FIFA World Cup Diary: Simon Hill's personal link with Croatia referee Graham Poll

There's probably never been a Socceroos game that resonated more with the football community here than the epic clash with Croatia in Stuttgart, 14 years ago today.

Those of Croatian heritage had played (and continue to play) a major part in the development of football in this country - even today there are well over 30 functioning clubs with Croatian links in Australia. 

Those links were very much in evidence in the build-up to that high-stakes clash at the Gottlieb-Daimler Stadium. 

In Australia's squad were seven players of Croatian heritage, while three Croats (Josip Simunic, Ante Seric and Joey Didulica) had all been born down under.

One of those Aussie-Croats, Mark Viduka, had started his overseas career with Dinamo Zagreb playing under Zlatko Kranjcar, who just happened to be Croatia's coach.  Kranjcar's son, Niko, was in the starting eleven - as was Stjepan Tomas, the man charged with marking Viduka.  The pair had been close friends during their days with Dinamo.  It was almost like an intra-club game.

But I had my own personal links to a participant on that particular day too.

While I was preparing to commentate on one of the most important matches of my life, English whistler, Graham Poll, was hoping to impress (as he had so far at the tournament), and further underline his credentials as a potential appointment for the World Cup Final itself.

Socceroos Croatia 2006 World Cup
The Socceroos celebrate with fans after the Croatia game

Twelve years earlier, we had crossed paths when I had commentated an English FA Cup 1st Round replay between Hitchin Town and Hereford United.  Poll - then a young, up and comer - was in charge, and Hitchin created a big upset by knocking out Hereford, who were then a league outfit.

Poll however, had caused a stir when he blew his whistle prematurely for full time - on the back of a pitch invasion after Hitchin had scored to make it 4-2.  Hereford, understandably, weren't happy, especially as Poll had been born in Hitchin.  They complained so loudly that their CEO, Robin Fry, got hit with a misconduct charge.

Fry had to appear before an FA Enquiry at Lancaster Gate the following week - and he asked me to travel to London give evidence on his behalf, as we had made mention of the early finish during our commentary on BBC Hereford & Worcester.

My words didn't do Fry much good, as he got hit with a fine.  Poll meantime, escaped without sanction, and made a light-hearted comment to me on the way out about "remembering my name" in future. 

That was in 1994 after a match in front of 3,000 on a muddy field in Hertfordshire.  A decade or so later, we were both in Stuttgart for a huge World Cup game in front of 52,000.

But bizarrely, the same confusing scenario would play out.

We all now know that Poll - tired, and apparently a little confused by Josip Simunic's Australian accent - booked the Croatian number three for a second time in the 90th minute of the tense clash which ended 2-2.  Poll erroneously entered the caution next to the name of Craig Moore (Australia's number three). 

WATCH: Craig Moore equalises for the Socceroos

Prior to that, Poll had already issued two red cards, missed one blatant handball, and failed to award a penalty for a rugby tackle by Simunic on Viduka.  His linesman had also failed to flag Harry Kewell for being offside when scoring the equaliser.  Maybe the fates were on Australia's side after all?

It was a tough night for a commentator too.  I had fallen ill the night before the game with flu, so I wasn't in the best shape for a night behind the mic - and when Poll made his Simunic faux pas, I was concerned it was actually me who'd got the scenario wrong.  You can hear my quizzical tone during the commentary on SBS...

"That is, is it not, his second yellow card? [The caption then appears on screen showing the two yellow cards turning into a red] It is! They are down to nine! (Pause) Now, Simunic has stayed on the park!  I'm absolutely convinced that is his second yellow card, the caption confirmed it, but he is still on the park for Croatia!  This has been a quite extraordinary game, and FIFA will surely look into that."

Simunic eventually wandered off after being issued with a third yellow, deep into stoppage time - and the game ended in chaos (just like in Hitchin in 1994), with no-one quite knowing whether Poll had blown the full-time whistle or not. 

Graham Poll Mark Viduka
Mark Viduka, Simunic and Graham Poll

It was a poor performance, and cost him any chance of the World Cup Final.

Australia of course, didn't care.  The celebrations that night will live long in the memory, with the thousands of fans dancing along to AC/DC tracks and Men At Work's "Land Down Under".

I wasn't quite so happy.  As a commentator, you want to get those big moments right in the big games, and I still wasn't convinced the Simunic situation had been Poll's fault - until I found out the truth at the post-game press conference.  I remember breathing a big sigh of relief, and thinking back to our chance meeting in London, and his "I'll remember your name" comment.

Well Graham, we certainly remember yours!