Towards the end of Half-Life 2: Episode 2, Alyx Vance approaches her father Eli and relays a message subliminally given to her by the mysterious and sinister interdimensional bureaucrat known as the G-Man. “Prepare for unforeseen consequences” she unconsciously says, leaving Eli to crash to a nearby couch in shock and fear over what may be to come. It’s the same message he was given by the G-Man himself just before the Resonance Cascade of Half-Life 1 that opens an interdimensional portal for various alien forces to invade Earth through, eventually to the point of most of humanity being enslaved by a universal union named the Combine after a mere Seven Hour War (not to mention a plague of headcrab zombies as nuisance value).

HL2:EP2 was released on October 10 2007 ‒ 10 years to the day before Australia’s second leg of their World Cup qualification playoff against Syria, the first leg of which has been giving me uncomfortable flashbacks to a previous Socceroos disaster of 20 years ago. If “prepare for unforeseen consequences” is the phrase to fill anyone fighting humanity’s cause in the Half-Life universe with a dreadful fear of repeating past mistakes, “Iran ’97” is the same for any Socceroos fan.

On top of the basic element of playing a Middle East nation first away from home (for Australia), the first leg against Syria went down some similar lines to that 1997 playoff against Iran; the Socceroos opening the scoring in a move that involved a left-footed shot from the right side of the penalty area, Syria equalising following some sustained pressure and a cross from the right, some superb goalkeeping from Mat Ryan, and Ange Postecoglou deploying a 3-4-2-1. In Tehran in 1997, Australia’s opening goal came courtesy of Harry Kewell firing home with his left foot from the right side of the penalty area, Iran making a period of dominance count with Khodadad Azizi putting in a cross from the right, Mark Bosnich being a match saver in goal, and Terry Venables deploying a 3-4-3 that could have easily been listed as a 3-4-2-1.

Most of all, both games ended 1-1 ahead of a return game in Australia. The Socceroos will justifiably be confident of securing progression on home soil only needing a one-goal win or 0-0 draw, but there is again an uncomfortable air hanging over the tie relating to the matter of away goals; one small slip-up or piece of bad luck to concede a goal and the tie completely turns…as was the case that November 1997 night in Melbourne.

There are, however, also plenty of contrasting factors now that have presented some different challenges. The most obvious is the opposition’s home ground (non-)advantage; where the Socceroos played in front of a reported 128,000 crowd at the Azadi in 1997, the 2017 attendance figure in neutral Malacca was almost 60 times smaller (mind you, there were surely over 60 times the amount of female spectators among the 2,150 that did attend this one).

Also benefiting the current campaign is the level of recent, tough World Cup qualification experience. For all the fabled talent of the 1997 Socceroos, the breeze of Oceania qualifying lead to a dire shortage of collective match hardening. This was especially pertinent against an Iran team that had been through the kind of prolonged and up-and-down wringer in AFC qualifying that the current Socceroos are now dealing with (including a playoff in Malaysia, that time against Japan).

With some solid qualifying experience of their own, perhaps those 1997 Australians would have responded better to the shocks to the system that occurred in Melbourne. Then again, even with 18 mostly tough qualifiers behind them (and a successful Asian Cup campaign full of its own drama before that), it was notable how much the current Socceroos grew somewhat rattled and struggled to adapt to a changing game’s needs as Syria turned up the pressure in the second half in Malacca. Decision making when playing out from the back became nerve-stricken, movement further forward grew indecisive, and as bad as the Syria penalty call was, the equaliser very much felt like it was coming.

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The 1997 Socceroos starting line-up in Tehran, and in 2017 in Malacca.

Management was a crucial factor here though, and again it’s instructive to look back to 1997. Just before the hour mark in Tehran, Venables made a double substitution that strengthened Australia down the flanks to help secure a tough draw, with Stan Lazaridis (a natural wingback if there ever was one) coming on for a traditional winger in Robbie Slater (shifting Tony Vidmar over to the right) and the industrious Ernie Tapai replacing the more attacking Aurelio Vidmar. In contrast, Postecoglou got it plainly wrong with his first change just after an hour, introducing another attacker in Nikita Rukavytsya for fullback-turned-wingback Josh Risdon.

Unfamiliarity proceeded to reign. Not only was Mathew Leckie forced to return to his difficult wingback role in place of Risdon where he would be caught out on multiple occasions, one of Australia’s attacking outlets ‒ an important aspect of the heartening first half performance with the front third movement of Leckie and Robbie Kruse ‒ was now a player in Rukavytsya who was recalled after a four-year absence and unsurprisingly struggled to find his rhythm. Where the 1997 Socceroos managed to hold down the fort throughout the second half and relieve the pressure with some calm, intelligent attacking moves, the 2017 team went much the other way.

For all that, Postecoglou’s battle-tested men have the opportunity to get things right where they went so wrong in Melbourne in 1997. Venables made just one change for the return leg in 1997, putting in Lazaridis from the start; one can only wonder what would have been had Milan Ivanovic and Damian Mori (in place of the rusty and wasteful Aurelio Vidmar) been used by a long-term coach more familiar with Australia’s personnel…even if his name was Zoran and his English wasn’t to the liking of men named David and George.

This time the Socceroos do have a coach steeped in experience in Australian football and changes may well be in order, but it’s fair to wonder if they may be for the worse: will Leckie go back to right wingback and will that escape punishment at home? Will such a change be made to make room for Tom Rogic, whose national team form and impact on Aaron Mooy continues to be a concern? Will Tim Cahill replace Tomi Juric or be his partner, as Postecoglou has had a (mostly ineffective) tendency to do when looking for goals? Will the Socceroos coach be able to resist reverting back to Brad Smith, as he has had a curiously hard time doing?

On the other hand, there’s the matter of substitutions. Of the three subs Venables made in Melbourne in 1997 to try to win back the aggregate lead, only one was a clear attacking move ‒ Graham Arnold for Craig Moore, and that was introducing 34-year-old legs while much younger attacking or creative options like Mori, John Aloisi and Josip Skoko remained on the bench. For all of Postecoglou’s missteps in his Socceroos coaching tenure, a reluctance to make attacking changes has not been an issue, while the winning goal in the 2015 Asian Cup final win (played at the same venue as Tuesday night’s game) was made possible by one substitute and scored by another.

For Half-Life fans, there is still no definitive answer as what came of Eli Vance’s final plea to the game’s protagonist Gordon Freeman to take heed of Alyx’s unwitting warning and avoid another catastrophe, this time with respect to how the power of a time and space-warping vessel named the Borealis would be used when it was expected to be found in Episode 3. In the 10 years since, all that has eventuated from that once-planned follow-up is an early script released by former Half-Life writer Marc Laidlaw this August in which Freeman and Alyx Vance do indeed destroy the Borealis before it can lead to widespread harm, albeit with further issues in the Half-Life story left anxiously unresolved.

Ahead of another possible playoff in November against CONCACAF opposition, hopefully the final script of this playoff against Syria goes down a similarly redemptive path for the Socceroos after events of 20 years ago.

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