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South America Socceroos’ WC hurdle again

When the Socceroos were drawn against world football heavyweights Argentina for a spot in the 1994 World Cup, it was the first time Australia had faced South American opponents in a play-off to reach the tournament.

Less than 30 years later, Monday’s (Tuesday 0400 AEST) winner-take-all clash against Peru in Qatar will be the fourth time a nation from that continent has been the final hurdle in Australia’s path.

Prior to 1993, Europe and Asia had been the traditional obstacles to the then Oceania-based Australians, with a triumph against South Korea in 1973 the only time a Socceroos team had succeeded.

The 1993 team, which included current Socceroos coach Graham Arnold, couldn’t overcome a Diego Maradona-led Argentina in that contest, falling to a 1-0 loss at a packed El Monumental in Buenos Aires.

It would not be the only time a trip to South America ended in World Cup play-off heartache either, with a star-studded team stung by the trauma of 1997’s play-off defeat to Iran at the MCG falling to a 3-0 loss against Uruguay in Montevideo in 2001.

John Aloisi was part of that campaign, which fell apart as the team found themselves the target of relentless hostility from Uruguayan fans and officials.

It was a lesson Aloisi says the team did not forget four years later when they found themselves once again pitted against the two-time World Cup winners for a spot in Germany 2006.

“At the hotel they were making a lot of noise to try and make sure you can’t sleep, harassing us at the airport, keeping us in the airport for four hours saying that we can’t get through customs,” Aloisi told AAP.

“All those things were part of their way of putting us off.

“The second time round, we were used to it, we knew how to deal with it.

“We had people there to help us get through a lot quicker. They put us in the top level of the hotel, so we didn’t have to deal with all that noise down at ground level.

“That helped us quite a bit.”

Helped to the point that in the second-leg of the 2005 play-off Aloisi would write himself into Australian sporting history with his famous winning penalty in a shootout at Stadium Australia to send the Socceroos to a World Cup for the first time in 32 years.

Current captain Maty Ryan was in the stands that night and is well aware of the recent history of contests between Australia and South American opposition.

“They’ve provided the nation some of the best nights in its sporting history,” Ryan said.

“That’s our opportunity now … it’s there for every individual to step up and stake a claim to etch their name in history.”

Australia hasn’t failed to reach a World Cup since the 2005 play-off win, getting to the 2010 and 2014 tournaments automatically before overcoming Honduras in a play-off to reach the 2018 World Cup.

Peru will be favourites to end Australia’s bid for a fifth-straight World Cup appearance but Aloisi says the fact this year’s clash will be a single-leg affair at the neutral Ahmad bin Ali Stadium is a huge leveller.

“This is a massive plus for us, actually playing on neutral territory at a neutral venue,” Aloisi said.

“Surroundings where we’re pretty familiar in terms of we’ve played there quite a few times in either qualification or just in the recent past against the UAE. That plays into our hands a lot.”

Aloisi got to know South American players well during his own career, particularly when he played in Spain with Osasuna and Alaves.

What he came to learn is the one trait that holds true across the various styles of South American football is an intense desire to win, a spirit Australia must be prepared to at least match in Monday’s game.

“They grow up different in terms of the way they play their football,” he said.

“I knew what they were like.

“They were the nicest people off the field and then on the field, they’ll do just about anything to win a football game.

“Which I understand because they’re there to compete. They’re there to win. Plus, a lot of the time, they need that to support their family and they need that to really get out of some of the poor upbringings that they have over there.

“That was their mentality. That’s their culture. So it was different, definitely, playing South American sides but enjoyable nonetheless.”

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