When the Australian team went to war

Can you imagine sending the Socceroos to the middle of a war to play football?

In 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War, the Australian government, led by Harold Holt, allowed the national football team to take part in a tournament in Vietnam to boost morale in some of the nations involved in the war. Football diplomacy in Asia preceded ping pong diplomacy by a few years.

Australia set off for the Vietnam National Day Soccer Tournament in Saigon at the start of November 1967. ‘Uncle Joe’ Vlasits was appointed coach and took a young group of players, eight of whom went on to be part of the squads which later helped Australian qualify for the World Cup in Germany in 1974.

It was a strange and frightening experience for the Australians being pitched into the middle of an ongoing war which was beginning to become unpopular at home. The team would be eating with soldiers in their mess and then going to play football, while their colleagues went off to fight. Players were warned by security on arrival not to spend time with Americans, because the latter were prime targets for the Viet Cong.

Eight teams from nations involved in the war took part. Australia, South Vietnam, New Zealand and Singapore made up Group A and South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong were in Group B. The first match was against New Zealand on 5 November at Cong Hoa Stadium and the Socceroos won by five-goals to three. Atti Abonyi scored a hat-trick and Johnny Warren and Ray Baartz got the others.

In the next game two days later Australia took on the host team, which was buoyed by a visit from the South Vietnamese Vice-President to their change rooms at half time, with an offer of a big reward for victory.

Johnny Warren scored the only goal of the game after 35 minutes. That left a third match against Singapore which was won comfortably by five goals to one. The Australian scorers were identical to those in the first match—three to Abonyi, and one each to Warren and Baartz.

The semi-final against Malaysia turned out to be the toughest yet with a brawl on the pitch after a Malaysian player kicked out at Tommy McColl and the police and military had to come on to the field to restore order. The match went into extra time and there were only three minutes left to play when Ray Baartz scored the goal which won the game.

In the final Australia came up against South Korea on 14 November. The match nearly did not take place after the team was informed that there was no space in the stadium for the Australian military personnel who had been a huge support to the players on and off the field. The Australians threatened not to take part.

As it turned out the service personnel were allowed in and the rest of the crowd supported Australia rather than the Koreans, much to the Aussies’ surprise. South Korea scored in the first minute but the Australians responded brilliantly.

Billy Vojtek produced a wonderful solo goal after 36 minutes and Abonyi and Warren added the others in a three-two win and the first international tournament victory for Australia.

Though mortar batteries could be heard in Saigon on most days, it was said at the time that there were so many Vietcong at the matches that there was no trouble at the Cong Hua stadium!

John Barclay, the tour manager, told the team he had put his head on the block for them. He overturned an Australian Soccer Federation decision that the team should return their official track suits at the conclusion of the tour!

The day after the victory the Australians went off to visit the troops in Vung Tau and played a game against them and then there were matches with Indonesia and New Zealand again in Malaysia on the way home.

The Australians played ten games on that tour and won them all. The camaraderie in the face of adversity was an important element in the mind-set which eventually helped the Australians to qualify for the World Cup in 1974.

The Sydney Cricket Ground Trust is hosting a lunch for the surviving members of the team on the 50th anniversary of the final on 14 November. This will be the first time they have been recognized collectively. Their story should be part of the national narrative.

The full story is in Roy Hay, Football and War: Australia and Vietnam 1967–1972, A Missing Part of the National Narrative, Sports and Editorial Services Australia, Bannockburn, Victoria, 2016.

Lead image

The Socceroos with their medals after having won the Vietnam tournament in 1967, standing from left: Attila Abonyi, Ray Richards, Manfred Schaefer, Dr Brian Corrigan, Roger Romanowicz, Gary Wilkins, Frank Micic (rear), Ray Baartz (crouching), Stan Ackerley (peaking through). Ron Corry, John Watkiss, Billy Vojtek (leaning forward), Ray Lloyd, Terry Smith (reporter), George Keith, Jim Connell (manager), Martin Royal (ABC reporter). Front: Tommy McColl, Johnny Warren, Lou Lazzari (masseur), Joe Vlasits (coach). Alan Westwater, Ted De Lyster, Tony Boskovic (referee).

Members of the travelling party in 1967

Players: Attila Abonyi , Stan Ackerley , Ray Baartz , Ron Corry , Ted De Lyster , George Keith , Ray Lloyd , Tommy McColl , Frank Micic , Ray Richards , Roger Romanowicz , Manfred Schaefer , Billy Vojtek , Johnny Warren , John Watkiss , Alan Westwater , Gary Wilkins.

Coaching and Support Staff and others

Joe Vlasits (coach), John Barclay (manager), Jim Connell (manager), Dr Brian Corrigan (doctor), Lou Lazzari (masseur), Tony Boskovic (referee), Tom Patrick (Qantas staff), Terry Smith (journalist), Martin Royal (commentator),

Don Woolford of AAP also covered the tour.

Nick Pantelis was selected, but had not yet been naturalised and was unable to travel.