It took six games and countless heartaches and let-downs before Iran pulled itself up from the brink of disaster. Such an elimination would have been staggering simply because of how it happened: fumbling away a comfortable lead after a meteoric start with a formidable collapse with three games left in the qualifying, the worst of its kind in Iran's bumpy soccer history. In those three games all Iran needed were 2 ties, or just a win, and all Iran could muster against arguably lesser teams was a tie. With the egos of the soccer crazed nation hurt, a sickly Iran team took its dim hopes on a long and gloomy 40 hour trip to limp into Melbourne, jet lagged and physically drained 48 hours prior to the game. This is what happens to those who blow their easy chances! Iran declared itself the underdog due to the grueling trip. Australia chose Melbourne over Sydney, because of the larger Cricket Grounds which could hold 100,000 people. To secure the field, the Australian government had to guarantee a sell-out crowd.
There was a lengthy pregame festivity in a joyous and Olympic like atmosphere. 5000 Iranian immigrants were pitting a flag waving match against the rest of a raucous Australian sell out crowd. With flags of Iran painted on their faces, Iranian kids in the crowd were witnessing a taste of what soccer means to their motherland. This ambience was unprecedented for Australia's “Socceroos”. It was charged because Australia seemed so poised for the World Cup. The last time that Australia qualified was in 1973, when Australia whipped Iran 3-0 in Sydney, lost to Iran 2-0 in Tehran, and won on the 3-2 aggregate. In 1977, Iran took revenge and eliminated Australia. This was a rubber match stretching over 24 years. All Australia needed to qualify was a scoreless tie or a win, both of which seemed assuredly doable: Since former England coach Terry Venables took over the job of the head coach in January of 1997, Australia won every single game, beating all the teams in its bracket, in addition to the European teams Norway and Hungary, Asia's South Korea, and African champion Tunisia (in Tunisia). In all, Australia won 12 of 13 games it played in 1997, with the only tie coming against Iran the week before. 9 members of the Australian squad are pro players playing in England, Scotland, Spain and various other European countries. This seemed a sure bet.
Against such a backdrop, Australia took the field fired up and hungry. Instantly, they began a relentless series of attacks which put Iran on the ropes. Within the first minute alone Australia had two great scoring opportunities which Abedzadeh, Iran's goalie saved. The first 15 chilling minutes of the game made painfully obvious why Iran was where it was: its wobbly and porous defense which was neither playing man to man, nor zone, it was playing “watch the Aussies run by me”. Speeding Socceroos were dancing through Iran's defenses using Iran's goal for target practice. Through all this, Abedzadeh was emerging as a world class goalie who seemed to be in a zone. Diving right and left, up and down, forward and back, he made one spectacular save after another, capped by an amazing one handed stop over his head, afterwards calmly grabbing the neutralized ball off the air with the same one hand again. Had it been any other goalie, on this day Australia could have easily scored 8 goals, 6 of them within the first 10 minutes. Iran survived the initial onslaught with no goals allowed, but their confidence shaken. Though the game settled down somewhat, this was clearly still Australia's game. Iran finally made some passes and took the ball into the Australian territory for a change but simply could not muster any kind of a serious attack.
In the 32nd minute, a very well organized Australian drive finally paid off when two Australian players were left all alone against Abedzadeh on a beautifully executed cross sent from the left wing over Iran's defense, and the youthful looking Harry Kewell of English league's Leeds, the same one who scored Australia's goal in Tehran, promptly placed the ball into the goal from an acute angle past Abedzadeh. Australia did not let up. Though Iran's defense was coming somewhat alive, they were still unable to fully contain the Aussies. Their failure to tightly mark the forwards lasted through the break and into the second half.
Iran's hallmark in the past has been a quick second half. Its potent offense has repeatedly stormed the opposition goal after the mid point. This time though, Australia was more poised and went for the kill. 3 minutes into the half, midfielder Aurelio Vidmar, left alone inside the penalty box, took a rebound off the cross bar and blasted in Australia's second goal, putting in what seemed at the time to be the last nail into Iran's coffin. This was a crusher. The celebrations had already started. As the Australian crowd began chanting and dancing, and a few started making phone calls to their travel agents on their cellulars for a 98 French travel package, a local hooligan tried to make a souvenir out of Iran's net. He scrammed across the field and began ripping the net off Iran's goal. Before he was done though, the security forces caught up and arrested him. A three minute delay ensued. One can't help but wonder about what impact this may have had on the game. But one could see Iran was anxious to resume the game as they began helping to patch up the net. There it became obvious that Iran's fighting spirit was still kicking.
A choking, trapping defense by Australia kept Iran and its pro offensive line in check. By moving up the backfield Terry Venables was running the anxious Iranian players into offside traps diffusing its drives, but it did not deter Iran from increasing the pressure. Now, it was Iran's turn to stage a relentless series of blitzes. They had shed their jet lag and the earlier malaise they had exhibited during the first half and were now sending just about all players upfield. Even Abedzadeh was sneaking up, much like hockey goalies in the last few minutes of game when their team is behind. This could have cost Iran another goal when Abedzadeh dribbled the ball upfield and tried to send it into the Australian side, but instead sent a weak roller to the waiting feet of an Australian striker with none between him and the goal but Abedzadeh. His hurried shot, though, sailed harmlessly up and wide. In 74th minute, Iran brought in Tahamie, an explosive offensive player. His presence seemed to offset the balance that had set in between the two teams.
A few minutes later, at minute 76, the speed demon Azizi, snatched the ball from his own teammate and dribbled through Australia's defensive line, where he was trapped by two fullbacks against the end line, stripped of the ball and thrown to the ground. For a second, Azizi seemed to have given up and sat down on the ground. But instantly, he spotted an opportunity. While the two defenders were deciding what to do with the ball, Azizi rose to his feet in a blink, ran to the defenders from their blind side and snatched the ball once more, this time passing it to Bagheri who was wide open. His celebration in disbelief seemed to start even before he went back to retrieve the ball which was slightly behind him. His shot went past a helplessly watching Mark Bosnich who had dove earlier in an attempt to block Azizi.
This was sudden life for Iran as the whole team came alive. Where a few minutes earlier Iran was down 2-0 playing in the hostile field of the opponent, had no momentum and was minutes from sinking to its lowest point, now they were only a goal away from a tie, a tie which in this case equaled a win. Australia seemed confused and tired. Iran was supposed to go quietly. Everything up until that point had gone according to plans. While Australia was content to run the clock out, Iran was running them ragged with a frenzied blitz.
Four minutes later, Iran sent shock waves through the crowd. Bosnich, the Australian goalie, booted the ball into Iran's field which Khakpour headed back over the midfield to the feet of Daei. Surrounded by defenders, he detected their offside trap. Daei maneuvered a few steps forward and slightly to the left and sent a surgical pass through the defense before any Iranian had moved offside. Once more, the speed demon Azizi rocketed past the backfield and caught up with the ball. This time he was all alone against a trapped goalie. There was a vast dead space between him and Bosnich who made a desperate dash forward. There, what stood between Iran and redemption was an imperfect shot, a mistake, a slip, a vicious foul from behind and no calls, or any number of other misfortunes that befell the team like a curse in the past. Azizi moved to the left to pull the goalie to one side in order to open up a shooting lane on the right side. When Bosnich dove to close the angle, Azizi executed a calculated kick, directed at the goal, 5 feet off the ground just over the reach of Bosnich's legs. There was the perfect shot, placed impeccably, not too hard and nor too soft. It bounced a few times, and with each bounce it sank the hopes of a stunned Australian crowd who froze aghast at a monumental turn of events. The ball came to rest against the net. It had registered one amazing comeback.
Australia scrambled to take back what it had lost. It resumed its desperate attacks and once more Abedzadeh was back to work making save after save. Iran burned up the remaining 10 minutes of the regulation before moving into an agonizing 8 minutes of extra time. The most dangerous Australian attack came with seconds left in the game, when Abedzadeh dove and grabbed Kewell's header poised for inside the far post. Iran received a yellow card for its delaying tactics which may have contributed to the referee's dragging the game a bit longer. The whistle sounded at exactly 98th minute. Daei jumped up to grab the game ball and Iran's euphoric explosion was under way for a game won by the calm tactics of its new coach Vieira, the heroics of the goalie Abedzadeh, a few moments of life by the midfield, and Iran's unrelentingly potent front line, most notably Azizi.