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Socceroos' World Cup playoff evokes memories of Uruguay miracle

Australia and Syria will go head-to-head in the first round of a series of playoffs on the road to next year's World Cup.

The opening leg on neutral soil in Malacca, Malaysia, on Thursday will be followed by the second leg in Sydney on Oct. 10.

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The winners will face the fourth-placed team from the CONCACAF zone in another two-legged playoff for a place at Russia 2018.

Here are five memorable playoffs from around the region:

North Korea v Australia, Phnom Penh, 1965

It was the days before the World Cup grew to its current size and scale.

The final phase of qualifying for the 1966 World Cup finals in England for Asia, Oceania and Africa boiled down to a pair of games between North Korea and Australia.

Originally, South Africa and South Korea were scheduled to be involved in a four-team round-robin event, only for the pair to be miss out for political or logistical reasons. And all of this came about after 15 other African nations had pulled out in protest at the lack of spots awarded to the continent at the finals.

North Korea have appeared in two World Cup finals, in 1966 and 2010.

That left North Korea and Australia to play off against each other over two games in Cambodia for a place in the finals, with the Koreans emphatically securing their spot by the end of the first game.

Pak Do-Ik, who would go on to established himself as one of Asian football's most famous names at the finals the following year, opened the scoring for North Korea after just 15 minutes before his side went on to register a 6-1 victory in the first game.

A 3-1 win for the North Koreans three days later in the second leg sealed the deal, and paved the way for one of the greatest stories in World Cup history to take place in England the following summer.

Iran v Japan, Johor Bahru, 1997

A gruelling campaign for both Iran and Japan came to a suitably exhausting, exhilarating, last-ditch climax at a packed-out Larkin Stadium. It saw Japan finally qualify for their first-ever World Cup finals, while prolonging the agony of a desperate Iran.

Both teams had finished second in their qualifying groups. The Iranians choked in the last run of matches to lose out to Saudi Arabia while Japan had rallied to overcome a slump to claim second in their group behind South Korea.

That left the two to go head-to-head in a one-off playoff with everything at stake. Victory ensured a place in France; defeat meant a two-legged playoff against a strong Australian side who had long ago breezed through Oceania's qualifying campaign.

Japan celebrate 1998 World Cup playoff win vs. Iran
Japan overcame Iran in a memorable playoff for the 1998 World Cup in Johor, Malaysia.

The mind games started early, with Iran's Khodadad Azizi feigning injury in training the night before the match in a cack-handed attempt to fool the Japanese into believing the reigning Asian Player of the Year would not be fit to take his place.

The elaborate ruse, which saw Azizi rolled into his team's hotel in a wheelchair, fooled no one and the striker started the game.

Masashi Nakayama scored for Japan seven minutes before the break, only for Azizi to level almost immediately after the resumption. Ali Daei then put Iran in front 12 minutes later with a trademark header. But Shoji Jo scored with 15 minutes remaining of a thrilling, end-to-end encounter that left fans on the edge of their seats.

The game went into sudden-death extra-time and, with penalties looming, Masayuki Okano struck from close range after Hidetoshi Nakata's shot from outside the area was spilled by Ahmedreza Abedzadeh, to send Japan into raptures -- and Iran into another playoff.

Iran v Australia, Tehran and Melbourne, 1997

The Iranians had only a week to recover from the heartbreak of losing out to the Japanese before taking on an Australian side who were tipped to progress to their first World Cup finals since 1974.

Household names such as Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka and Mark Bosnich were expected to brush aside an Iran side who had spent the preceding three months crisscrossing the continent in an energy-sapping campaign.

Harry Kewell's goal against Iran wasn't enough to lead Australia through to the 1998 World Cup.

But while the Socceroos were well rested, the Iranians were battle hardened by their circuitous route to France. in the end, they crept over the finish line in remarkable fashion.

Australia came out of the first leg in a typically explosive Azadi Stadium with a narrow advantage after Kewell had claimed an away goal in a 1-1 draw that had also seen Khodadad Azizi find the back of the net.

Everything was set up for a dramatic encounter at the 95,000 capacity Melbourne Cricket Ground, and the game did not disappoint.

From the first whistle, Australia were dominant. Kewell put the Socceroos in front in the 32nd minute and Aurelio Vidmar doubled his side's advantage three minutes after the restart. If anything, a nervous Iran were flattered by the two-goal deficit.

And then came the turning point. From out of nowhere, serial prankster Peter Hore disrupted the game and the five minutes it took officials to restore order were enough for Iran to reclaim their composure.

With 14 minutes remaining, Karim Bagheri pulled one back. Four minutes later, Azizi latched onto a fine through ball from Daei, slotting his shot past Bosnich to break Australian hearts and book Iran's tickets for France.

Roy Keane of Ireland vs. Iran's Ali Karimi in 2002 playoff
Roy Keane and Ali Karimi came head to head as Ireland beat Iran in a playoff for the 2002 World Cup.

Iran v Republic of Ireland, Dublin and Tehran, 2001

After the dramatic heroics of Melbourne, Iran were once again hoping the playoff route would provide them with a ticket for the World Cup finals as they sought to secure a place in South Korea and Japan.

As had been the case four years earlier, the Iranians had thrown away what appeared to be near-certain qualification in the final round of group matches.

Defeat at the hands of Bahrain saw Miroslav Blazevic's team finish second behind Saudi Arabia to set up a meeting with the United Arab Emirates and a possible playoff with the Republic of Ireland.

Iran dispatched the Emirates comfortably over two legs, winning the first, thanks to a Karim Bagheri goal. Then, Ali Daei, Bagheri and Mehrdad Minavand struck in the second leg to take Iran through.

But it was to be a different story against the Irish.

Ian Harte's penalty put Mick McCarthy's team in front in the first half of the first leg at Dublin's Landsdowne Road. Robbie Keane doubled the lead with a strike from inside the area to give Ireland a 2-0 lead.

Goalkeeper Shay Given, meanwhile, twice denied the mercurial Ali Karimi to ensure the Iranians did not secure what would have been a vital away goal.

Iran, with the Azadi Stadium behind them, sought to claw their way back into the game in the second leg, but Given was again on hand to deny both Ali Daei and Karimi until late in proceedings.

Yahya Golmohammadi did find the back of the net in injury time, but it was not enough for the Iranians to repeat the heroics of four years before, despite another brave attempt.

Australia striker John Aloisi wins 2006 playoff v Uruguay
John Aloisi's spot kick in Sydney sent Australia through to the 2006 World Cup at the expense of Uruguay

Australia v Uruguay, Montevideo and Sydney, 2005

This wasn't technically an AFC playoff as Australia were a few months short of joining the confederation, but it represented the Socceroos' first qualification since 1974 and their last prior to making their move from Oceania to Asia.

Once again, Australia brushed aside Oceania opposition to stand one game from the World Cup. In their path stood a Uruguayan side who boasted the likes of Alvaro Recoba, Diego Forlan and Paolo Montero.

Dario Rodrgiuez's first half goal had given Uruguay the win in Montevideo, but Australia had the belief that their World Cup dreams could finally come to fruition.

Mark Bresciano netted the goal 10 minutes from the end of the first half that levelled up the aggregate score in the second leg, leaving the teams to play out extra time and, eventually, penalties to determine who would advance to Germany.

Rodriguez saw his effort saved by Mark Schwarzer after Harry Kewell had scored Australia's first. But in the fourth round Mark Viduka dragged his spot kick wide before Marco Zalayeta was denied brilliantly by Schwarzer.

That left John Aloisi to stroke his effort calmly home and send Sydney's Olympic Stadium -- and the whole of Australia -- into raptures, bringing the country's 32-year World Cup hiatus to an end.

Michael Church has written about Asian football for more than 20 years and mainly covers the Chinese game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @michaelrgchurch

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