2022 World Cup: Australia's Tony Vidmar finally gets deserved trip to the Round of 16

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DOHA, Qatar -- As a player, Tony Vidmar was the subject of two of the most iconic and defining images of Australian football history, the juxtaposition between the two telling the tale of the sport in Australia more effectively than any scribe could ever hope.

But in a cruel twist, an undiagnosed heart condition denied him the chance to add to them on the pitch. Yet now, as an assistant coach with Australia, he's going to get another chance, from the dugout, to add to his rich legacy against Argentina.

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A longtime stalwart of South Australian and Australian football, the first of Vidmar's iconic snapshots came 19 years ago, and it's one he likely wishes was never documented. Taken in Montevideo in Nov. 2001, it shows him breaking down in tears as he left the Estadio Centenario, knowing the Socceroos' 3-0 loss to Uruguay had wiped away their 1-0 advantage from the first leg and denied them a place at the 2002 FIFA World Cup. They were tears that summed up the pain of generations of Australians in football, the countless true believers who had built something against the odds and kept the flame at home alight, only to never quite reach that global stage.

The second of the images, however, presented almost a complete contrast. Captured in Sydney four years later, it shows Vidmar and his teammates bursting from the halfway line in celebration as John Aloisi fired home a penalty that ensured Australia would be going to the world's biggest sporting event for the first time in 34 years. Despite being a defender by trade, the then 35-year-old had volunteered to take the third penalty in that defining shootout; he scored, and he and his teammates' subsequent celebrations were representative of the collective explosion of joy in the local game. Finally, this was their moment.

Heartbreakingly, this moment of ecstasy was not to last. Months on, just before coach Guus Hiddink named his 23-player squad for Germany, Vidmar was forced to withdraw from Australia's squad due to an irregular heart rhythm, found after he broke ribs playing with Dutch club NEC Breda. After being a part of three unsuccessful qualifications and playing an important role in the one that finally produced a breakthrough, he would be forced to watch as a "Golden Generation" he had helped to build advanced to the World Cup.

"The realization, when you find out that he's that he's having to pull out was devastating," Socceroo legend Mark Schwarzer told ESPN.

"Even prior to it, all the other qualification periods, he'd missed out -- the heartache. So then to finally qualify and the way they did it, and him playing a big part in it, you just think imagine if that was me. Imagine how I'd feel. It was devastating, I think it was devastating for everyone.

"How do you... how do you console someone like that? There are no words that can help other than I feel for you, you know and your support and that's what you tried to do.

"Viddy was great because Viddy picked himself up -- because it must have been at some stage you must have been devastated -- and he got on that plane and he came over and he supported us and he was there with his family and they came as if he was part of the families. Spent a lot of time within the group as well which was amazing."

Much as injured attacker Martin Boyle has done in 2022, Vidmar would still be a presence in the camp in Germany even in the wake of his withdrawal, supporting his teammates as they progressed to the Round of 16 before being eliminated by Italy.

"Whenever you miss out is disappointing, but for it to be at a World Cup made it even more disappointing," he told ESPN. "The support and the reaction I got from within the playing group and outside of it was fantastic. I think that kind of, in a way, helped soften the blow a little bit.

"But what happened happened and thankfully what occurred was found and I can be here now and witness history [in Qatar]."

The defender returned to football with Central Coast Mariners and received a send-off befitting his status, but he would never play for Australia again and, cruelly and unfairly, never get his deserved opportunity to represent his country on football's biggest stage.

"Vidmar was a hero on that momentous night in Sydney when the Socceroos booked their spot in Germany in that penalty shootout win over the South Americans," veteran Australian football writer Michael Lynch told ESPN. "He had been nerveless as he slotted home his spot kick in that fevered atmosphere.

"I was at a press conference in Melbourne that the South Australian stalwart revealed the extent of his problems and the depths of his disappointment, the normally stoical centre back choking back the tears as he explained his decision to the media throng.

"It was unexpected and sad to see a man have to sit out the greatest moment of his career in such circumstances. So respected was Vidmar that the cynical media throng, back then comprised almost entirely of hard-nosed professional journalists, rose to give him a standing ovation at the behest of perhaps the toughest judge of them all, the Sydney Morning Herald's revered and now sadly late writer Mike Cockerill."

Now, 22 years on from that heartbreaking press conference in the concrete depths of the MCG, Vidmar is belatedly getting his moment, or at least an approximation of it. Serving as an assistant to head coach Graham Arnold in Qatar -- he has already been appointed as Australia's Under-23 coach for the years ahead -- the 52-year-old has been in the dugout as the contemporary Socceroos have, against all the odds, reached the knockout stages.

"Tony has been a great friend of mine for a long, long time," Arnold said. "He's been a great player for Australia for a long time. It's something that people forget, what he went through and missing the World Cup. He played against Uruguay to get us through to the World Cup, and he stood up and took a penalty when no one wanted to.

"He's a great coach, he's been a great support for me and we love having him here."

Bouncing back from a heavy 4-1 defeat against France in their opening game of the tournament, the Socceroos recorded back-to-back wins for the first time in their World Cup history to secure progression from Group D, downing both Tunisia and Denmark by one goal to nil to set up a meeting with Argentina at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium.

After heading to Qatar with few expecting them to do much of anything except lose, the Socceroos now face one of the biggest games in Australian football history.

"Any time you're representing your country, whether it's as a player or a coach, it's always a special occasion," Vidmar said. "So nothing changes in that regard.

"What we have ahead of us is an opportunity to create history [against Argentina]. Being part of this has been a defining part of my coaching career."

"There's been a lot of people who thought that we wouldn't even win a game, let alone get out of the group. What we've done collectively is unbelievable and the journey isn't going to stop.

"What's occurring back home in Australia has been phenomenal, the support and the people watching. This is now the best and last opportunity that we have as a country to embrace the football country and bring that to a new level."