed great fighting spirit to come through. I think 70 million Iranian people back home will gain a great deal from this result. People who are happy do not think about fighting."

That certainly seemed to be the case in the Iranian capital Tehran, where hundreds of motorists honked their horns in the streets, bringing the centre of town to a virtual standstill. Even the Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, got in on the celebrations as he addressed the nation and congratulated the team for "this precious victory".

Venables, whose contract with Soccer Australia continues until the World Cup, said last night that it was not the moment to make any comment about his future.

He was clearly struggling with a disappointment which ranked alongside England's semi-final exit from Euro 96. "At least in Euro 96 we were in competition: here we're a fraction away. It's a blow."

Qualifiers for France

France (hosts), Brazil (champions), England, Germany, Scotland, Austria, Denmark, Holland, Bulgaria, Norway, Romania, Spain, Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia, South Africa, Cameroon, Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, United States, Mexico, Yugoslavia, Croatia, Belgium, Italy, Chile, Jamaica, Iran, Japan.

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