Football: Venables storms the citadel of Rules and cricket

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The Socceroos' World Cup campaign has captured the imagination of Australian sports fans. As Richard Yallop explains from Melbourne, Terry Venables' team expects to attract a 90,000 crowd to the MCG for their decisive play-off match against Iran tomorrow.

With the temperature here yesterday hitting a record November high of 40C, the heat was in every sense on Terry Venables as he prepared Australia for tomorrow's vital World Cup qualifier with Iran.

Melbourne, the home of Australian Rules, is the city of non-believers as far as football is concerned, but so great is the interest in Venables' Socceroos, and Australia's chance of achieving the 0-0 draw or victory that will take them to the World Cup finals for the first time in 24 years, that a crowd of 90,000 is expected for tomorrow's game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. That is more than 50,000 higher than the best football crowd at the MCG - the 36,200 who saw the Olympic final in 1956.

The extent to which soccermania has taken this Aussie-Rules made town was reflected in this week's back page lead story in the Herald Sun, the best-selling Melbourne tabloid. Accom- panying a close-up training shot of Harry Kewell, Leeds United's 19-year-old goalscoring hero of last Saturday's first leg in Tehran, was the headline: "Meet Australia's new Prince Harry".

If 128,000 screaming Iranians failed to rattle him on the pitch in Tehran, the baby-faced Kewell seemed lost in the media crush when he arrived here with the team on Monday morning and confronted his new fame.

When football media events are held in Melbourne, the best attendance, you can usually expect is a couple of radio reporters and a television crew from SBS, the station predominantly watched by soccer-loving European migrants. But when Venables and team turned up to a state reception this week, rows of camera crews from all the main stations were lined up, adding to the hype for tomorrow.

Venables was there wearing a tracksuit and his normal cheery grin, and telling a local reporter that he would consider staying on with the Socceroos after his existing contact ends - either tomorrow, if Australia lose, or after the World Cup, if they qualify. "I've only been here a year, but it's been a terrific experience," he said. "People say I'm more Australian than the Australians."

He confessed the hopes and expectations resting on him and the team were similar to those he had felt when coaching England in the finals of Euro 96. He also expressed some offence at the suggestion that Australia had been lucky to come away with a 1-1 draw from the first leg in Tehran in a stadium where Iran have not lost for 10 years. "If I'd taken England to Tehran and got a 1-1 draw, I'd have been happy. We we're OK until we scored [after 19 minutes], and then we started to protect our goal."

He thought the team held up remarkably well as the Iranians then managed to produce more skilful and enterprising football, particularly from the two forwards, Khodadad Azizi and Ali Daie, who play in the German league.

Venables wonders if the Iranians, who will welcome back their German- based playmaker Karim Bagheri from suspension, will display the same spirit away from the deafening support of their supporters in the Azazi stadium who, though noisy, were never hostile.

Having played before a crowd of 6,000 against New Zealand in his first game with the Socceroos in Melbourne in January, Venables will find it rather different before the 90,000 at the MCG tomorrow. The cricket ground is a stern custodian of sporting tradition, but it is breaking a century- old regulation by allowing Australian supporters - many of them of Italian, Greek or Yugoslav origin - to bring horns and trumpets to the match, in the style of the Latin and South American countries.

The Melbourne Cricket Club is the citadel for cricket and Australian Rules, and some of the more staid club members see this as tantamount to admitting the barbarians. Venables can take some comfort from the fact that he and his Socceroos have had sufficient impact on the Australian sporting scene that they have been able to storm the citadel.