Football: Venables' troops survive perilous mission to Macedonia

Steve Connolly reports from Skopje on a Balkan ordeal for Australia's footballers
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The Independent Online
Those who thought Terry Venables picked up a nice, uncomplicated earner in the sun coaching Australia had not reckoned on the job taking him to Macedonia.

The Balkan country, surrounded by Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and Serbia, yesterday hosted Venables' first match with his Australian team in Europe. The former England coach had sought an international to test his foreign- based squad, several of whom play with British clubs.

Macedonia, who entertain the Republic of Ireland in a World Cup qualifier next month, invited the Australians and their famous coach for a game here in the capital, Skopje, a city of a million people set amid snow- capped mountains.

However, what should have been a low-key friendly was soon overshadowed by off-field problems that even involved the Macedonian government. The trouble started when the Football Union of Macedonia (FUM) unexpectedly shifted the game 100 miles south of Skopje to the city of Bitola, apparently to appease fans in that remote region.

A perturbed Venables had the venue checked out, and he was told it was unfit to stage an international because of the poor pitch, lack of any changing rooms and no spectator seating. Australia threatened to cancel the game unless it was moved back to Skopje. Venables contacted Macedonia's embassy in London, which became involved in persuading its football authorities to back down.

Although the match was saved, administrators from both sides found other sources of dispute. The most pronounced was an argument about television rights, which Soccer Australia (the game's governing body there), had already sold - only to be told by the FUM that it wanted to sell these rights direct to Australian broadcasters planning to show the game live. Soccer Australia's chief executive, David Hill, threatened to lodge a complaint with Fifa, world football's governing body, because of the Macedonians' conduct over the television rights.

The players were not spared their share of misadventures. The Rangers defender, Craig Moore, missed a connecting flight from London because of fog and had to drop out. George Kulscar, who has just joined Bradford City from Antwerp, caught the plane in time but three suitcases full of possessions he was moving to Yorkshire from Belgium never showed up in Skopje.

Soccer Australia had risked offending Australia's vast Greek community just by coming to Macedonia, which is known in the football world as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia because the Greeks claim ownership of the name of Macedonia. Soccer Australia is also not overly popular with the 300,000 Macedonians living "Down Under" after their football clubs became casualties of official policy to de-ethnicise the national league.

Despite the aggravation surrounding this game, Venables was charming to his hosts and still focused on preparing his players, who believe his know-how can help take Australia to the World Cup finals for the first time since 1974.

This troubled trip was made worthwhile when an uneventful game - watched by only 15,000 spectators - was decided by an 89th-minute header from the Australian captain Aurelio Vidmar, who plays for Tenerife. The 1-0 win gave Venables four victories from as many starts. Next stop: Hungary on 2 April.

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