“It’d be like sending a team into Afghanistan to play a tournament.”
In October 1967, the Australian national team spent three weeks in war-torn Vietnam as part of a propaganda mission disguised as an Asian tour.
With an average age of 22.8 years, led by Johnny Warren, 17 part-time footballers were dropped into a country covered in destruction to play a host of matches as part of a National Day tournament organised by the South-Vietnamese.
Australia’s success in the tournament has since become a staple its football history, being the country’s inaugural football tournament crown, after goals from Billy Vojtek, Attila Abonyi and Warren sealed Australia’s 3-2 victory over South Korea in the final.
Little did this youthful crop of players know this would lay the foundations to Australia’s debut at the World Cup seven years later.
A rude awakening
Ray Richards was 21 and working as a draftsman for the Brisbane City Council when he got the call up – his first – to represent Australia in this tournament.
With no training in combat or weaponry and no briefing on what to expect the 17 players, head coach Joe Vlasits and a small travelling party – which included journalist Terry Smith and commentator Martin Royal – set off with nothing but their wits and football skills.
“We flew into Saigon on a Pan Am and the pilot came in very high and dropped this big plane into the airport and I mean literally dropped it,” Richards told FNR.
“When we landed, he apologised for the arrival because he had to come in high over the rice paddock fields because the Viet Cong were firing at the plane. That was our first welcome into Vietnam.”
The Height of the war
By the time the team had arrived in Saigon, Australian soldiers had been based in the country for five years.
Australia’s involvement, albeit controversial, followed the USA who feared the spread of communism through South East Asia, something President Eisenhower called the ‘Domino Theory.’
Like the several musicians and entertainers before them, the concept behind the team’s participation in the tournament – from an Australian government perspective – was to boost the morale of the soldiers.
A strong relationship was built between the players and soldiers who would share “burgers and beers” while playing table tennis and billiards when the team was not training on rooftops or on pitches a wire fence away from an active minefield.
Defender John Watkiss famously jumped the fence – unbeknown to the mines planted – to retrieve a ball, only to be met by a group of alarmed soldiers warning him to turn back.
“Our troops were fabulous they were unbelievable they were at the games,” Richards said.
“I’ve got the greatest admiration for our troops and I’ll have one regret when I do die and that’s I won’t die a digger. I was so proud of them they were just brilliant.”
Sleeping beside families of geckos in their Saigon hotel was the least of the players’ concerns, who were completely oblivious of an attempt to plant a bomb on the fifth floor of their building.
“We found out afterwards…they caught two Viet Cong on the building next to ours with a bomb that they were going to place on the fifth floor of our hotel,” Richards said.
“I don’t know how they found them or how they found out but it was quite honestly mind blowing.”
The players knew they were entering a war – that was as far as they got in their briefing pre-trip.
But what this actually looked like, smelled like and felt like was not something which could easily be put into words.
Upon arrival warnings were issued not to stand in bus queues with Americans – who were often targeted by Viet Cong riding past in motorcycles throwing hand grenades – while approaching stranded bicycles was also forbidden due to fears claymore mines had been placed in the baskets.
“We were all young, we had never been on these sorts of tours before,” Richards said.
“The troops used to blow a whistle on the streets and if people didn’t move off straight away after the whistle the guards would fire a shot in the air and if they didn’t move after that they were allowed to fire at them, because they could’ve been VC terrorists leaving a bomb there.
“We were at the barracks one night there we are playing table tennis and watching a movie and we heard a whistle and didn’t take any notice.
“The next thing was a gun shot and having a rifle fired in a concrete building with no furniture it echoed like anything and we thought it was a bloody bomb. We dove under the tables and hid behind columns.”
The team departed Saigon in mid-November, a city which two months later would be invaded by 35 Viet Cong battalions as part of the most destructive and bloodiest part of the war – the Tet Offensive.
Warren fought hard upon return for the team’s recognition for their services in supporting the troops, in addition to being expected to play in the middle of a war.
Unlike the musicians and entertainers of the time, the footballers did not have medals or awards presented to them upon their return.
Department of Youth
Stan Ackerly (25), John Watkiss (26) and captain Johnny Warren (24) were the only ones among the group who had traveled with the national team prior to this tournament.
Eight players debuted for the national team – including Richards, Manfred Schaefer and Billy Vojtek – as Australia scored 15 goals in five games en route to winning the tournament in front of 30,000 people at the Cong Hoa Stadium against South Korea.
Australia would go on to win another three matches as part of a South-East Asian tour against Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Five players from this youthful team would then go on to feature in Australia’s inaugural World Cup campaign in 1974.
“We all say that [Vietnam] was the foundation of the ’74 squad because there were a few that went to Germany,” Richards said.
“We used to laugh when Rugby League players would go horse riding to bond or go to a holiday resort and we used to say we went to Vietnam or went to Korea when they had curfews.
“We went to war zones to bond.”
Featured Image – Source Supplied