Remembrance for the Socceroos

The Australian team return with the trophy from the Independence Day tournament in Vietnam. Source: Soccer World Source: Soccer World

With Anzac commemorations and the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign in the air, it is timely to remember, in this space, football’s contribution to our country’s war effort 48 years ago.

I speak not of footballers, or ex-footballers, taking up arms and fatigues to fight the enemy in the trenches, although I am sure there were some who did that, but of the Socceroos, clad in green and gold and using their skills with the leather sphere to promote our cause in conflict.

In 1967, with Australia deeply embroiled in the Vietnam War, our Federal Government had the idea of sending the Socceroos to Saigon for South Vietnam’s annual National Day Tournament, played among eight soul-brother, anti-communist nations, among them the host, South Vietnam.

Almost half a century on it is still debatable if this was a good idea. At best it was a gesture to the South Vietnamese people and a morale jab for the Australian troops. But probably more accurately it was a dumb and ill-conceived propaganda exercise to further the cause of the dumb decision to involve Australia in a dumb war.

Still, that was not the fault of our footballers, who went to fulfil their national duty and emerged with their sporting reputations not just intact but having laid the foundations for the spirit of Socceroos togetherness that remains with the team to this day.

Ray Baartz, then a 20-year-old striker, recalled later: “That tour established the tradition and the camaraderie and the team spirit that has been instilled in the Socceroo teams over the years … a lot of the foundation of it was laid in that tour.”

Australia won the tournament by winning every one of their games, including a 3-2 win over South Korea in the final. Atti Abonyi was top scorer with seven goals in five matches. Johnny Warren, then just 24, established himself as an irresistible and irreplaceable national captain and leader.

It was Australia’s first trophy and first success of any meaningful kind in international football.

But it was no cakewalk, for the tournament was played in a war zone with all the unwelcome and utterly perilous distractions that came with it. Today we are hearing opinions about Australia’s difficult World Cup campaign for having to travel to places like Bishkek and Dushanbe. Try Saigon in 1967.

The players were within earshot of mortars going off in the distance. There was an abortive attempt by the Viet Cong to blow up the team hotel. The grassy patch behind the goals at their training venue was laden with land mines and balls that sailed over the bar during practice were too dangerous to retrieve. Before one game, against New Zealand, the field itself was swept for land mines.

And then there was the riot, the one that accompanied Australia’s game with South Vietnam, won 1-0 with a goal scored by Johnny Warren. The Australian ambassador came into the Australia dressing room after the game and advised the team to stay put until the crowd mood had cooled down.

When the team finally left the stadium, its bus was pelted with rocks. Windows were broken. Young men representing Australia, part-time footballers who worked as tailors, used car salesmen and milkmen, were in fear for their lives.

Johnny Warren spoke to me about this event a lot. He was very proud whenever he did. He was proud of ‘the boys’, the sacrifices they made and the spirit they founded. He even suggested that the Socceroos of 1967 had a right to march in the Anzac Day parades, and he had a point.

Now we live in a different world. Our players, quite correctly, are much better rewarded and it is not very likely that the Socceroos will ever again be sent into a war zone as a tool of propaganda.

To put all this into period context, in 1967 John Barclay, the Australia team manager, told the players before the Vietnam tournament that their tracksuits were not their property and they were to be returned at the end of the event. Just before the final he said to the players: “You win the final, you get to keep the tracksuit.”

Those players, heroes to you and me, still have them.

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