Socceroos Greats - Where are they now: Mehmet Durakovic

Mehmet Durakovic played 64 times for Australia. Source: Getty Images

The World Game resumes its regular feature on Socceroos stars who left their mark on football down under. Defender Mehmet Durakovic made a career out of stopping some of the world's finest forwards but will be best remembered by Australian supporters for a crucial goal he scored to save the 'Green and Gold' from World Cup elimination.

Dependable defender Mehmet Durakovic will always be remembered as an uncompromising Socceroos legend who would stick assiduously to a game plan ... but when on a rare occasion he chose to ignore team tactics and do it his own way he became a hero for saving Australia's 1994 FIFA World Cup campaign.

This is what happened when the Socceroos were staring down the barrel of defeat in a two-legged qualifying playoff against Canada in 1993.

The Canadians had won the first leg in Edmonton 2-1 and with 13 minutes to go in the return in Sydney the plucky Canucks were grimly hanging on with the score locked at 1-1.

With Frank Farina in sparking form - the striker had opened the scoring with an overhead kick - the Australians were all over the Canadians but could not find the elusive second goal that would square the tie.

And as the frustrated crowd was beginning to wonder where a goal would come from, Durakovic picked his moment to etch his name in Socceroos folklore.

"We won a free kick in our own half," Durakovic recalled.

"I quickly played the ball to Aurelio Vidmar and I just took off and ran forward. I said to myself 'bugger our shape, we're running out of time here and I'm having a go in the attack.

"My role was to look after centre-forward Alex Bunbury but we desperately needed a goal to stay alive and I'm pretty sure 99.99 per cent of all the centre-halves in the world would have done the same thing under similar circumstances. We had nothing to lose so there was no use holding back.

"Viddie played a long ball to David Mitchell and I kept on running forward. Mitch collided with the defender and the ball somehow ended up in the air. I could see goalkeeper Craig Forrest coming out but he could not get to the ball which fell beautifully for me and from just inside the box I headed it over his body and into the net.

"It was sheer instinct for me to keep running and on any other day (coach) Eddie Thomson would have had a heart attack seeing me so far up the field.

"It's a goal I will never forget."

The score remained 2-1 even after extra time before the Australians got through on penalties, thanks largely to young Mark Schwarzer's two saves.

The Socceroos' reward was a glamorous tie with two-time world champions Argentina.

Durakovic, who is now 55, was only too happy to share some of his experiences with The World Game.

What are you doing now?

"I have been coaching in Malaysia for almost eight years. My first job was with Selangor and my current club is Perak. I am proud to say that I won the Malaysia Cup with both teams. At the moment I am on holidays in Melbourne before the new Super League season starts in January."

You were born in Montenegro and came to Australia as a five-year-old. What was it like to grow up in Melbourne?

"I have fond memories of my childhood. I started playing football in the under-10s for Port Melbourne, which was a very good juniors club. I spent almost a decade there and in that time we had some great players. Several of them are still my best friends. The club also produced players who went on to represent Australia at senior level like myself, Andrew Zinni, Mike Petersen and Joe Palatsides. Aki Kotzamichalis and Peter Tsolakis were very good players too."

Brunswick Juventus gave you your first professional contract. That would have been exciting, wouldn't it?

"Very much so. Juventus were a big club and we had a wonderful team, so much so that we won the 1985 NSL championship in my first season there. I have fantastic memories."

In 1989 you joined South Melbourne in what would become a rewarding move. The 1991 NSL title must be the high point of your stint with the club. Tell us about the grand final against Melbourne Knights at Olympic Park that drew 21,000 fans.

"South were massive and well organised and joining them was a dream come true. They were a club with strong and passionate support. We had an amazing team with lots of experienced internationals and the great Ferenc Puskas as our coach. We were like a family and called him the 'big boss'. His spoke perfect Greek and Italian. His English was not too bad and he was able to give us the ammunition to do what we wanted to do.

"We played very well in a really good grand final but we trailed to a goal from Andrew Marth until the last minute when my old Juventus teammate Palatsides made it 1-1. Extra time did not settle the match so we won the title thanks to a shootout that went to sudden death. We deserved to win that game."

Who were the toughest forwards you had to face in the NSL?

"You could tell by just watching young Mark Viduka as he was coming through the ranks with the Knights that he was in a different class. I faced him a few times and, I tell you, he was a handful.

"There were other strong players like Ivan Kelic and Francis Awaritefe."

In 1995 you surprised many people by signing for Selangor in Malaysia. How did that come about?

"I was playing for South and the Socceroos when Selangor opened a brand new 90,000-stadium in Kuala Lumpur. For the occasion, they brought several teams from Europe and South America to play a series of exhibition games. Bruce Grobbelaar, Eddy Krncevic and myself were invited to make a few guest appearances for Selangor. I played against Bayern Munich, Vasco da Gama and Leeds, did quite well and then went back to my club back home.

"Two months later I got a call asking me if I would like to join Selangor, who were not actually a club but a state team. One thing led to another and before I knew it South let me go and I was playing in Malaysia."

You would become a hero among Selangor's fans because you helped the team win three Malaysia Cups.

"I went there in 1995 along with Melbourne Knights captain Joe Biskic and Mitchell, who came over from Millwall. I had a fantastic time with Selangor and we won the cup three years on the trot. The cup is one of the oldest competitions in south-east Asia and carries so much prestige that many regard it as more important to win than the league."

You were remarkably strong in the air despite the fact that you are not very tall. Did you feel the need for special practice in your formative years?

"I was quick and sharp but, to be honest, because I am not a big man the most important thing for me was to get the timing right every time I went up for a high challenge. The more you practise the better you get, I suppose, but I never really concentrated on this aspect of my game. Speed is what I worked hard on. The timing came with experience."

You made your full international debut against Indonesia in 1990. Who were the main contenders for the stopper role?

"We used to play with two stoppers and a sweeper those days. Milan Ivanovic was the libero and basically there were three of us vying for the two stopper roles: myself, Alex Tobin and Ian Gray.

When the qualifying campaign for the 1994 World Cup kicked off you were at the peak of your career, right?

"I think I was, yes. We had a really good team and we were unlucky not to reach the finals in the United States."

Thomson was a great motivator, wasn't he? Did he make you guys believe that you could beat Argentina?

"Absolutely, why not? We had an experienced team with some exciting young players. If it were another team instead of Argentina maybe we would have qualified. We did really well to take them to the wire. My job was to mark Abel Balbo while Tobin looked after Gabriel Batistuta."

Would the Argentines have won the tie without Diego Maradona?

"Maybe not. At the end of the day it was Maradona's perfect cross that led to Balbo's away goal in a 1-1 draw in Sydney.

"We all know how a fluke shot from Batistuta condemned us to a 1-0 defeat in Buenos Aires. How that ball that was caught by the swirling wind ended up in the net I still don't know. it was a one-in-a-million goal."

Was the Monumental in Buenos Aires the most hostile ground you ever played in?

"Absolutely. The ground was full and when we went out for our warm-up we saw the River Plate supporters on one side and the Boca Juniors fans on the other, waving hundreds of flags and trying to outdo each other in intimidating us.

"Then when Maradona and the Argentina team came out to do their warm-up, the noise became even louder and the ground began to shake. I had never seen anything like it. It was un-be-lievable. And the game had not even started."

Who were the toughest forwards you had to face as a Socceroos defender?

"When we played England in Sydney in 1991 I was marking Gary Lineker. Two years later I faced Jean-Pierre Papin when AC Milan played two matches in Australia. Those two stand out for me."

Finally, who were the best players you played with at club and international level?

"I played with many top players in my career and it is hard to name just one or two. Over the years at South Melbourne, for example, I played alongside Paul Wade, Steve Blair, Kimon Taliadoros, Patrick Kisnorbo, Kevin Muscat, Paul Trimboli, Fausto de Amicis, Ange Postecoglou, Tsolakis, Palatsides and Petersen.

"At Socceroos level i was similarly fortunate because some of my teammates were Ivanovic, Tobin, Farina, Graham Arnold, Robbie Slater, Ned Zelic and Vidmar brothers Aurelio and Tony. They were all brilliant, to be honest."

MEHMET DURAKOVIC FACTFILE

Club career
1985-1988: Brunswick Juventus, Footscray JUST
1989-1995: South Melbourne
1995-1998: Selangor
1998-1999: Sydney Olympic
1999-2000: Gippsland Falcons
2000-2004: South Melbourne

International career
1990-2002: Australia (64 matches)

Honours
Brunswick Juventus, NSL 1985; South Melbourne, NSL 1991; Selangor, Malaysia Cup 1995, 1996, 1997.