Football: Venables brushes up on his French

Richard Yallop provides an Australian view of the Socceroos' World Cup experience
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The Independent Online
Terry Venables has his Aston Villa goalkeeper, Mark Bosnich, to thank for saving Australia's hopes of qualifying for next year's World Cup after the team held on for a 1-1 draw against Iran in Tehran last night.

Having taken the lead against the run of play after 18 minutes, through a neat piece of finishing by Harry Kewell, the 19-year-old Leeds striker, Australia were out-played for a long period by a fast, skilful Iranian side, and it was only because of three inspired saves by Bosnich that they survived.

The Iranians, widely regarded as the best team in Asia until a recent loss of form, saw their relentless attacking rewarded with an equaliser by Khodadad Azizi just before half-time, and from then on the Australians found themselves engaged in a rearguard that was a test of mettle rather than skill.

Australia now travel to Melbourne for next Saturday's return leg, hoping that, in front of a home crowd as passionate as the 120,000 Iranians packed into Azadi Stadium, Tehran, they can reproduce the attacking form which had seen the team win all 12 of its games since Venables took over as coach in January.

Venables' professional pride, and his lingering sense of resentment towards English football authorities over the manner of his departure from the England job, will fire his determination to see Australia qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1974.

The match in Tehran was the biggest he had faced since England's elimination by Germany in the semi-final of Euro 96, and it was a long way from the first training session he had directed for the Australian players at an Italian social club in the Melbourne suburbs in January.

He had an audience of about 200 curious Italian immigrants, and it served to remind him of football's place in the sporting pecking order in Australia - behind Australian Rules in Melbourne, and rugby league and rugby union in Sydney, with a small but passionate following from the European migrants who had come to Australia.

If it went through Venables' mind in those early days what on earth he was doing in Australia, it went through everyone else's mind, too. The cynics said it was the money, with a reported payment of about pounds 200,000 if he could get the team to France, but Venables himself said he was doing it because he had always wanted to be involved in a World Cup. He was also intrigued to see if he could make a difference to Australian football.

If the media welcomed him as the Messiah, the closed world of Australian football greeted him with hostility. Australian football for the past 20 or 30 years has been largely filled with second- or third-rate talents from Britain and the rest of Europe, and they did not react well to the sudden entry of a first-rate talent.

While the Australian players were initially wary of Venables, some club officials and coaches were outraged that the job should go to a foreigner. Venables laughed off the criticism, in his usual fashion, and set to work on his main priority, establishing a rapport with the players. After the bruising court battles with Alan Sugar, and his painful departure from the England job, it came as something of a relief to forget all the football politics, and return to the training ground to work with the players. The players, and most impartial observers, were convinced of Venables' talents, but controversy was never far away.

Some clubs complained loudly about Australian players being transferred to Venables' club, Portsmouth, claiming that there was a clear conflict of interest. Venables, supported by the chairman of Soccer Australia, said he had not been directly involved, as the transfers were arranged by the club's coach, Terry Fenwick.

The national side have improved, with two-thirds of their players competing in European leagues. Australia went close to qualifying for the last World Cup, but in the final round they met the insuperable obstacle of a play-off against Diego Maradona's Argentina. Australia drew 1-1 in Sydney, but then lost the away leg 1-0 in Buenos Aires.

It was partly because of Australia's creditable showing against Argentina that Fifa gave the side an easier route to France. They had to win the Oceania Group, including the likes of New Zealand, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands, before meeting the fourth-placed team in the Asian group, which turned out to be Iran.

If Venables wanted to make a difference, he has succeeded, in the sense that the nation will be hanging on for the result of next week's Melbourne match, with football for the moment eclipsing the other codes, as well as the present lacklustre cricket Test series against New Zealand. He has another week to make even more of a difference by leading Australia to the World Cup for the first time in 24 years.

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