Socceroos Greats - Where are they now: Billy Vojtek

Socceroos striker Billy Vojtek. Source: Melbourne Knights

The World Game resumes its monthly feature on Socceroos stars who left their mark on football in Australia. Striker Billy Vojtek reflects on a colourful career that took him to one match from the 1970 FIFA World Cup.

Socceroos striker Billy Vojtek believes Australia's failure to beat Rhodesia over two legs which forced them into an 'extra' third match cost them a spot in the 1970 FIFA World Cup.

In the penultimate round of qualifying for a spot in the finals in Mexico, the Socceroos had to beat Rhodesia in neutral Mozambique before facing Israel in a home and away tie.

The Australians were widely expected to overcome Rhodesia but after a second draw they were forced into a decider two days later which they won 3-1.

The added time spent in Mozambique meant they would face the Israelis in Tel Aviv only five days later.

The jaded Socceroos did their best to counter much fresher opponents. Ron Corry saved a penalty from Gora Spiegel but the Australians lost 1-0 to a deflected shot from Israel's star Mordechai Spiegler.

Australia's World Cup adventure came to a crushing end when they could not go past a 1-1 draw in the return in Sydney.

"We had a top team and we thought we would beat the Rhodesians over two matches but they were physically very strong and two draws forced us into a decider," Vojtek, who is now 76, said.

"That additional match meant we lost two days of rest and we had to play Israel in freezing Tel Aviv too soon after facing Rhodesia in steaming hot Lourenco Marques (now Maputo).

"We had no charter flights those days, mind you. From Mozambique we flew to Johannesburg, then on to Lisbon, Rome, Athens and finally Tel Aviv. It was a tiring trip of more than 24 hours.

"Considering everything, we did rather well to lose only 1-0 but in the return in Sydney we drew 1-1 and that was it. We were out.

"I have no doubt, however, that our failure to beat the Rhodesians in two matches cost us a spot in the Mexico World Cup because with more rest and better acclimatisation in Tel Aviv we would have played a lot better and not have lost to Israel over two legs."

Vojtek, who played 30 full internationals for the 'green and gold' and was named in Melbourne Knights' team of the century alongside fellow striker Mark Viduka, was happy to share some of his career recollections.

What are you doing now?

"There is not much we Victorians can do here in Melbourne at the moment. I try to catch up with some friends for a coffee. This must be a terrible time for young children who cannot play football. I used to watch my grandchildren play every Saturday but now I can't. It is horrible."

You played your junior football in Essendon and were known as a keen learner, spending many hours honing your skills.

"We came out here from the old Yugoslavia in the late 1950s. As kids my brother and I would never go anywhere - even to school - without a soccer ball and whenever we took part in any game in a park they could not take the ball away from us. Before we knew it we were asked to join the local team and played regularly and went through the grades. For us it was football, football, football."

Having played first grade for Melbourne Croatia for almost two decades, you must have some great memories, particularly of the 'derbies' against bitter rivals Footscray JUST.

"They were special, magic days. The state league featured many clubs with foreign backgrounds. It was like a 'World Cup' every week. I wish I could be young again and replay those marvellous times.

"People would come from interstate to watch our games against JUST. They were big, big games. JUST, who had Serbian allegiances, were much better than us at first and we were always worried and a bit scared whenever we came up against them. They had several top class imports and were very strong. By the mid-1960s we had improved to such an extent that we were able to beat them.

"Our club was able to sign 35-year-old Celtic and Scotland defender Duncan Mackay in 1965. The day he came to Australia we had a game against JUST and he came to the dressing room expecting to play ... even though he had arrived at two in the morning. Mackay did not play but his presence galvanised the whole team. We all wanted to play very well and show him what we could do and we won 3-0.

"The fans were unbelievable. They would fill our pockets with cash if we won a derby. After one particular derby at Olympic Park in which I scored a goal or two, I think, I ended up with so much money I was able to buy a Ford Custom."

Croatia were banned for life (and later reinstated) after serious crowd trouble in a State League match versus Hakoah in 1972. Is that why you joined Sydney Croatia?

"Of course. All the players, including Jimmy and Duncan Mackay, were forced to leave the club and I was the only player the club got any money for."

You however played most of your football in Melbourne. You were a high-profile striker yet you never got the chance to play in the National Soccer League. How come?

"I was 34 and simply too old when the league kicked off in 1977. I was playing for Brunswick then and to be honest I was a bit burnt out. I had played a lot of football since coming to Australia and I was not quite ready for the NSL."

You obviously have strong and sentimental links with Melbourne Knights, having spent more than half a century at the club in various roles. Do you see them back among the elite of Australian football?

"I think we have tremendous facilities with a renovated clubhouse and a support base comprising many young fans. I'd love the club to be able to compete in a second division and be given a chance to one day play in the top league, which would give us something to aim for."

Without going into the way traditional clubs were treated when the A-League was formed, is there a risk that clubs like the Knights will die unless they play at the highest level?

"No chance. The club is as strong and vibrant as ever so it is very much alive. Many young people are behind the club and you should come to our annual 'Oktoberfest' to understand how much the club means to its followers. Every Friday night we have 300 people coming for dinner at the clubhouse and if it's also game night you would not get in."

Lots of stories have been told about Australia's victory in the friendship tournament in war-torn Vietnam in 1967. What are your recollections of that epic journey?

"I have only brilliant memories. We had a pre-tournament get-together in Sydney and all 40 of us from all over Australia obviously were keen to be on the plane but there was room for only 18. The selectors never let on but we knew that the guys that were given an injection were the ones that would go. Fortunately I got one. It was the sweetest needle I ever had.

"Even though we were there during the Vietnam war all we had on our minds was football and at no point did we ever think about us getting killed, for example. I had never played for Australia and I tell you I was not going all the way to Vietnam to be a 'tourist'. So getting the shirt for our first match against New Zealand gave me the most fantastic feeling of my life. Okay, I got married just before we went to Vietnam but my debut was special too."

You played in every match and opened the scoring in the final against South Korea, which you guys won 3-2.

"I was playing well in the tournament but was not scoring. Luckily coach Joe Vlasits saw something in me and kept picking me. After finding the net in the final against the Koreans the goals started coming for me. We had a great team with five forwards including Tommy McColl, Ray Baartz, Johnny Warren and Atti Abonyi. I have a big picture of that team at home and when I wake up every morning I look at it. That team gave me so much happiness and excitement."

What was it like to play under captain Warren?

"Johnny was a 'skippy' in the Australian sense of the word. The national teams of that era were full of migrants from established football countries but Johnny showed us he loved and understood football as much as we did. Look, he probably was not as skilful as us forwards but he was a born leader with a strong, winning mentality. He was the typical Aussie fighter who would never give up.

"Johnny was also an incredibly keen student of the game. He read many soccer books when he went on tour. I remember when we were in Africa for the 1970 World Cup qualifiers we were taken on a safari, which was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but he refused to join us because he wanted to stay in the hotel and read up on the game. He certainly was something else."

You played in only one of the Socceroos' qualifiers when they reached the promised land in West Germany four years later. Yet you still would have been devastated at missing out on the final squad.

"The problem was coach Rale Rasic had this idea that I was not fit or prepared enough to be selected. I was playing for Sydney Croatia who did not have the aura of a top team at the time and I used to fly up from Melbourne every week to play for them. I was fit and playing as well as anybody else but Rasic did not see it that way when he picked his squad for the finals.

"We had a conversation and he told me I was not ready. He made me first reserve among the forwards and said I would be on the plane if somebody got injured. I did not want to argue with him because I also thought there was a bit of politics involved. I would not like to elaborate too much on this episode ... it was the low point of my career.

"Melbourne Croatia's ban in '72 ruined my chances of getting to the World Cup. Croatia were a top team then and with me scoring goals for them there was no way he could leave me out."

If your omission was the low point, which was the highlight?

"Six Ampol Cup medals are something to be proud of but Australia's 1967 tournament in Vietnam which we won and the goal I scored in the final will remain dear to my heart."

Finally, who are the best players you have played with and against at club and national level?

"At club level Jimmy Mackay was a fantastic player at Melbourne Croatia while Duncan Mackay was somebody you could look up to and learn from.

"I hated playing against defender Manfred Schaefer, who was as tough as can be. I was lucky to play against Legia Warsaw's midfielder Kazimierz Deyna, Cruzeiro striker Tostao, Velez Mostar's forward Vahid Halilhodzic and Dinamo Moscow goalkeeper Lev Yachine: I was just privileged to share a pitch with those guys.

"At national level, Baartz was a superb player with a sweet left foot. McColl, who came from Chelsea, and Abonyi, with whom I was friends since we were 16, were also up there.

"As regards opponents, Israel midfielder Spiegler was a terrific player and caused us many problems in 1969."

BILLY VOJTEK FACTFILE

Club career
1962-72: Melbourne Croatia
1973-74: Sydney Croatia
1974-76: Brunswick Juventus
1977-78: Essendon Croatia
1979-80: Green Gully
1981-82: Western Suburbs
1983-84: St Albans Saints
1984-86: Essendon Royals

International career
1967-1973: Australia (30 matches)