22: Tour of Duty

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It was November 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War when an international football tournament was held in Saigon - and Australia's national team was sent to compete. 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Ray: The first few days there, we were really struggling. The food was horrendus, you couldn’t drink the water.

Stan: Before the games, you saw them going across the pitch with land mine detectors, to see if any land mines had been put on the pitches, you know?

Davidde: It was one of those stories that you heard at bar with colleagues and ex-players and you thought, “is this really true, could this really be a thing?”. You know, you laughed and thought, “that’s amazing” and you were like, “surely this didn’t actually happen”, it’s not the way that they said it. Except that it really did actually happen, it really was the way that they told it.

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James: I'm James Parkinson and this is By Association, a show about football and the human connection behind the beautiful game.

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.

Davidde: The Australian military came up with the idea of using football as sort of a vehicle to kind of connect with the local communities, which is something that they’d obviously struggled to do with all the language and social barriers. And they thought of this idea of sending the Australian National Team to go and compete in this friendship tournament in the country, in Saigon.

James: That’s sports journalist, Davidde Corran.

Davidde: This wasn’t just a football tournament. There were other motives that the Australian military had in sending them out there. They weren’t just going to play football, they were going out as, kind of ambassadors of the Australian cause and the military cause that the Australian armed forces were a part of in Vietnam.

Ray: We were the pawns in the game to win over the South Vietnamese people because the infiltration of the Viet Cong in those days was you know, quite substantial. So it was a PR exercise - not only just a football tournament put on to, you know, play football, it was obviously a political vehicle as well.

James: This is Ray Baartz.

Ray: Yeah, hi I’m Ray Baartz. I’m a former Socceroo. I played with the Australian National Team from 1967 to 1974.

James: After making his 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.

Ray: It was a very young team, a squad of 17. I think the average age would have been probably only 21 or 22. I was only 20 years of age at the time.

James: Once the tournament was organised and the squad selected, there was little time to think about the potential dangers of sending civilians into a war zone.

Stan: I think it was about a matter of weeks. We just finished playing the season, couple of runs and that’s it. We’re on the plane off to Vietnam. We didn’t have too many discussions about it.

James: This is Stan Ackerley. He represented Australia from 1965 to 69’ after emigrating from England in 1963.

Stan: These days, you would think twice about going. When you got a young family - well, we had one daughter at the time. My ‘Mrs’ encouraged me to go.

I was only a youngster, mid-twenties. But being young and ambitious, alright well, off we went to Vietnam.

Davidde: I think, 1960s...it was a little bit easier logistically and in terms of red tape to get a bunch of football teams to play in a competition in a warzone. It’s very hard to imagine this thing being repeated in modern times.

Ray: At no stage was I nervous about going to Vietnam or going to Asia. Probably a little bit naive that we were going to a country that was in the middle of war. But at no stage did I think that it was going to be dangerous.

We had two weeks in camp, so we sorta had preparation to you know, get to know each other, you know, and then before we knew it we were on the plane. So yeah, it all happened pretty quickly so we didn’t have a great deal of time to think about you know, any danger that we were going into.

Davidde: 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.

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Stan: Well, the first biggest shock we got was the amount of armed people we saw; soldiers, sentry points all over the place. One hell of a shock to everybody, you know.

Ray: One we arrived in Saigon and saw the might of the American Airforce and everything there that was in Saigon and bombers here and fighter planes here, there and everywhere, you thought “hello, we are in the middle of a warzone”, 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.

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

Davidde: The airport they landed was one of the busiest military airports in the world. Combat operations were being launched from that airport. The players talked about being about to hear the, you know, artillery being fired, there was numerous, like, attacks that would take place, isolated attacks that would take place within Saigon. They weren’t in the heart of it but there was certainly fighting very close to where they were and operations being launched from where they were.

They went to this briefing at the embassy on their very first day where they were told about things they had to be careful for, how to be safe and things to look out for. And one of the things they were told was be careful of people riding on bikes because they might - 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. 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. So, it wasn’t exactly the most reassuring news.

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Ray: You know, to be on the bus and whizzing around through the streets and avoiding the motorbikes and the traffic of Saigon, and you know, the poverty that was quite obvious around and the number of people and whatever. When we got to the hotel we had a lovely welcome from the Vietnamese people. The hotel was very basic, it was just you know, no air conditioning of course, no TV’s in those days. You know, we got into our hotel room - just a tiled room with a bed and you know, crisp white sheets and that. And that was about it, other than the lizards crawling around here, there and everywhere. So, you know, by today’s standard it was very basic but it was just Asia in those days, you know, so it was a real eye-opener to us.

James: As the players began to settle in, the difficulties of the situation only increased. From a waterlogged training pitch to inadequate food.

Stan: The food in the hotel was below average.

Davidde: The proprietor of their hotel had kind of taken their food coupons and only left very basic stuff for them. So they ended up being fed substitute ham.

Ray: The training field was a real quagmire at the best of times so you know, you couldn’t train there all the time because of the conditions and that. 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, you know. We weren’t allowed to train on the main stadium.

Davidde: 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.

James: And as Stan discovered, their hotel even had exposed wires.

Stan: I had naturally been trying out new boots, I’d been in the shower getting the new boots broken in. Came out of the shower, I went to put the light on and next minute I was on the other side of the room and got an electric shock.

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

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

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

Ray: Well first of all, I remember going to the stadium with the police escort and so forth. And then when we got to the stadium, the Army was going around the stadium with mine detectors and so forth and then you think, “oh hello”, you know, “things could get a little bit dodgy here”. But you know, once again, once we got through, you know into the dressing room, we got changed and onto the field it was just a normal game situation and that.

Davidde: So Australia opened the tournament against New Zealand.

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

James: Despite the challenging conditions of monsoon season and the extreme humidity, Australia defeated New Zealand 5-3 on the 5th of November. Young forward, Atti Abonyi leading the way with a hat trick on debut for the Socceroos.

Two days later, the Australians faced South Vietnam.

Davidde: Which was kind of an interesting match because, you know, it was a packed stadium, the hosts against Australia. A bit of a loaded match, if you consider the political issues around that kind of tie. 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 you know, they were feeling pretty uncomfortable on the field there.

Stan: They were used to the conditions, we wasn’t, by a long, long, long way. We were, you know, outsiders.

Ray: I know it was a tough game and I know it was heavy going and I know we were exhausted after the game.

Davidde: 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.

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

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

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James: Australia’s final group match was a 5-1 victory over Singapore and the easiest test they had had so far. Abonyi scored scored his second hat trick of the tournament to see them through to the Semi Finals.

Ray: A lot easier game, yeah. They weren’t, you know, obviously as tough of an opponent as the previous two were and that. So we were a lot more comfortable with that game.

Davidde: In the Semi Finals, 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.

Ray: I guess some of our guys might have been a bit more physical than you know, what they were used to, which could have, you know, caused a reaction on their part.

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

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

James: It was one-nil, you scored the winner, Ray!

Ray: I scored the winner, did I? Oh I had a great game and scored a great goal haha!

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

Ray: Well, it had come from the manager, John Barclay actually. 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”.

Davidde: There wasn’t money incentive, they didn’t say “Oh we’ll give you money” or “when you get home we’ll help you out with this” or anything like that. It was, hey, you can keep the clothes you’re wearing right now if you like. And you gotta bear in mind that these players - a lot of these players were playing for the national team unpaid. You know, 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 that’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.

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James: South Korea would prove to be Australia’s toughest opponent of the tournament but by this stage, the Socceroos had gained the support of the local fans.

Ray: I know that we were in awe of South Korea, because they were very impressive right through the whole tournament.

Davidde: Lee Young-Kewn put South Korea ahead after just one minute. But Australia rallied and in the end they claimed the title with a 3-2 win. And that was Australia’s first major trophy that an Australian national team had won. 1967, a long time before Australia was a part of the Asian Football Confederation, Australia had claimed a trophy in Asia. So it was a pretty significant moment for, not just these players, but also Australian football.

Stan: Oh it’s fantastic. Let’s face it, if you win your first ever trophy in international tournament, like me, for your adopted country, it was fantastic. You couldn’t ask for anything better.

Ray: We were absolutely thrilled. And you know, to be part of the first you know, tournament that we ever won and especially after the debacle of the previous World Cup campaign, was fantastic. You know, we were all so thrilled and so proud to be a part of it.

Stan: There’s more to it than just going out and playing a game. It was a credit to all the lads, you know when they got there, got their minds on the job and did a good job. And come away with what we did, winning the tournament.

James: A long night of celebrations followed, before a final day of relaxation prior to heading home.

Davidde: The players went back to the hotel and they stayed up drinking and lot of the players stayed up throughout the night. And then the next day before they flew home, they went to the airport and were picked up by a Caribou, which was an Australian military transport plane at the time.

Ray: We had a day spare before we flew out of Saigon and the Australian Army asked us if we’d go down to Vung Tau and just spend time with the troops down there, where the main troop base was for the Australian boys. So we said, yeah only too happy to. So we went out next day to the airport and we’d sort of had a few beers the night before to celebrate and we weren’t feeling too good.

Davidde: And the pilot of the plane knew that they were really hungover, a lot of the players. So he opened the back of the plane, the bay door, so they could see the beach beneath them as they came in to land and then he kind of flew in as low as he possibly could, you know with the water and the beachfront just beneath them.

Ray: To get the reception that we got from the troops down there and we mingled with them all day that that was really satisfying to be able to do that and contribute.

Davidde: It’s a nice image of these young men who had just won the first trophy in Australian football history, sitting by the beach with a bunch of Australian soldiers having a barbecue. It’s seems like a quintessentially Australian way of going about things.

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James: The magnatude of Australia’s performance in the Friendship Tournament cannot be understaded. Not only did they perform on the pitch, but they did it in remarkable circumstances, and all for the honour of representing their country.

Davidde: They didn’t go to Vietnam to serve, right? They weren’t on the frontlines, they weren’t fighting and a great many Australians went over there to put themselves in even - in much more horrifying circumstances and suffered even greater toles. But these players did go to a place that you know, civilians weren’t meant to be going, this wasn’t a place where footballers should be playing football.

Ray: We were all part time players, we all held down full time jobs and you know, our club comittments were three or four nights a week training.

Stan: To play for your country you have to sacrifice a lot. 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.

Davidde: This was about representing the national team, it was about their love of the game, their love of playing at the highest level that they possibly could. That’s why they went over there, because they were asked to, because that’s what they were requested to do. Because they played for their national team and that was a great honour and when you’re asked, you go. You know, for them it was a special opportunity and they were proud and happy to go and experience it.

James: And in doing so, they created a legacy for Australian football. The spirit of this team would live on through to 1974 and beyond.

Stan: The morale in the team was absoloutely brilliant. We were basically one big family. All the lads stuck together off the pitch, that was the biggest thing, togetherness off the pitch.

Ray: Because of the team spirit we always sort of mixed well, we had a lot of laughs a lot of practical jokes and everything. So, you know they talk about pioneers and so forth, I think this team set the standard and set the team spirit for future Australian teams. This was before the Socceroos were even called the “Socceroos”, you know. So, this was such a bonding experience, if you know what I mean, that I think remained with the Australian team many years after that.

Davidde: The nucleus of these players formed the group that would go on to help Australia qualify for its first ever World Cup in 1974. Not only was it some of the same players, this trip in particular and a couple of others around the time helped form sort of the team bonding and the mateship and identity of the Socceroos and the National Team that has very much carried on to this day. So this tournament really helped forge their like, 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, when the Socceroos get together for a major event and a major tournament, there is like a frienship 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.

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James: By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson. Many thanks to Davidde Corran, Stan Ackerley and Ray Baartz. And special thanks to Brogan Renshaw for production help on this episode.

This story was inspired by Davidde Corran’s brilliant article by the same name in The Blizzard. It’s beautifully written so go have a read. You’ll find a direct link in the show notes and on our website.

Music featured in this story comes from Lee Rosevere, The Freeharmonic Ochestra, Chris Zabriskie, Josh Woodward and Little Glass Men, under Creative Commons.

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