• Socceroos legend Rale Rasic. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The World Game's series on Socceroos stars who left their mark on football down under comes to an end. Five years after kicking off proceedings, we pay a fitting tribute to master motivator Rale Rasic ... a true icon of our game who put Australia on the world map.
Philip Micallef

SBS The World Game
14 Jun 2021 - 12:36 PM  UPDATED 14 Jun 2021 - 12:36 PM

Rale Rasic never kicked a ball in anger for the green and gold yet after taking a set of semi-professional footballers to the dizzy heights of the 1974 FIFA World Cup he can justifiably be regarded as the greatest Socceroo of them all.

He put Australia on the world map and his ground-breaking contribution to our game in Australia will never be forgotten.

The Bosnian-born defender, who played in Yugoslavia's first division, came to Australia in 1962 as a complete stranger yet eight years later his reputation as a coach with a brilliant mind was such that he was entrusted with the national team's fortunes at the age of 34.

Rasic gave the Socceroos' environment a new lease of life and their combined efforts were rewarded when Australia reached the finals in West Germany against all the odds.

Rasic, who was always his own man, had to overcome many hard battles on and off the field to realise his and the players' dreams.

His was a managerial style that sometimes put him offside with Australian Soccer Federation officials who were accustomed to having a major say in how the Socceroos were managed. Rasic, you see, was not merely the coach but the 'manager'.

But Rasic stuck to his guns throughout his tenure although his approach came at a heavy cost because after the Socceroos were eliminated from the World Cup, he was unceremoniously dumped ... while he was still in Germany.

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Rasic, who is now 85, still lives in Sydney where he is producing six films of 45 minutes each about his life since being an orphan in Bosnia.

He was more than happy to give an insight into the Socceroos' uplifting journey that made world headlines and won the hearts of hundreds of thousands of Australians.

What sort of environment did you find within the national team set-up and what needed to change?

"Being me, and knowing that one day I would be national coach, I had been examining everything that previous coach Joe Vlasits was doing. For example, when the Socceroos lost 1-0 to Israel in Tel Aviv in the first leg of a playoff in the 1970 World Cup qualifying campaign the players were allowed to go home instead of staying in a camp to prepare for the return in Sydney 10 days later. The federation should have organised a camp and hotel so the team could prepare properly for the second leg.

"That was not the way I wanted to operate. As soon as I got appointed, I made a hotel in Sydney our 'home' and I made sure that whenever we were in the hotel we got the best rooms at the back and away from the noisy highway and the players were treated well at breakfast and during meals with fruit available 24/7. One day the hotel manager rang the federation to find out who would pay for all that and he got a firm reply from federation president Arthur George: 'Give the bastard everything he asks for ... we'll pay'.

"Throughout the 1974 campaign I also wanted the boys to train three times a day, not just once as had been the custom. They used to wake up at 6.30 for a run, then have a training session in the late morning and another one in the early evening. The idea I wanted to convey was that I provided everything for the players but in return they needed to work hard to achieve our goal."

The charge to the 1974 World Cup is the stuff of legend. It was some journey.

"There was a very shrewd move I made before we started our campaign. I could not stop Israel from coming to Australia for three friendly internationals in 1971 because I inherited the tour. I did not like that one bit because I did not want any of our potential rivals like Japan and South Korea to play in Australia and find out more about our pitches, food, climate and general conditions. I wanted us to go to Asia and learn about their conditions but not the other way. The federation said it needed home matches for the money but I said: 'Do you want to get to the World Cup or not?'

"So for the four years I was in charge I took the boys on tour to Asia three times to enable the to get to know and adjust to the conditions.

"I knew everything about Iran and Korea, the last two teams we beat to get to Germany. And I cannot underestimate the massive role a certain Ljubisa Brocic played in our campaign. Brocic was a top Serbian coach who was in charge of Juventus in 1957-58 and later Barcelona. He worked extensively in Asia and knew its football inside out. We were good friends and we communicated regularly every week about football in the region, especially when he was based in Kuwait.

"The information - and I mean everything - he gave me was priceless, 24-carat gold, and I am eternally grateful to him for helping us get to the World Cup."

Which was the hardest game of the qualifying campaign?

"There are two matches that I will never forget. One was in Tehran. We had beaten Iran 3-0 in the first leg in Sydney and, believe me, I had never ever seen such an intimidating atmosphere ... not just from the 100,000 fanatical spectators at the game that pelted our team with all sorts of objects including javelins but also from the angry crowd of 30,000 that 'greeted' the beaten Iranian team at the airport. We travelled on the same flight. You had to be super human not to be overawed.

"We conceded a penalty after 15 minutes and soon after it was 2-0. We were in trouble and I had to do something so at halftime I brought on Max Tolson for his roommate Adrian Aston, who was usually one of our best players but was not his usual cocky self in such a hostile atmosphere. 'Maxy' was the best target man I ever worked with and I asked him to go out there and put the fear in the Iranian defence to relieve the pressure. Before taking the field in the second half he told the boys in the room: 'Follow me, all of you, I'll show you how it's done'. He certainly did his job and we survived ... he saved the day for us."

"The second was against South Korea in Seoul. We had drawn the first leg in Australia 0-0 so we were up against it. The weather was very cold and it hailed heavily on the day of the match. I told the players to be careful with their back passes to the goalkeeper because of the treacherous surface but before we knew it we were two goals down.

"Team manager John Barkley, who was sitting beside me on the bench, said to me 'we are gone'. This annoyed me. I grabbed him with two hands and pushed him off the bench and he shitted himself. I said to him 'never say that again'. Thankfully Branko Buljevic pulled one back almost immediately and a few minutes into the second half Ray Baartz made it 2-2 and that's the way it stayed.

"So we were off to Hong Kong for a decider. Both teams flew on the same plane and I made it a point to tell the boys to look cocky and confident of being able to deal with any hurdle. Of course, we won the match 1-0 thanks to that unbelievable goal from Jimmy Mackay, which made news around the world."

Tell us about the stormy meeting in Iran that helped Australia's cause.

"The day before the return in Tehran, FIFA set up a meeting between referees boss Ken Aston, Australia, Iran and South Korea, who had already qualified for the final playoff, to determine the venue and date of a third match in both ties should it became necessary.

"I found out about it by accident and I stormed into the room and, despite the protestations of the Australian delegate who had had a few drinks and did not know what was going on, I urged the meeting to reverse its decision to have a decider a week after the second game and instead make it three days.

"The reason I wanted this is because I knew that we Australians were physically stronger and fitter than the Iranians or Koreans and we would have recovered easily enough to play again in three days, which is something our rivals could not do. At the end of the meeting Aston, came up to me, shook my hand and said 'you're a smart cookie'. Of course, we eventually needed the decider in Hong Kong to knock out the Koreans and qualify for the World Cup. That was the biggest move I ever made in football."

How did you console Ray Baartz after he was brutally hacked by Uruguay's Luis Garisto less than two months from the World Cup and forced to miss the tournament?

"Ray was a great player with a stature and personality to match. He was to our football what Johan Cruyff was to the Netherlands and Franz Beckenbauer was to West Germany. What happened to him was tragic and I insisted that he should come to Germany for the World Cup as 'reward' for what he had done for us. He did not miss one game in the qualifying campaign."

Did the Socceroos pay group rivals East Germany, West Germany and Chile too much respect in the finals? Or was it only logical to be tactically prudent?

"Look, a few weeks before the tournament I went to Leipzig to watch the East Germans draw with England in a trial match. I was staying at the same hotel as the English team and after the match I had dinner with their manager Joe Mercer. 'What do you think of the Germans,' I asked him. His reply was simple: "Son, you want some advice ... park the f------ bus and hope for the f------ best.' The East Germans were fit, strong and well prepared and I had to structure our game accordingly.

"We did well against Jurgen Sparwasser's team but we conceded an unfortunate goal and eventually lost 2-0. We hit the post in our second match against West Germany (0-3) but they were so strong all over the park that we got the impression that if we scored a goal they would score two."

You and George did not get on, didn't you? So the controversial sack was really no big surprise.

"Arthur got into hot water with me because too many fat cats wanted to travel with the team whenever we played abroad. They knew I wanted only Barkley to travel with me. I was hands-on and took control of every aspect of the Socceroos management because I was good at the administration side of things and some people at the federation did not like that. Arthur and I were not really enemies but he was under pressure from the federation hierarchy who felt they were being marginalised.

"After Australia were eliminated I stayed on in Germany till the end of the tournament to do some media work for the Bild Zeitung newspaper and that is when I got the call that I had been dismissed. I tell you, that hurt.The federation wanted fresh blood and were looking to England. They ended up with a bunch of children and my successor, Jimmy Shoulder, was not a great success, was he?"

In your book 'The Rale Rasic Story' you admitted that it was a mistake to push him and tell him to get out of the dressing-room at the end of a trial match against Uruguay in Melbourne.

"I was feeling a 100 foot tall after we had drawn with Uruguay and Arthur, with a cigar in his mouth, came into the dressing room and demanded I give him the 22 names of the World Cup squad. I told him I had not yet cut the squad from 27 but he insisted. He wanted 22 names and when he realised he wasn't getting them he said to me: 'I employ you'. At that point I grabbed him and pushed him towards the door and told him to get out of the room. And all those bastards (the players) who were at first stunned by what had just happened found their voice and started yelling 'out, out, out'. Future prime minister Bob Hawke was also in the room and quipped: 'shit, where the hell am I'. I told him to get out too."

You meet up regularly with the boys of '74, who still call you 'boss'. You guys must have a special bond.

"I meet with all of them pretty regularly. They are part of my family for as long as I live. I share my love and affection with some of them, sometimes on a daily basis. I certainly helped them realise their dreams but they also made me who I am with their devotion, commitment and loyalty. It's always got to be both ways. The moment you think it's all about you, it's the time you won't be successful any more."

Are you disappointed that your World Cup captain Peter Wilson has effectively become a recluse?

"Sections of the media have a lot to answer for regarding Wilson's decision to keep a low profile. England-born Wilson had every reason to become a 'rebel' in a sense. Can you imagine our World Cup captain being attacked in the media with headlines like 'Should a Pommy be the Socceroos' World Cup captain'? He was a fully naturalised Australian, for goodness sake."

"Willy is one of the nicest people in the world. Ask anybody from the '74 squad and they will tell you that Willy was a special person. He was a captain of captains."

When did you last speak with him?

"He came to my son's funeral seven years ago and he was better dressed than any Hollywood star. He showed me respect and gave me a huge hug. I have spoken to him a few times after that. We have great mutual respect for each other."

What does the national team - past and present - mean to you?

"Very easy question and I have a simple answer. The Socceroos and the green and gold jersey are my life."

One last question. Who is Australia's greatest ever player?

"Ray Baartz, no question."


Club career
1969: Footscray
1970: Melbourne Hungaria
1971: St George
1972-73: Marconi
1974-75:Pan Hellenic
1977-78: Marconi
1979-80: Adelaide City
1981-82: Blacktown City
1983: South Melbourne
1987-88: APIA Leichhardt
1992: Canterbury-Marrickville
1996: Rockdale Ilinden
1997-99: Canberra Cosmos

International career
1970-1974: Australia

NSL championship 1987 (APIA)