50 year anniversary of the Friendly Nations Tournament
50 years ago today, Australia played the first match in an unusual tournament in an even more unusual place05 November 2017 | FT Editor
Today, we refer to what the Australian Government was trying to achieve through the creation of a football tournament in the middle of a war zone, ‘soft diplomacy’.
It was seen by the government led by Harold Holt and his Minister for the Army, Malcolm Fraser, as a way of helping the occupying military forces better connect with the local population - a widely recognised pre-requisite for successful occupation. Along with the likes of Little Pattie, Col Joye and the Joye Boys, Johnny O'Keefe, and the Sapphires, the visit was also to help boost the morale of Australian troops.
The Friendly Nations Tournament, or the Quoc Khanh Cup, took place in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). As well as Australia and the host nation, the other participants included New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Thailand. It was also to become Australia's first significant competitive tournament win in Asia.
But what was it like to be in Saigon as an Australian football player in the middle of hostilities in 1967?
Two of the members of that squad, Ray Baartz and Stan Ackerley together with journalist Davidde Corran, tell the story in an anniversary podcast put together by James Parkinson of By Association.
Baartz says that at “no stage were we nervous” about the idea of heading to a war zone – but perhaps a bit naïve.
He says they were “immediately confronted with reality” on landing in Saigon at one of the busiest military airports in the world, in the middle of a war zone, surrounded by the might of the US Air Force, and thousands of local people. They were told to keep away from Americans - who were targets of the Viet Cong - and people on bicycles.
Baartz and Ackerley share some incredible tales of their time in a “very basic” hotel with “below average” food and, literally, a cow paddock for training - although clearly better than Australian troops endured during the conflict. So bad was the paddock that they ended up training on the roof of the hotel, watching tanks trundle along the streets, fighter aircraft taking-off and landing, as well as locals trying hard to just get on with their lives.
Others staying in the same hotel included the South Koreans who were also a target of the Viet Cong - and which almost ended-up in a tragedy for Ackerley.
Despite the conditions, and war raging around them, the Socceroos had wins in each of their three group games. 5-3 v New Zealand, a ‘riotous’ 1-0 v South Vietnam where the riot police were called-in, and 5-1 v Singapore. They defeated Malaysia 1-0 in the semi-final after extra time and, before a crowd of more than 30,000 who were now supporting the Socceroos despite the earlier riot, won the Final v South Korea, 3-2.
The legacy of the squad is not only the win, but also the spirit that helped forge the identity of what later became known as the Socceroos, according to Corran.
Most of the squad, which was coached by 'Uncle' Joe Vlatsis, went on to be part of the successful 1974 World Cup campaign.
Baartz and Ackerley say they were thrilled to win Australia’s first major trophy. They were also delighted to be allowed to keep their team tracksuits – a rare treat for the part-timers who played for no money, just for love and duty.
friendly nations tournament 1967, vietnam war, ray baartz, stan ackerley