When flying into a foreign country ahead of a football tournament, “We had to come in high over the rice paddocks because the Viet Cong fire at aeroplanes” is one thing you would not expect to hear.
But this was the reality for a group of young footballers who represented their nation in an active warzone and returned home with Australia’s first international trophy.
In late October 1967, the Australian touring party gathered for a last-minute training camp in North Ryde, Sydney, wide-eyed and with the world at their feet.
They soon boarded a Pan American Airways flight to the Vietnamese capital Saigon which was in the grip of a devastating guerrilla war.
The team were to play their part in the ‘Friendly Nations Tournament,’ a form of soft diplomacy designed to forge unity within the allied nations.
“Naturally we knew the Vietnam War was on but let's say that we were all young fellas at the time and when we got there it was a hell of a shock,” defender Stan Ackerley reflects.
For the likes of Ackerley, Ray Richards, John Watkiss, Ray Baartz, Attila Abonyi and late captain Johnny Warren, the tour would forever stand out due to some extraordinary experiences off the pitch.
But what exactly did the young squad encounter?
“Just after we arrived they showed us pictures of kids that had been ripped apart with claymore mines,” Richards recalls of an embassy briefing.
Claymore mines were weapons Viet Cong insurgents used to remotely detonate explosives.
A few days later the team witnessed a car explode to smithereens on the street.
When it came to match preparation, not even the football pitch provided a safe haven.
After one finishing drill, a player sent a stray shot soaring over a towering wire fence that marked the field’s perimeter. Naturally, he set off after his ball, ignoring signs with skull and crossbows.
“People came running and screaming from everywhere telling us that was a field full of landmines,” Abonyi recalls.
Those frantic calls all but saved that player’s life.
Abonyi quips: “As far as I'm concerned after 53 years that ball might still be sitting there!”
To this day, no one has taken full responsibility as the player who released that so nearly fateful shot.
Abonyi suggests, “It may have been Ray Richards.”
Richards claims, “I think it was John Watkiss.”
Watkiss on the other hand replied, “I wasn't at a lot of the training because I was injured and spent most of my time in the hotel getting treatment.”
Either way, Warren jokes that it was, “one of the best incentives ever encountered to keep shots at goal down during training.”
Eventually, the team gave up on that training pitch and resorted to match preparation on the concrete roof of their hotel.
“As we trained there were gunshots going off in the back streets, helicopters flying around dropping flares and when you looked off into the horizon you could see the actual flashes coming off the cannons,” Richards vividly recalls.
Warren wrote that the scene, “resembled something out of a Hollywood war movie.”
When it came to the team’s accommodation, everyone was quick to unearth the irony in their hotel named ‘The Golden Building’.
Johnny Warren expresses in Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters that he “couldn’t imagine a more inappropriate name” for the complex that housed the Korean, Australian and New Zealand sides for the duration of their stays.
As the team settled into their surroundings, Ackerley was thrown across his room by an electric shock from a dodgy fan-switch.
His ordeal was not the only reason the squad were unable to spend much time sheltered in their living quarters.
After Ackerley and Archie Blue were poisoned by Cambodian meatballs two years earlier, team doctor Brian Corrigan left no stone unturned in making sure that history would not repeat itself.
“When we first arrived Dr. Corrigan went into the kitchen and insisted ‘there’s no way we're eating here,” Richards recounts.
“We were basically living on hamburgers and beer because we weren’t sure whether the water was safe enough to drink.”
In a gesture of goodwill, the squad were invited to dine with the Australian troops at their headquarters, ‘The Canberra’. Warren profoundly reflects upon the powerful affinity the footballers and soldiers shared.
“While they went out to fight, we went out to play football,” he writes. “It was a surreal experience.”
After all, most of the squad were young enough to have been conscripted to serve themselves.
A few players from Adelaide and Sydney even caught up with mates from back home.
Yet remarkably, it was not until years later that those involved realised the true gravity of the situation.
“You heard it all night long, the bombs going off in the distance and shots being fired in the streets,” Watkiss reflects.
“But all considered I don't think it was a distraction, we didn’t really talk or take too much notice of it.
“We were young and bulletproof. We were there to play football and that part of it was an adventure.”
Members of the 1967 touring party
Players: Attila Abonyi (21), Stan Ackerley (24), Ray Baartz (20), Ron Corry (26), Ted De Lyster (20), George Keith (23), Ray Lloyd (24), Tommy McColl (22), Frank Micic (26), Ray Richards (23), Roger Romanowicz (20), Manfred Schaefer (24), Billy Vojtek (23), Johnny Warren (24), John Watkiss (26), Alan Westwater (21), Gary Wilkins (22).
Joe Vlasits (coach), John Barclay (manager), Jim Connell (manager), Dr Brian Corrigan (doctor), Lou Lazzari (masseur), Tony Boskovic (referee), Tom Patrick (Qantas staff), Terry Smith (journalist), Martin Royal (commentator), Don Woolford (AAP).
Nick Pantelis (22) was selected but had not yet been naturalised and was unable to travel.
Note: The Australian national side were not then known as the ‘Socceroos’, however it is widely agreed upon by the players that the 1967 tour contributed heavily to the birth of the Socceroos spirit.