On Thursday evening in Iran, Australia's Socceroos suffered a significant set back to its qualification aspirations for the Russia 2018 World Cup finals,

Mostly fine weather in Tehran over the previous days gave way to cold, dense and wet conditions for the Group B clash with Iraq at the PAS (Pas Ghavamin) Stadium. This chill tested players and spectators alike, as the visible snow line drastically lowered across the mountains just beyond the city's northern edge. 

The mood of Socceroos fans by match day had been a mix of nervous anticipation and yet mostly quiet confidence for a victory over one of its toughest rivals in Asia.

Earlier in the day a morning tea was hosted at the residence of Australia's Ambassador to Iran, Ian Biggs. This brought together supporters, tour groups, diplomats, officials of FFA, the Iran FA, and media representatives.

After Ian's warm welcome, a briefing was provided by FFA on the unfolding uncertainties around ticketing for the game. 

It is reasonable to conclude that the Iraq FA failed to set in place an adequate or efficient means for sale and distribution of tickets to fans. Excuses such as the complexities associated with this match being hosted outside the home nation are not good enough.

We remember the ticketing scandal of June 2008 in Dubai when Socceroos fans got treated poorly when also playing Iraq. After providing a satisfactory process for a match between our two nations four years later in Doha, it seems the Iraqi football governing body has regressed in this key area.

The Embassy event culminated in a group photo of most participants with the Ambassador on the garden steps.

By sharing affordable and dependable taxis, the next stops for the approximately 50-60 travelling fans included some attending an extended luncheon hosted by a local Iranian family. Many others met for lunch or tea (fresh mint is highly popular) in cafes and restaurants.

Our supporters arrived at the Pas Stadium at least an hour before kick-off and faced inconsistent application of prices for tickets. Some gained entry via free tickets issued while many others paid USD20. The so called premium tickets were USD50 even though there was no cover from the rain.

As the game unfolded on a grossly sub-standard pitch, it became increasingly clear that Iraq would push the visitors right to the wire. Excellent pressing and swift counter attacking – despite the pitch - often had the Socceroos under pressure. Indeed the latter never really got into a consistent rhythm through the whole match.

The opening goal came from a header by Matthew Leckie off a pin-point corner on 40 minutes. On the terrace, our fans' exuberance was expressed emotionally, vocally and physically, providing a great stimulus for warming up!

There were two incredible shot stopping saves by Mitch Langerak, one in each half.

At half time, there was every reason to believe in eventual victory by the Socceroos. However, Australia failed to deliver a second goal that may have all but secured victory. Early in the second half Aaron Mooy had his close range effort deflected rather fortuitously for a corner.

A comeback by the hosts eventually led to an equaliser on 76 minutes. Another swift counter down the left provided a cross to the far post for Ahmed Yasin to slot home. This sent the two thousand or so 'home' supporters into raptures.

Had Tim Cahill's backwards header not been cleared off the line in stoppage time, the reigning Asian Champions would have grabbed an undeserved win.

Full time at 1-1 and ultimately there was some relief that a shock defeat had been avoided. Iraq had played very well, created more clear cut goal scoring opportunities, and deserved a point at the very least.

It was a patchy performance from the Socceroos. Disappointment was reinforced by results elsewhere in the group when our two major rivals, Japan and Saudi Arabia, both won comfortably to go three points clear together.

Overall, this away trip was another memorable one, full of diverse experiences made so much better by the wonderful hospitality, warmth and generosity of the Iranian people. 

Persian culture is remarkable and perceptions of Iran should not be prejudiced by views about its ruling leadership regime. I definitely want to return to Iran, even if Team Melli is not drawn against Australia in qualifiers for Qatar 2022.

Once again the camaraderie amongst travelling fans was a highlight. Looking out for each other, being open to new experiences, good humour and shared football passion combined to enhance another unique trip.

My Emirates flights home to Sydney departed early yesterday was shared with the Australian squad, and arrived Saturday morning, though delayed by nearly three hours. 

Despite the result, the mood amongst players seemed quite upbeat.  This optimism was reflected by Robbie Kruse in transit at Dubai, sharing with me a belief they will win against the UAE and that "we will get there (to Russia 2018)".

On this Tuesday evening at the Allianz Stadium in Sydney, the Socceroos must win to stay in touch with the leaders to secure a top-two finishing spot for automatic qualification.

To achieve this shared goal, home fans must do their bit by filling the stadium and "sing with one voice". C'mon Aussies, c'mon Aussies!

Comments and feedback welcome via Twitter @PabloFootball & @myfootballtoday

Pablo Bateson is a freelance innovator and writer for football and regular columnist for Football Today. His global travels across six continents have included football in 23 countries, with 15 in Asia for World Cup qualifiers of the Socceroos and second leg of the 2014 Asian Champions League final. Previously over more than two decades, Pablo had professional policy and management roles at different times in all three levels of government, industry, consulting, the tertiary education sector, and not-for-profit organisations. He will soon be commencing post graduate research on football in Australia.  

Categories: News | Socceroos

world cup qualifier, socceroos, iran

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