The taxi plunged onwards, into the night. Along suburban streets. It could be any suburb, anywhere in Australia. Cars parked in front yards, walled in by waist-high brick fences.
The driver was silent, shattering the taxi’s peace only to unload violent expletives at slow-moving buses. Onwards, onwards. Away from the station. Past the hospital. Then, finally, on the right: Club Marconi.
Club Marconi: Rooty Hill RSL for Italians; home to the famous NSL team.
A modest sign at the base of the escalators welcomed the 1974 Socceroos for a celebration of Australia’s first-ever match in the World Cup Finals. Forty years to the day after that game, eleven members of the Australian national squad plus an esteemed coach gathered in the anteroom outside the Club Marconi boardroom.
Their names might not be as well-known as they should be. There was Doug Utješenović, who left Belgrade in 1969 to play for JUST in Melbourne for what he thought would be a short contract, only to find himself playing for St George Budapest and then Australia.
Les Scheinflug, “The Boss”, was unmistakeable. Assistant coach to Rale Rasic in 1974, he is one of the icons of Australian coaching, inspiring respect from generations of Socceroos. Paul Okon, former Socceroo and current manager on the national under 20s side, confessed that he still calls Les “Boss”. “I taught him everything he knows,” Les responded with a laugh.
Ernie Campbell, tall and lean, with a grin that seldom left his face. He resisted urgings during the evening to spill the beans on some of the team’s nocturnal activities. Others were less discreet and told about being busted by coach Rale Rasic when returning from a night out.
There was Ray Richards, who kitted out many budding Socceroos from his sports store in Sydney’s western suburbs.
Harry Williams. Gary Manuel. Colin Curran. Allan Maher. Max Tolson. Dave Harding. John Watkiss. Manfred Schaefer.
The Marconi Directors ushered us inside the boardroom, which overlooked the pitch where many of the 74 Socceroos had played in the Stallions’ colours.
That first match at the World Cup of 1974 ended in a 2-0 loss to East Germany and the Australians went goalless in the tournament. The results don’t tell the whole story, the story of a group of amateur and semi-professional players who finally overcame the ever-changing, torturous and seemingly impossible qualifying campaign that the Socceroos had to mount each year.
In between courses, Ted Smith from the Socceroo Club presented Manfred Schaefer with his Socceroo cap. In a sense it was appropriate that it took place in an intimate setting, with his teammates around him.
But still there is a nagging sense that Schaefer and his teammates have been neglected by the football authorities, in particular the FFA. They are not prima donnas; they are down-to-earth blokes. Trailblazers.
Schaefer put it concisely when he told SBS’s Philip Micallef: “The idea that football in Australia started only in 2006 is a kick in the guts as far as I’m concerned. You cannot delete history. We were the first Socceroos to put Australia on the map.”
This is not false modesty. In qualifying for the finals in Germany in 1974, Australia had made it to the final 16 of the World Cup. Before then, Australia had always fallen at the final hurdle. Brave, plucky, unlucky losses in World Cup qualifying weren’t invented in the 1980s or 1990s – they had been perfected in the 1960s.
This group of men made it to the final 16 of the toughest competition in the world while fitting in training and playing with day jobs. They overcame a qualifying route that always seemed designed to minimise the risk of Australia qualifying for the World Cup finals.
It is time for the FFA to properly recognise the colossal achievements of the 1974 team and the contributions those players and coaches made to the game in Australia. The emotional response from those fortunate enough to be invited to the 40th anniversary dinner shows that the Socceroos are loved, and that many still revere the 1974 team.
As for the present-day Socceroos, Les Scheinflug praised the current coaching staff for encouraging the team to play as Australians, and not forcing them to play a style that was unfamiliar to them and unrecognisable to the Australian football-watching public. A strong statement, from the man who helped shape Australia’s “Golden Generation”.
Forty years on from the historic 1974 tournament, Australia is playing at its third World Cup finals in succession. There would be no better time than now for the FFA to make a fuss over the 1974 Socceroos.