In the final days leading up to the 2022 World Cup, foxsports.com.au takes a look at some of the biggest moments in Socceroos history to take place at football’s biggest show.
Next up: The 2006 devastation that we will never get over.
It is the most heartbreaking moment in Australian football history – and arguably any sport, for that matter. Italy’s infamous penalty to knock the Socceroos out of the 2006 World Cup.
Remember Azzurri defender Fabio Grosso tumbling to the ground in the dying seconds of a gruelling, epic Round of 16 elimination clash? Aussie great Lucas Neill lying helpless on the turf, his desperate pleas of innocence coldly rejected by the referee? The great Italian Francesco Totti stepping up to bury Australia with virtually the last kick of the game?
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SOCCEROOS WORLD CUP MOMENTS
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I’d rather not remember. Seeing the replay of that horrible moment, the knife still twists in the gut. No wonder those involved in that fateful day in Kaiserslautern avoid watching those final 90 seconds back.
“Never,” Socceroos coach Graham Arnold, then assistant to Guus Hiddink, told foxsports.com.au in 2020.
What about striker Archie Thompson, who was warming up on the sidelines?
“Honestly, I’ve not seen it. I’ve not watched it.”
Socceroos great Robbie Slater watched the three group stage matches in person, but was in France for a media commitment during the Round of 16. He watched the match on television — and has never seen it again.
“I’m sure the players who played in that game probably haven’t either.
“It certainly wouldn’t be one they’re watching every Christmas.”
2006 marked the Socceroos’ first trip to the World Cup since 1974, the long road back to the biggest stage peppered with more than a few brutal heartbreak – but a return sealed by that John Aloisi penalty to pip Uruguay in Sydney 17 years ago.
Hardly anyone expected the Australians to make an impact in Germany, thrown in a group with defending champions Brazil boasting a team stacked with legends, a tough Croatia side, and Asian heavyweights Japan. But the Aussies beat Japan 3-1 with a ruthless six-minute demolition. Then they were forced to bounce back from a loss to Brazil and booked their place in the knockouts with a stunning draw with Croatia. That 2-2 result – marked by an epic referee blunder, two red cards, a howler from Aussie keeper Zeljko Kalac, and a sublime Harry Kewell strike – meant the Australians were into the knockouts, beyond any and all expectations.
Job done? Hardly. The Socceroos went into that round of 16 clash with Italy with the firm belief that they could shock the European heavyweights. After all, the match was being played at the same Fritz-Walter-Stadion in Kaiserslautern where the Aussies had blitzed Japan. Talk about good omens.
Alessandro Del Piero, Andrea Pirlo, Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro: the Italian side that took the field against the Australians that June afternoon was a line-up of legends. Making things worse for Guus Hiddink was a surprise gout diagnosis which left Harry Kewell on crutches. Fullback Brett Emerton was also suspended after a pair of yellows saw him sent off against Croatia. Never mind. This was still the Socceroos’ ‘golden generation’: Mark Viduka, Tim Cahill, Mark Schwarzer, Lucas Neill to name a few.
And they were not cowed by the size or strength of their rivals. “Mentally those boys — and I know for a fact — they felt like they belonged at the top,” Arnold said.
When the action kicked off it was nervous, gripping viewing.
The Australians frustrated and repelled the Italians, gamely rebuffing every attack with a grim determination to achieve the impossible. The Azzurri had the better of the chances, like Alberto Gilardino’s tame volley in the 20th minute from Luca Toni’s header, or Toni’s own attempt a couple of minutes later. But they were hardly golden opportunities, just scraps in what was quickly turning into a gruelling war of attrition.
The Socceroos weren’t without their own opportunities – Scott Chipperfield could have broken the deadlock half an hour into the battle when he raced towards a rebound in the box, only to fire his volley straight into the grateful arms of Buffon. Three minutes later, Toni again found himself on the end of a ball in the box, chesting it down brilliantly as he pirouetted on the spot – but his blasted volley found only the mid-riff of a Socceroos defender. He tried in vain once more when he headed wildly at the near post hardly a minute later. Toni’s frustration was shared by the whole team, the whole nation. At every turn, the Socceroos had hassled and harried their rivals like angry hornets.
The halftime whistle blew. The Socceroos had done their job brilliantly so far – nullifying the dangerous threat of Del Piero’s creative brilliance, the vision and precision of Pirlo, the raft of other superstars in the Italian array.
All they needed was a stroke of luck or yet another moment of brilliance. And lady luck was shining on the Socceroos – for a moment at least.
Just five minutes into the second half, Bresciano was roaring towards the box when Italian centre-back Marco Materazzi lunged to the ground to block his charge. Bresciano had bounced it over the defender, before tumbling over his sliding rival. The contact was minimal. Bresciano’s touch was far too strong – there was hardly a chance of regathering the ball in the box or shooting. But referee Luis Medina Cantalejo nevertheless marched up and brandished a red card. The Italians were shocked, appalled, but there was no VAR back then to change the referee’s mind.
But, as Graham Arnold said, it didn’t necessarily help the Socceroos.“It was a tight affair all the way through,” Arnold told foxsports.com.au two years ago. “I felt that while it was 11 v 11, I really thought we were going to come home stronger and that we were going to win the game.”
But with Italy a man down, suddenly the Azzurri were sitting back, plugging gaps, and waiting to pounce. The Socceroos suddenly had the ball, but couldn’t break down a brilliant Italian defence – a defence that would concede just two goals all tournament as they went on to raise the trophy. Tim Cahill came close from a corner, but the goal just wouldn’t come.
Extra time loomed. And in the hot June sun of Kaiserslautern, the Australians felt confident that the wearying giants would finally topple. They just needed to last the final minute of stoppage time. They couldn’t.
Ten seconds was all it took for the Socceroos’ great 2006 adventure to come crashing back down to earth. 92 minutes and 45 seconds into regulation time – just 15 shy of the final whistle – Francesco Totti found the ball in the middle of the pitch. Totti – off the bench, replacing another icon in Del Piero – turned, and saw left-back Fabio Grosso making one final foray down the flank. Francesco fizzed it to Fabio, who let it run beyond him, then brilliantly cut back into the box – leaving Bresciano helplessly splayed face-first on the grass.
Lucas Neill closed down the marauding full-back, shutting down the passing lane to the prowling figure of Vicenzo Iaquinta near the penalty spot. Grosso seemed to have just one option – an unlikely shot from the narrowest of angles. Neill did what the Aussies had done all afternoon and bravely threw his body in the way. His slide was a weary, desperate attempt to block the shot rather than steal the ball. It was also a mistake.
Grosso didn’t shoot. He turned inside, tumbling over the stricken body of the Australian defender. Neill was largely a bystander in the action – Grosso made contact with the Aussie’s back and fell to the turf, his voice contorted into a scream. Neill raised his hands in a forlorn appeal; not that Grosso would have seen, with his head buried into the ground.
The referee’s whistle blew without hesitation. Penalty.
When the Socceroos’ protests were waved away, the blue and yellow shirts surrounded the 18-yard box with their eyes fixed as one on Francesco Totti in his number 10 jersey. Mark Schwarzer dived to his right, but had no hope of stopping the ball from thundering into the back of the net. Totti wheeled away, sucking his thumb in his trademark celebration. The Socceroos collapsed onto the ground, their dream up in smoke.
In that instant, Grosso ignited a debate that has fiercely raged ever since – and that moment will likely forever burn in the hearts of Australian fans. A dive or fair play? A penalty or a gross miscarriage of justice?
“No, no, it wasn’t a dive,” Slater insists. “Did he make the most of the situation? Yes. But it wasn’t a dive.”
He added: “The big mistake — and I said it as soon as it happened at the time, I can remember it like it was yesterday — Lucas went down.
“You don’t go down. You stay on your feet, and he’s got nowhere to go.”
Archie Thompson was on the sidelines, warming up to be unleashed in extra time – only he never got that chance.
“I mean, it can go either way,” Thompson told foxsports.com.au in 2020.
“But if you’re not in a position to score a goal as a striker and you feel contact … you’ve still got to have a bit of mongrel about you and I would have done the same thing: Felt a touch, gone down and leave it to the referee to make that decision.”
Italy would go on to win the tournament with victory over France, leaving Australian fans to ponder a great what if. What if we had won? What if we had reached the next round, and a meeting with Ukraine? Italy disposed of the Ukrainians 3-0. Surely we could have beaten them too?
If the dust had appeared to settle on the feverish argument in the months after the match, FIFA’s ever-controversial chief at the time, Sepp Blatter, only spurred the debate to greater heights.
Four months after the tournament, Blatter told Australian TV he thought the penalty was a mistake.
“I agree with them and I would like to apologise (to) our fans in Australia.
“The Socceroos should have gone into the quarter-finals in place of Italy… you go into extra time and you are 11 against 10. But that is presumptuous.”
As the years rolled on and the game changed, one major shift brought the moment back into the spotlight: the introduction of VAR. Another what if: what if VAR had been in use that day in ‘06?
Graham Arnold told Foxsports.com.au back in 2020: “Funny thing is, today you would probably say it was a penalty. But in 2006, around the rulings then, I’m not so sure.
“The rules have changed over the years, for sure it was probably a penalty (today). Whether VAR would have given it or not, they might not of. It was a dubious decision at the time and one that could have gone either way.
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“It was hurtful and that, but as I said, were the rules really that way (in 2006)? I’m not so sure.”
In the years that followed, the fire of injustice has burned a little less hot. But one comment still stands out from the rest, because they came from the mouth of Australia’s public enemy number one: Fabio Grosso.
Seven years after the fact, he said: “In this instance when Neill slid in, maybe I accentuated it a little bit.”
Accentuated. Not dived nor faked it. Just accentuated.
“However,” he added, “you must remember it was the last minute of an extremely difficult game and everyone was tired.
“I felt the contact so I went down. Therefore, I say again, I didn’t initiate it … it’s true that I felt the touch and didn’t have the strength to go forward. Some people believe me, and some don’t. However for me, even after seeing the video images, it’s a penalty.
“I admit that it wasn’t glamorous but it wasn’t a scandal.”
Hard as it may be to admit, he’s right. Grosso is no villain. There is no scandal.
Not that it makes it any easier to watch.