Australia midfielder Les Scheinflug, who captained the national team in their first attempt to qualify for the FIFA World Cup in 1965, said the Socceroos' campaign to reach France 98 was 'sabotaged' by several players who were not fully match fit to face Iran.
Scheinflug, who is now 79, was Soccer Australia's technical director during the campaign headed by English coach Terry Venables.
The Australians were two up and cruising to victory over Iran at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in November 1997 but the team conceded two late goals for a 2-2 draw that crushed their dream of playing in the finals.
Several critics blamed Venables for not trying to protect a 2-0 lead in the latter stages of the game but Scheinflug is not one of them.
"I was technical director during our campaign to reach France," Scheinflug said.
"Many blame Venables for the Socceroos draw that cost us a place in France. They claim we should have defended a two-goal lead but it is the players who were not completely honest with him that are to blame.
"Some of the players who were based abroad and were not playing regularly were not straight with the coach about their match fitness.
"I will not mention names but some of those who faced Iran were not fully match fit. Those days we did not have enough equipment to check the players' physical and medical condition.
"These players let Venables down because they did not give him the right information. The trained but they were not 100 per cent match fit."
German-born Scheinflug, who was never one to mince his words, lives in Sydney's west and spoke at length about the Australian game then and now.
What are you doing now?
"I am very busy looking after my 52-year-old daughter who has Parkinson's Disease. I am not completely cut off from the game because whenever I get time I go to training sessions and local matches to watch some individuaI players. I also help players and coaches who seek my advice."
You came to Australia in the mid-1950s. What was it like to be a footballer in Australia those days?
"I came out with my father and mother in 1955. I was one of the few who played in the old association before I switched to the new federation. I played for Sydney Prague and we had some very good foreigners like Austrian forwards Leo Baumgartner and Herbert Ninaus.
"I learned a lot from the experienced imports and it was good to have them around. We did not get too much publicity those 'wogball and sheilas' days. We used to get three paragraphs in the paper and no television but we regularly drew crowds of 15,000 for Ampol Cup matches at our home ground Sydney Athletic Field, which was a good venue.
"We were a top side, better technically than today's A-League teams but not so physically. Today's players are essentially workhorses and fitness fanatics but they lack mental intelligence ... when to run or not and when to attack or defend and so on.
"Our game was seen as 'foreign' those days. But this never bothered us players. We ere young and if somebody talked too much we would tell them where to go so it was never a problem. We just loved the game so we never got involved in anything stupid."
Which teams were Prague's biggest rivals in the 1950s and 1960s?
"Our games with Sydney Hakoah and St George Budapest were usually fiercely contested but there were other strong teams later on like Yugal and Auburn. And Melbourne teams were always strong because they too had some top foreigners. Australia was the golden country those days, You found gold in the street."
What are your best recollections of playing for Prague?
"We had committee members who loved the game and dipped into their pockets to put money into the game, unlike today when everybody is spending somebody else's money except their own. Football in those days was good to me with many great stories. I was Prague captain for seven seasons during which we won many trophies. I was once footballer of the year."
FIFA banned Australia's football association for three years from 1960 because of its practice of poaching players from Europe and refusing to pay transfer fees. To what extent did this affect the game here?
"Most players hardly ever got paid under the old association, perhaps they got a pound or two at the most. And they never got a clearance from their clubs. Once you signed up you did so for life.
"When the breakaway federation was formed Australia was out of FIFA but the players started getting what they deserved. I made a comfortable living out of the game."
The records show that Australia were two matches away from reaching the 1966 FIFA World Cup but in reality they were miles away when they played North Korea, right?
"I still say that we could have matched the Koreans with better preparation and more knowledge about them and the conditions in neutral Cambodia which is where we played the two matches (6-1 and 3-1). We were in camp for four weeks in north Queensland but we never played any serious preparation matches. All we did was run in the morning and in the afternoon because we knew Phnom Penh would be hot. We never saw the ball."
Tell us more about that eye-opening trip to Cambodia.
"We could have done much better with a coach who could give us more information about the opposition and a doctor who could advise us what not to eat and drink in Cambodia. Seven of us had diarrhoea on the day of the match and we could not get up the next morning. We were buggered.
"As far as I'm concerned I played both games with a badly damaged ankle after I got injured in a meaningless trial against an all-age team in Ingham. We should have played trials against strong teams and for this reason we were outplayed by the Koreans. I scored in both games but were were never in it after the first game."
How come you were overlooked for the 1970 World Cup campaign?
"The ankle injury I suffered in that trial in Ingham affected my career. It was never handled properly and I was given injections to be able to play against Korea. When I came back from Cambodia it got worse and I did not play for nearly a year. I was given more injections but it never healed properly. I missed the trip to Vietnam for the friendship tournament in 1967 and that was it."
Was it hard to watch the Socceroos crash in the playoff against Israel?
"It is always hard to watch the team of your country lose. But it must be said that the players were not well looked after those days. They were semi-professionals but never got any help from the government. They were playing against full-time professionals."
Which was the highlight of your career and the low point?
"Playing for Prague, the best team in Australia, is up there among my finest memories. Being involved with the national team was always special. I was captain for the Socceroos' first attempt to reach the World Cup.
"The ankle injury I suffered in that match in Ingham was the low point without doubt. Nobody knew how to fix it and those days you could not have surgery, which was unfortunate. They also gave me cortisone injections after the ankle injury turned into an Achilles tendon problem but that really stuffed me up. I was never the same again."
You have coached Australia at every level from the under-17s to the senior team. Who were the most exciting players you have ever worked with?
"Ned Zelic, Paul Okon, Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell were top performers who had a great attitude and temperament and would never be intimidated by hostile crowds because they were used to playing in front of big crowds every week in Europe. We used to put them under pressure in different conditions at training to find out who could and could not take it but nothing worried them. They were mentally strong players ... they were doers."
What do you think of the Socceroos' performance in Russia?
"I give credit to coach Bert van Marwijk, who should not have been there in the first place, anyway. He had little time to work with but after watching his players in camp in Turkey for three weeks he knew exactly what type of game best suited their qualities. He urged them to play out from the back, keep the ball for as long as possible and sit back for a while when under pressure then go again. But they were unable to score goals, which is nothing new."
How do you rate the state of Australian football?
"The Dutch experiment has failed badly. How much money have we invested in the Dutch in 16 years since Frank Lowy took over and what have we achieved?
"Why did we have to invest $5m on van Marwijk and his two assistants? Why did we take 40 people from head office to the World Cup? That's about $15m spent on an exercise that could have been done by an Australian coach. After Ange Postecoglou quit last year, FFA should have appointed his assistant Ante Milicic and Tony Popovic.
"We are always screaming for an Australian coach and yet we went for a foreigner. And you know why? Because the FFA since the early days of Lowy believe that any banana from Europe is better than an Aussie coach.
"We should do away with curriculums designed by foreign coaches and concentrate on what we do best and what comes naturally for us.
"Our players are not encouraged to improvise and they have too many defensive duties that stop them from being themselves. Australian players are at their best when they are allowed to have a go in attack but unfortunately these days they are not given the freedom to do so. You cannot play with handcuffs.
"The appointment of Graham Arnold is a step in the right direction but why does he have to have Dutchman Rene Meulensteen as his assistant?"
Finally, who are the best players you have played with and against?
"Baumgartner was the best. He demanded the ball and would tell you 'go fetch the ball yourself' if it did not come to his feet and when you passed the ball to him he would just go, beat two men and have a crack at goal. He was dynamite.
"I faced England international striker Peter Osgood twice when Chelsea toured Australia in 1965. He scored a smashing goal against us. I also played for NSW against Venables during the same Chelsea tour."
LES SCHEINFLUG FACTFILE
1957-1968: Sydney Prague
1965-1968: Australia (6 matches)