At Height Of Vietnam War, Australia Tried Soccer Diplomacy

Download Audio
The Australia team that prevailed in Vietnam's "Friendship Tournament" led the way for the program's first World Cup qualification in 1974. (AP Photo)
Before the Australian men's soccer team's first World Cup appearance in 1974 (pictured above), the team competed at an international competition in Saigon during the Vietnam War. (AP)

"It was one of these stories that you heard at a bar with colleagues and ex-players, and you thought, 'Is this really true? Could this really be a thing? Surely this didn’t actually happen,' " sports journalist Davidde Corran says. "Except that it really did actually happen. It really was the way that they told it."

It was November 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, when an international football tournament was held in Saigon. Eight nations would compete: New Zealand, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, then South Vietnam and Australia.

Not 'Just A Football Tournament'

"The Australian military came up with the idea of using football as sort of a vehicle to kind of connect with the local communities," Davidde says. "This wasn’t just a football tournament. There were other motives."

"We were the pawns in the game to win over the South Vietnamese people, so it was a PR exercise," says Ray Baartz, a former Australian national team player, from 1967 to 1974.

After making his national team debut earlier in the year, Ray was one of the players selected for a six-week tour of Asia — of which, two weeks were spent in Saigon for the Friendship Tournament, otherwise known as the South Vietnam National Day Tournament.

It’s hard to imagine now, in the current era, with Australia competing in consecutive World Cups and Asian Cups. But in 1967, the Socceroos had never even qualified for a World Cup, let alone won an international trophy.

"This was before the Socceroos were even called the 'Socceroos,' " Ray says.

There was little time for the players to think about the potential dangers of sending civilians into a war zone.

"I think it was about a matter of weeks. We’re on the plane off to Vietnam. We didn’t have too many discussions about it," says Stan Ackerley, who represented Australia from 1965 to 1969. "These days, you would think twice about going. When you got a young family — well, we had one daughter at the time. My missus encouraged me to go. I was only a youngster, mid-20s. But being young and ambitious, all right, well, off we went to Vietnam."

"Probably a little bit naive that we were going to a country that was in the middle of war," Ray says. "But at no stage did I think that it was going to be dangerous."

"Then they landed in Vietnam and were immediately confronted with the reality of what they had walked into and that started to change their understanding of what they were being asked to do," Davidde says.

'Hello, We Are In The Middle Of A War Zone'

"Well, the first, biggest shock we got was the amount of armed people we saw — soldiers, sentry points all over the place," Stan says.

"Bombers here, and fighter planes here, there and everywhere," Ray says. "You thought, 'Hello, we are in the middle of a war zone,' you know? And we got through the airport, and then into the bus to take us to the hotel and had a police escort all the way."

"You hear a fair bit of shooting going on," Stan continues. "It had taken a couple of days for us to, you know, get used to it."

"They went to this briefing at the embassy, and one of the things they were told was, 'Be careful of people riding on bikes because it might be someone who’s a threat, and they could mistake you for an American or a soldier and attack you and shoot you,' " Davidde says. "Which, you know, might seem like reasonable advice, except that these players, in this completely new surrounding, walk out of the Australian Embassy, and what do they see? Just a city filled with people riding around on bikes."

"You know, to be on the bus and whizzing around through the streets and avoiding all the motorbikes and the traffic of Saigon, and the poverty that was quite obvious around, and the number of people and whatever," Ray says, "when we got to the hotel, we had a lovely welcome from the Vietnamese people. The hotel was very basic."

Basic is one way to put it. The players discovered the proprietor of their hotel had stolen their food vouchers, leaving them with nothing but substitute ham. And Stan received an electric shock, thanks to exposed wires in his room.

Even the training pitch was questionable.

"The training field was a real quagmire at the best of times, so you couldn’t train there all the time because of the conditions and that," Ray says. "It was really a cow paddock. You know, quite often we’d train on the roof of the hotel, just to keep the body moving a little bit. We weren’t allowed to train on the main stadium."

"You thought, 'Hello, we are in the middle of a war zone,' you know?"

Ray Baartz

"There would have been this surreal sight during this short period of the Vietnam War, where footballs were just falling off the top of this building, this hotel, every day during training," Davidde says.

What’s more, it was later revealed that they escaped an even greater threat.

"A number of Viet Cong were caught trying to break into our hotel to set off explosives on the floor where the South Koreans were. And, of course, we were above them," Ray says.

'Then All Hell Broke Loose'

The tournament began with a group stage. Australia was drawn into Group A alongside New Zealand, Singapore and hosts South Vietnam.

"The army was going around the stadium with mine detectors and so forth, and then you think, 'Oh, hello,' " Ray says.

Australia opened the tournament against New Zealand. It was monsoon season, and the humidity was extreme.

"It was hard to play good football on the ground because the ground was so heavy," Ray recalls. "So it was more of a physical encounter, more so than a technical game, I guess you could say."

Australia defeated New Zealand, 5-3. Two days later, the Australians faced South Vietnam.

"Which was kind of an interesting match because, you know, it was a packed stadium — the hosts against Australia," Davidde says. "Johnny Warren, the famous Australian football legend, an identity of Australian football, put Australia ahead in the first half after 35 minutes. And then all hell broke loose.

"There was trouble in the stands. The riot police had to get involved. The crowd were going — you know, were very, very upset. The players said that tear gas was even released, and they were feeling pretty uncomfortable on the field there.

"At halftime, the South Vietnamese president, Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, went to the home side’s dressing room to give them, not just a kind of pick-me-up talk, but, in fact, offered them money to turn the result around. But it wasn’t enough. Australia held on for a 1-0 win."

"After the game, we were still in the dressing room, and they started to throw rocks at the dressing room and carry on," Ray says. "And from memory, I think, we were kept in the dressing shed for an hour or two hours after the game, until the police dispersed with the crowd and so forth."

"So there was that real kind of sense of, 'This isn’t just another football match,' " Davidde says. "This is really kicking off in a way that these players had never experienced before.

"In the semifinals, Australia met Malaysia. This was a really tight, cagey affair. There was a moment in the first half where security personnel had to come in and break up a brawl between the players because of a challenge one of the Malaysians had made on a Socceroo. So this was continuing the trend of challenging, difficult circumstances the Australians found themselves in."

Nil-all at the end of 90 minutes, Australia finally managed to break the deadlock 27 minutes into extra time, thanks to Ray Baartz.

"I don’t even remember the game to be honest with you," Ray says. "Did I score, did I?"

"It was one-nil. You scored the winner, Ray," I remind him.

"I scored the winner, did I? Oh, I had a great game and scored a great goal," he says, laughing.

Australia Vs. South Korea

Australia were through to the final on Nov. 14, where they would face South Korea. Before the match, the players were offered an incentive, if they were to win the tournament.

"Well, it had come from the manager, John Barclay, actually," Ray says. "Once we made the final, John said, 'Look,' he said 'I probably haven’t got the authority to do this, but I’m taking it on my own bat that if you guys win the final, you can keep your tracksuits.' "

"And you gotta bear in mind that these players — a lot of these players were playing for the national team unpaid," Davidde says. "You’re taking annual leave to go and play for the national team — you’re sacrificing to play for the national team. Let alone the fact that they’d gone into a war zone and very much left their comfort zone on a mission that was in the best interests of the Australian government and the Australian military."

The Australian team’s PR mission had, in some ways, managed to work.

The Vietnamese people had just seen their own team eliminated in the other semifinal. They also loathed the South Korean soldiers. So they began cheering for the Australians.

And for the first time in Australian football history, the Socceroos had a chance to win an international trophy.

South Korea managed to take an early lead in the final, but Australia rallied to claim a 3-2 victory and the nation's first piece of silverware.

"Oh, it was fantastic," Stan says. "You couldn’t ask for anything better."

"To be part of the first tournament that we ever won was fantastic," Ray says. "You know, we were all so thrilled and so proud to be a part of it."

The magnitude of Australia’s performance in the Friendship Tournament cannot be overstated. Not only did they perform on the pitch, but they did it in remarkable circumstances, and all for the honor of representing their country.

"To play for your country, you have to sacrifice a lot," Stan says. "So we sacrificed a lot, you know? A lot of kids ask me these days, 'Oh, you played for Australia. You must have got a lot of money?' No, no, no, no, no — you don’t. You play for Australia to do one thing: to represent your country."

And in doing so, they created a legacy for Australian football. As Davidde explains, the spirit of this team would live on through to 1974 and beyond.

"The nucleus of these players formed the group that would go on to help Australia qualify for its first-ever World Cup in 1974," he says. "So this tournament really helped forge their identity as a national team, their willingness to fight and work together and be together and also be friends because they went through so much. You still see it to this day, that when the Socceroos get together, there is like a friendship and a bond amongst the playing group — that this is something that really matters. And the foundations for that were laid, quite remarkably, during the Vietnam War, during this tournament."

This segment aired on February 24, 2018.


James Parkinson Reporter
James Parkinson is a contributor to Only A Game.



More from Only A Game

Listen Live