The Socceroos' strange triumph

Ron Corry,  was a goalkeeper during a soccer tournament (which Australia won) held in the middle of the Vietnam war. Carss Bush Park 10th November 2017 Photo by Louise Kennerley smh
Ron Corry, was a goalkeeper during a soccer tournament (which Australia won) held in the middle of the Vietnam war. Carss Bush Park 10th November 2017 Photo by Louise Kennerley smh

The Quoc Khanh Cup was one Australia's least celebrated engagements with Asia - an international soccer tournament played in the midst of an active war zone.

Fifty years ago this week, with the Vietnam war in full swing, Australia's national soccer team, led by the late, legendary Johnny Warren, was dispatched to the capital of South Vietnam to play in the name of a propaganda victory.

"It looked insane when we were coming in to land," recalls Ron Corry, one of the Australian team's goalkeepers. "When we arrived you would see [military] aircraft and bomb craters.

"We were told that it was safe and that the war hadn't really hit Saigon, but it wasn't very far away. At night we used to be able to sit up on the roof and watch the tracer bullet flares go up and fly across the sky and you would hear the big guns."

Australia was one of eight teams in the National Day tournament, along with South Korea, New Zealand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand - all countries that supported hosts South Vietnam during the war.

The idea was cooked up by South Vietnamese football authorities, effectively an extension of the government.

The Australian army realised soccer was a powerful tool in engaging with the Vietnamese, and a visit to Australia by South Vietnam prime minister Air Vice-Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky in early 1967 sealed Australia's participation.

As a sporting event, the tournament was a major success for Australia. Coached by "Uncle" Joe Vlasits, Australia was undefeated, beating South Korea in the final in front of a full stadium to win its first trophy in Asia.

However, mystery still surrounds who was responsible for agreeing to send the Australians to a war zone in the first place.

Australia had failed to qualify for the 1966 World Cup in England after losing a play-off against North Korea in Cambodia in 1965. The Australian Soccer Federation was keen for the next generation - captained by Warren - to gain more experience in Asia ahead of qualifiers for the 1970 World Cup.

Saigon was perfect, but the Australian government's official role in arranging the wartime exercise is unclear.

"The matter was discussed up to Cabinet level but the file on the deliberations was never transferred to the National Archives and is now lost," says Deakin University historian Roy Hay, whose book Football and War: Australia and Vietnam 1967-1972 details the tournament.

"I had the late Malcolm Fraser, who was minister for the army at the time, on his hands and knees trying to find if there was anything in his files relating to the matter.

"Fraser was dead against civilian activities in Vietnam and wanted everything done by military people in the chain of command."

Saigon in 1967 was not the city it is today. The presidential palace was shelled as the Australian team arrived, and it was later revealed that Vietcong fighters were arrested for apparently attempting to blow up the South Korean team, who stayed at the same hotel as the Australians.

Johnny Warren would often speak about the Vietnam trip - publicly and privately - before his 2004 death and described players being warned about retrieving stray balls during training sessions because the adjoining fields were full of landmines.

Blasts and mortars could be heard during the night as the players tried to sleep. Mine detectors lined the pitch of the Cong Hoa (Republic) Stadium - today known as Thong Nhat (Reunification) Stadium - where the tournament was held.

During games, spectators were wary of young children approaching the stands in case they were carrying bombs. Two years earlier, an attack at the stadium had killed 11 Vietnamese, including four children, and injured 42.

Goalkeeper Corry, now 76, recalled that a friend from Australia met the team at the airport and helped arrange access to Australian military facilities in the city.

"My mate had been conscripted and was stationed at Saigon," says Corry.

"He organised for us to get into the army mess and have a decent meal and a beer and watch a movie. The Australian soldiers would tell us if we heard one shot, don't worry about it. If we heard two shots, get a little worried. If we heard three, hit the floor. The Vietcong would try to come in on bikes and leave bombs."

'It looked insane': Ron Corry at Carss Bush Park. He was a goalkeeper for the Socceroos during the Quoc Khanh Cup in 1967.

'It looked insane': Ron Corry at Carss Bush Park. He was a goalkeeper for the Socceroos during the Quoc Khanh Cup in 1967. Photo: Louise Kennerley

The Australians were warned by team doctor Brian Corrigan - the Australian Olympic team's top medic from 1968 to 1988 - not to drink Saigon's water and were told to instead to drink beer to hydrate.

"We didn't need much convincing," jokes Corry.

A Qantas representative travelling with the team secured access to US military facilities and the team ate with American and Australian soldiers in their mess halls. They would often have incongruous partings: the footballers would head in one direction to play soccer and the soldiers would go the other way, to war.

During the tournament the team flew to Vung Tau, an Australian logistics base south of Saigon, to meet Australian troops and play a match against them. The team flew in an RAAF Caribou and, according to a Sydney Morning Herald report at the time, players were told to ignore bullet holes in the aircraft.

"The Caribous had open doors at the back and we flew across the sea about 10 feet above the water," Corry says.

Warren wrote in his autobiography Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters that the trip occasionally resembled something out of a Hollywood war movie.

"Good Morning, Vietnam reminds me of the scenes we were thrown into," he recalled.

Far from the five-star luxury now afforded Australia's sporting teams, the Australians were billeted four to a room, sharing bunk beds. Two players received shocks from the hotel's rudimentary wiring.

"We built great camaraderie on that tour," says Corry, who later coached National Soccer League club Wollongong Wolves and was an assistant coach with A-League side Western Sydney Wanderers.

"That is lost with a lot of the Aussie teams. Everyone is more of a mercenary now. If they get beaten playing for Australia they're on the plane the next day home going off to get $10,000 a week [with their clubs].

"The players in our squad played with a passion for their country that you don't see now. Today, some of them don't play with passion - they are just playing another game."

According to Hay, there was not much pay at all. The Vietnam Football Federation paid the Australian team's airfares and accommodation during the tour. The Australian Soccer Federation requested a $10,000 subsidy from Australia's Department of External Affairs to cover some costs but it's not known if that money was ever received.

The players, most of whom had jobs at home, received $50 a week wages plus a weekly allowance of $10 during the trip. They were told they could keep their team tracksuits as a reward for winning the tournament.

Warren long maintained the trip's purpose was propaganda amid growing opposition at home to Australia's involvement in the war.

Gary Wilkins laces his boots before a training session in Saigon in 1967.

Gary Wilkins laces his boots before a training session in Saigon in 1967.

Hay recalls Noel St Clair Deschamps, Australian ambassador to Cambodia in 1965 when the Socceroos played North Korea, claiming the Australian team's presence was "worth at least ??100 million in foreign aid". He recommended the team tour South-East Asia annually.

"He had never been aware Australia had possessed such a powerful propaganda and goodwill weapon as its soccer team," said Hay.

While entertainers received public recognition as well as the Vietnam Logistic and Support Medal for performing in Vietnam, the Australian football team received nothing. In 2005, the government claimed only individuals who were under government or military jurisdiction during their time in Vietnam were eligible for official recognition. The tracksuits were all the soccer team would receive.

"I think we were probably in more danger than any of them," said Corry of the recognition celebrities and musicians received for visiting troops.

"We were right in it while the entertainers would be out at the army bases, which were pretty well protected. Someone has said that we should get a medal but I don't know. It could have been dangerous but we considered it more of an adventure."

Australia's first ever international soccer trophy, moments after it was presented to the Socceroos by South Vietnamese president Thieu.

Australia's first ever international soccer trophy, moments after it was presented to the Socceroos by South Vietnamese president Thieu.

Within a few months of the tournament, much had changed. Australian prime minister Harold Holt was dead, the Tet offensive was underway and anti-war activism was on the rise.

For the players, though, the Vietnam National Day tournament would live on.

Every year until his death, Warren would receive a Christmas card from teammate Atti Abonyi: "Remember the tunnel in Vietnam."

The quip referred to the Australian team's entrance to the playing field in front of a huge crowd before the 1967 final.

"I still remember the hairs standing up on the back of my neck," Warren recalled.

This story The Socceroos' strange triumph first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.