• Distraught Tony Vidmar leaves the field after Australia's elimination at the hands of Uruguay in 2001 (Getty Images Europe)
The World Game's monthly feature pays tribute to Australia's heroes of yesteryear who left their mark on football down under. Fullback Tony Vidmar had a rewarding club career in Europe but his four attempts to play in a World Cup ended in tears and despair.
By
Philip Micallef

4 Apr 2017 - 1:28 PM  UPDATED 4 Apr 2017 - 1:28 PM

Australia defender Tony Vidmar will never forget the day his football world came crashing down on him and shattered his dream of playing in a FIFA World Cup.

Vidmar, who is now 46, was a member of the Socceroos team that qualified for the 2006 tournament.

Two months before the start of the event in Germany - as the whole of Australia was in the grip of World Cup fever - Vidmar got the shock of his life when he was diagnosed with a heart disorder and told that his football career was over.

In the space of a few months the sheer ecstasy of beating Uruguay in Sydney had turned into the cruel agony of missing out on his childhood ambition.

"After we qualified for the finals in November we learned from FIFA that any players considered for the 2006 World Cup must undergo a stress test," Vidmar recalled.

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"The tests were supposed to be done in January or February but I was out injured with two broken ribs while playing for NAC Breda so I did the test in March.

"After only a few seconds on the machine I was ordered to stop. They said there was an abnormality with the heart and that they were not sure what it was.

"After another month of further tests and an angiogram I learned that I had a blood clot in my left coronary artery and that any high exertion could be fatal.

"At that point they told me I had to stop playing. Of course, the world around me just fell apart.

"I was in denial and I did not want to believe it was true. I was hoping that they had got it wrong. I was not entirely convinced that that was it for me as a professional footballer.

"I saw other cardiologists in England and Australia to get other opinions but at that stage it was already late April or early May and that is when I notified the national team I could not make it to the World Cup and I had to pull out."

Vidmar is now head coach of Australia's Under-17s. He also is head coach of the Centre of Excellence in Canberra but its future is under a cloud.

Vidmar, who played 76 times for the Socceroos, did not have much luck in his efforts to play in a World Cup. All up he took part in four qualifying campaigns but they all ended in tears as far as he was concerned.

He also was in the team that fell 2-1 on aggregate to Argentina in 1993, the one that lost to Iran in 1997 on away goals and was part of the team that crashed 3-1 on aggregate to Uruguay in 2001.

One of the most iconic Socceroos pictures of all time is that of a tearful and clearly devastated Vidmar being escorted off the field by conditioner Les Gelis after Australia's 3-0 loss to the Uruguayans in Montevideo.

"At that stage it was a massive blow," Vidmar recalled.

"Playing every game for your country meant so much for me, much more than playing club football. It's the ultimate.

"I probably realised then at the final whistle in Montevideo that that was probably the end of my time in the national team. I was 31 and by the time the next World Cup came around I would have been 35 and I was not sure if I was ready to continue on."

Vidmar sat down with The World Game to talk about his career for club and country that took him to the UEFA Champions League and the FIFA Confederations Cup.

Which were the high points of your Socceroos career that lasted 15 years?

"I always look at my debut. I wore the green and gold jersey for the first time in an international match against Czechoslovakia at Parramatta Stadium in February 1991.

"I also have fond memories of the 1997 Confederations Cup in Saudi Arabia where we beat Uruguay 1-0 to reach the final against Brazil. We lost 6-0 but we had a man (Mark Viduka) sent off.

"We got our revenge over Brazil four years later at the Confederations Cup in the Korea Republic where we beat them 1-0 in the match for third place. I was captain.

"These three milestones and qualifying for the 2006 World Cup are the ones that stand out."

You joined Central Coast Mariners at the start of 2006-2007. How come you were allowed to play?

"I was stubborn and determined enough to prove the doctors wrong and play again. The procedure that I had done gave me 70 per cent chance of playing again and that was good enough for me to commit myself.

"When I was ultimately given a clean bill of health the first question I asked them when everything was back to normal was 'can I play again?'

"They said 'yes you can'. I could have stayed in the Netherlands with a second division club but the Mariners enquired about me and I saw that as an opportunity to return home. And that was it."

You quit football in 2008. How do you compare the standard of football in the two years you played in the A-League (seasons two and three) with that of today?

"When I came back I felt that the quality was okay but not great. The game was very open and spread out, with a lot of turnovers.

"As the years went on the quality improved but in the last few years it has dropped again.

"Some of the games this year actually have been boring but in fairness you also have to look at some of the poor pitches they were played on.

"We need to reduce the visa players by one so as to force clubs to make the right decisions in terms of imports.

"This also would give young Australians a better chance of being involved in the A-League."

It is assumed that the level of foreigner has improved the last few years so how come you say the general standard has dipped?

"I don't think that most clubs have better foreigners. The league's top clubs Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory probably have the best foreigners.

"Both clubs have recruited well but some of the lesser clubs have not been as successful with their choice of visa players.

"Having said that, engaging foreign players is always a bit of a gamble."

Many people are calling for the league to expand and a second division set up. What's your take on this?

"This is a topic that needs to be discussed by the football experts in this country. And by 'discussion' I don't mean a two-hour meeting but a healthy and constant process starting now to examine the question thoroughly.

"We need to make sure that the decision to expand is the right one and the right areas identified.

"I think that playing the same number of teams all over again is becoming boring. I don't know what should come first (expansion or second division) but second-tier teams need to have a platform to satisfy their aspirations.

"Promotion and relegation is something that can light up the competition and put more pressure on the bottom clubs of the A-League. That's the beauty of the world game."

How good are the current Socceroos? Will they reach the World Cup in Russia?

"They are certainly good enough to make the World Cup although some of their last performances have not been up to the standard they themselves have set. Qualifying should not be a given because countries in Asia are really well prepared these days.

"You need to perform at your peak because you cannot turn up for games thinking that 80 per cent would be enough to win as what might have been the case in our Oceania days.

"There are some tough teams in Asia which might not have big-name players but they can play good football as well.

"Look, I think we will qualify but there have been a couple of wake-up calls of late."

You spent five seasons in Scotland with Rangers. Tell us what it means to play in the Old Firm derby against Celtic.

"I've played in many such derbies and I don't think you can realise the extent of the rivalry until you actually witness it personally. You can read about it and you can watch it on television but you don't feel the passion as much as when you are playing. It can become really crazy.

"The Old Firm derby speaks for itself and it is the ultimate club game because there is so much at stake. It's a game that can really go past you if you get caught up in the emotion and you can lose sight of what needs to be done.

"The lead-up to the game is unbelievable: every step you take you're being watched. The whole atmosphere in derby week is immense."

You played many matches in the Champions League but perhaps your most memorable moment came in the final qualifier against Parma in 1999 when you beat none other than Gianluigi Buffon with a beautifully struck dipping shot.

"As a kid growing up in Australia you always watched any Champions League on television and it was something I dreamed of being a part of.

"We won 2-0 at home against such a fantastic team like Parma and lost the return 1-0 so my goal at Ibrox was decisive. I will never forget that strike and even today, almost 20 years later, Rangers fans often mention it to me on social media.

"Playing in the Champions League is fantastic and it's quite different to normal league games. I have some great memories from those special Tuesday or Wednesday nights in Europe."

Fans remember you as an adventurous fullback. Do you consider yourself a better attacker or better at defending?

"Good question. If I look at myself I think I was probably a better attacker than a defender. My game back then - and it is still current now - was that of a fullback who pushes forward as much as possible. You need someone in that position who is able to run all day but also have that quality to create something in the final third. It helps having top players around you but it you also have to have that individual skill."

Who are the greatest players you have played with and against?

"Locally, it has to be defender Milan Ivanovic. We were team-mates at Adelaide City when I started. He's a fantastic professional with a great presence about him. He had this ability to read the game and slow it down to the pace he wanted.

"Abroad, England's Paul Gascoigne left a huge impression on me even though I probably saw him towards the end of his career. Denmark's Brian Laudrup was at Rangers too and the things they did, the way they went past players and the type of goals they scored made you rub your eyes.

"The best I played against would have to be Nigeria winger Finidi George, who was at Ajax when I was playing in the Eredivisie. He would run past you for fun. I also played against France's David Ginola and Robin Van Persie of the Netherlands a few times. They were both very difficult men to face."

One last question: who are the players you admire most in Australia and abroad?

"The one that stands out for me has got to be Brisbane Roar's Matt McKay. He's a perfect role model. You know what you're going to get from him and what you get is probably over and beyond what he should be doing. He's just a great guy with the right attitude.

"The player abroad I admire most is Australian, actually, and it's Socceroos captain Mile Jedinak. I look at where he's come from. I remember he came to the Mariners for a trial and after a couple of training sessions he smashed coach Ian Ferguson in a tackle during a game. But he just got on with it and I said to myself 'yeah, I like this, this kid's good and we should sign him'. He is determined and yet level-headed and has made a career in Europe which is never easy. He is a champion on and off the field."

TONY VIDMAR FACTFILE

Club career
1989-1995: Adelaide City (on loan to Germinal Ekeren in 1993)
1995-1997: NAC Breda
1997-2002: Rangers
2002-2003: Middlesbrough
2003-2005: Cardiff City
2005-2006: NAC Breda
2006-2008: Central Coast Mariners

International career
1991-2006: Australia (76 matches)

Honours
Rangers: Scottish championship 1999, 2000; Scottish Cup 1999, 2000, 2002; Scottish League Cup 1999, 2002. Mariners: A-League premiership. Adelaide City: NSL championship 1992, 1994. Australia: OFC Nations Cup 2004.