For polar opposite reasons, 29 November 1997 is a day etched in the memory of every Iranian and Australian football fan.
Australia, as winners of Oceania Zone qualification and Iran as the fourth-placed Asian side, were left to battle it out for the last of the 32 teams going to France 1998.
One of the two nations was just 90 minutes away from qualifying for their first FIFA World Cup™ after a lengthy absence. Australia’s sole appearance on the world stage had been in 1974, while Iran’s came four years later in Argentina.
The venue was the Melbourne Cricket Ground, scene of many a great sporting moment, but the home of Australian sport had never before seen such a monumental football clash.
29 November 1997, Melbourne Cricket Ground
Australia 2-2 Iran (Aggregate 3-3, Iran qualify for France 1998)
Australia: Mark Bosnich, Craig Moore (Graham Arnold 78), Steve Horvat, Alex Tobin (c), Stan Lazaridis, Robbie Slater (Tony Vidmar 76), Ned Zelic, Aurelio Vidmar (Ernie Tapai 76), Craig Foster, Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka
Scorers: Kewell (32), A Vidmar (48)
Iran: Ahmad Reza Abedzadeh (c), Naim Saadavi (Ebrahmi Tahami 70 (Ali Akbar Ostad Asadi 84)), Mohammad Khakpour, Mohammad Ali Peyravani, Mehdi Pashazadeh, Hamid Estili, Karim Bagheri, Mehdi Mahdavikia, Reza Shahroudi (Ali Reza Mansourian 52), Khodadad Azizi, Ali Daei
Scorers: Bagheri (71), Azizi (75)
After a drawn out campaign and an even longer wait for FIFA World Cup qualification, it all came down to the winner on the night. An inspired performance from goalkeeper Mark Bosnich helped Australia hold Iran to a 1-1 draw just seven days earlier in the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, in front of an estimated crowd of 128,000.
With history beckoning, a record crowd of 85,000 turned up for the Australia home match, full of expectation. Coached by former England boss Terry Venables, Australia were confident on the back of a world record 14-match winning streak.
Conversely, Iran had shown erratic form on the road. Having failed to win their group and losing the play-off with Japan in neutral Malaysia for the third Asian spot, this was their final tilt at qualification.
Led by young strikers Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell, the Socceroos spent the entire first half laying siege to the Iranian goal. With Stan Lazaridis and Robbie Slater making inroads on the flanks, and Aurelio Vidmar pushing forward from midfield, it seemed an Aussie avalanche was inevitable.
Captain Ahmad Reza Abedzadeh kept the score level with some inspired goalkeeping and a dose of luck. Notably, defender Mehdi Pashazadeh made a miraculous headed goalline clearance from a point-blank Kewell shot.
The breakthrough eventually came, with 17-year-old Kewell sweeping the ball in at the far post after latching onto a Vidmar cross. Half-time arrived without Bosnich being forced into a save, so when Vidmar doubled the advantage three minutes after the interval it seemed Australia’s long history of heroic failure was to be wiped away.
The momentum was with Australia and the Iranians were seemingly dazed and ready to capitulate, often giving the ball away on the relatively rare occasion that they had possession.
Following the pandemonium of the second goal, a spectator managed to enter the field and tear down part of the net, ensuring a five-minute delay in the match. The break allowed Iran to regroup and, suddenly, experienced players such as Ali Daei, Karim Bagheri and Khodadad Azizi were looking dangerous.
Two goals to the good and with just 19 minutes remaining, Australia were dreaming of France when Azizi suddenly burst into the penalty area and set-up Bagheri for an easy finish.
Four minutes later the unthinkable for the Socceroos happened as Azizi latched onto a hopeful ball, out-sprinted a static defence and beat an exposed Bosnich for the equaliser.
The name Khodadad Azizi became immortalised in Iranian football after scoring the goal that sent Iran to France 1998. He had also set-up the first goal and scored the previous week for Iran in the first leg. Then 26, Azizi was in the prime of his career having been named AFC Player of the year, which helped catapult him to a career with Cologne in the German Bundesliga. He played at the FIFA World Cup France 1998, including Iran’s famous win over USA.
“It is true of football, when it perhaps isn’t of a lot of other sports; you can dominate that way but everything can change.”
Australia captain Alex Tobin.
“I just sat there and prayed. I’m really sorry for the Australians and I know how Australian kids who play football are suffering. Australia should have been the winner here.”
Iran coach Valdir Vieira.
What happened next
Iran went to France 1998 and after losing 1-0 to Yugoslavia in their opening match, they famously defeated USA 2-1 with goals from Hamid Estili and Mehdi Mahdavikia, before losing 2-0 to Germany to finish third in the group.
Australia somehow regrouped to finish runners-up at the FIFA Confederations Cup in Saudi Arabia just a month later. After knocking out Uruguay in the semi-final thanks to a golden goal from Kewell, Australia lost 6-0 to Brazil in the final.
The Socceroos again missed out on qualification for World Cup in 2002, but ended their long wait with a famous penalty shoot-out win in a Germany 2006 play-off against Uruguay – the same team that had denied them four years earlier.