• John O'Neill and Frank Lowy at the launch of the A-League in November 2004 (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Former Football Federation Australia chief executive John O'Neill will be a very proud man when he attends the gala night to mark the 10th anniversary of Australia's victory over Uruguay that gave the Socceroos a ticket to the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.
By
Philip Micallef

16 Nov 2015 - 9:30 AM  UPDATED 16 Nov 2015 - 10:38 AM

As one of the main architects behind the renaissance of the much-maligned game in Australia, O'Neill derives great satisfaction from the significant strides the game has made since that epic night in Sydney on 16 November 2005 when the Socceroos won a penalty shootout to give the game a massive shot in the arm.

O'Neill, who was chairman Frank Lowy's right-hand man from February 2004 to January 2007, is not at all surprised by the game's renewed stature because he knew all along that once the genie was out of the bottle you could not put it back in.

O'Neill comes from a rugby union background but he is a big fan of football and like everyone of us he will never forget the night Guus Hiddink's Socceroos come of age and put Australia on the world football map.

It was a seminal moment in the history of the Australian game: thousands must have watched SBS's edited replay of that spine-tingling contest on Sunday afternoon.

O'Neill was only too happy to reminisce on his time in football in a candid interview that underlined his unbridled passion for the game he grew to love.

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What is your lasting memory of that very special night?

"The memory of that night will last forever. It looms large as one of the greatest sporting events we've ever seen in this country.

"It ranks with Cathy Freeman's gold medal in 2000 and other outstanding sporting events.

"The event had incredible intensity and for us it was a case of 'either the penthouse or the outhouse' and there was nowhere in between.

"The football fans had been waiting 32 years for the Socceroos to qualify for the World Cup.

"The pent-up emotion and passion were as intense as I had ever seen.

"The pandemonium that broke out after John Aloisi kicked the decisive final penalty was reflective of all the hopes and prayers of a whole nation.

"I've been to a lot of sporting events but I never witnessed such an unleashing of emotion."

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Did you fully realise then what that win would do to football in this country?

"That match was an important part of a much larger landscape. In the first three years of football's renaissance we had three aims: starting the A-League, getting into Asia and qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.

"People would say to me 'what would have happened if we hadn't qualified? What was Plan B?'

"Well, Plan B did exist and it would have been to concentrate on and emphasise the importance of the A-League as well as realising that the path of qualification to 2010 was through Asia not Oceania.

"The truth is that the trifecta (A-League, Asia and Socceroos) was the perfect outcome, the perfect storm.

"So if you ask me if I thought football would be where it is 10 years later the answer is 'yes'.

"Frank Lowy and myself laid the foundations for a strong domestic competition, the strategic importance of being part of Asia and for the national team to be at the big table, sitting with the best 32 teams in the world.

"From the moment I joined football I knew there was something special about the sport.

"We just needed to plug into the sport's competitive advantages such a massive participation base and a much larger following than anyone realised.

"It was almost subterranean but once you let the genie out of the bottle you could not put it back in again."

You come from a rugby background. How do you see football from a union perspective?

"It's a sport that has been transformed in the true sense of transformation into a much-loved mainstream Australian sport.

"And it has taken advantage of its large participation base and built a very strong club competition and a national team that everyone follows and loves.

"It also plays in the AFC, which is the largest and fastest growing confederation in world football.

"If you are from the AFL, rugby league or rugby union you have to sit back and say 'this is the real deal'.

"Football is a massive competitor that appeals to mums and dads, boys and girls.

"Its potential was always there but it needed to break out."

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What was the hardest obstacle you had to overcome?

"Easy answer. It was a challenge as much as an obstacle. Although football claimed to be a mass enterainment sport in truth when I arrived in 2004 there was no content.

"The NSL had been dismantled, the Socceroos had not played at home for 30 months and therefore I faced the blank canvas of talking to broadcasters Fox, SBS and whoever and we actually had nothing to sell.

"They could not understand what I was talking about.

"So the biggest challenge was to create a league competition and get the Socceroos to play games in Australia which we organised."

Has football as a 'domestic and international' package overtaken rugby in terms of popularity?

"The steps are already there. In terms of football codes, off the top of my head AFL is one, rugby league is two, football is three and rugby is four.

"If you go through statistics in terms of participation, attendances and popularity football is unarguably third but closing in on the other two."

Do you miss the football environment?

"Very much so. It was an extraordinary three years. I'm very proud of what Frank and I and others did in that time.

"I follow the game very closely and I am an absolutely dedicated disciple of football."

What about Frank Lowy, do you miss working with him?

"Yes I do and I say that with a smile on my face. There are many things I miss about football and working with Frank was one of the truly great experiences.

"We enjoyed a special and unique partnership and out of that came incredibly great achievements.

"He was inspirational and the absolute leader, I was the junior partner. Frank is the founding father of new football.

"We may have had our moments but our respect and admiration for each other remain unchanged."

The black tie function on the pitch at ANZ Stadium, the venue of the defining match against Uruguay, will also honour outgoing chairman Lowy, who leaves the game on Tuesday after 12 game-changing years at the helm.