| Australia’s Harry Kewell in action during their World Cup qualifier against Uruguay in Sydney on November 16 last year. Australia ended their 31-year wait to qualify by winning the penalty shootout 4-2 after both teams remained tied 1-1 after extra-time
Sydney: Comparing sports teams from different eras has always been a subjective and futile exercise. There is just no way of creating an even playing field.
Take Australia’s two World Cup soccer teams from 1974 and 2006 ' both hailed as trailblazers for defying great odds to reach the finals in Germany.
That is where the similarities end, however. The two sets of players could not have been more different.
While the current crop of players earn a fortune plying their trade in the top European competitions and are feted like pop stars, the 1974 team were the ultimate band of brotherly misfits.
They had come from other parts of the world, searching for a better life in Australia, and were brought together by their common love of football.
They did not win a match or even score a goal at the World Cup. Nevertheless, until now they have been unrivalled as Australia’s finest team.
The best known of the players was Johnny Warren, a loveable “larrikan” who later became a TV commentator and penned a best-selling book.
Such was Warren’s popularity that when he died from lung cancer in 2004 the government honoured him with a state funeral. He died a year before his beloved Socceroos qualified for the World Cup for the second time but was credited with playing a bizarre role in their belated success.
Warren’s book detailed how he believed the Australia team had been living under a curse since a 1969 trip to Mozambique when they fell foul of an African witchdoctor.
The Australians had asked the witchdoctor to put a curse on their opponents but when they could not afford to pay him, he turned the curse on them.
When Warren told the story to an Australian television comedian in 2004, the host agreed to go to back to Mozambique. The witchdoctor had died but he found another who said he could lift the curse.
A chicken was sacrificed and its blood splattered over the comedian who then travelled to Sydney’s Olympic Stadium where he and Warren washed themselves with clay the witchdoctor had given them.
It made for some good, light-hearted TV but two years later Australia’s long and heart-breaking run of World Cup misses did end, when they beat Uruguay at the same Olympic Stadium.
A lesser-known, but no less fascinating, character is the 1974 Australian captain Peter Wilson, a no-nonsense centre-half who was born in Middlesbrough.
Wilson made 115 appearances for the Socceroos but now lives as a recluse and has not spoken publicly in more than two decades.
An Australian newspaper that tracked him down last year reported that he was living in a mountain hideaway south of Sydney.
He was heavily tattooed, had a Harley Davidson parked in his driveway and a Clydesdale horse called Bonza, and his home was ringed with barbed wire to keep away prying media.“There’s nothing I want to say,” he said. “I’ve got nothing to add.”
Warren and Wilson were just part of the odd mixture that made up the 1974 team. At the heart of the defence was German-born Manfred Schaefer, whose full-time job was as a milkman.
Australia’s key striker was Atti Abonyi, who emigrated to Australia from Hungary when he was aged ten and now reportedly runs a laundry business. The coach, Rale Rasic, was born in Yugoslavia and raised in an orphanage before moving to Australia.
Australia qualified for the World Cup by beating South Korea in a playoff but were drawn in the “group of death” and duly finished bottom though it hardly seemed to matter.
They lost 0-2 to East Germany, then 0-3 to hosts and eventual champions West Germany, but drew 0-0 with Chile.
The team still gets together every four years to celebrate their achievement in getting to the finals.