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Soccer-Australia mourns former Socceroos boss Venables

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Former England and Tottenham Hotspur manager Terry Venables, whose death at the age of 80 was announced on Sunday, was remembered fondly on Monday in Australia, where he served as head coach of the Socceroos for two years.

Despite the most notable aspect of Venables's reign being the failure to qualify for the 1998 World Cup in a playoff against Iran, warm tributes were paid to the man who became known to one and all as "El Tel" after his stint at Barcelona.

With Crystal Palace, Queens Park Rangers, Spurs and the Catalan giants on his resume, it was a huge surprise when Venables was lured Down Under after England's semi-final exit from Euro 96.

"We had to pinch ourselves to think we had Terry Venables as coach, it was very surreal," former Australia midfielder Robbie Slater told Fox Sports News.

"He was a wonderful man, larger than life, almost like a rock star. As a person, I found him so endearing and so easy to like and I think his man-management skills were incredible.

"He really took an interest in all the players and he loved his time with the Socceroos and he was devastated by the loss to Iran."

Under Venables, Australia reached the final of the 1997 Confederations Cup, where they lost 6-0 to Brazil after hat-tricks from Ronaldo and Romario, and breached the top 30 of the FIFA rankings for the first time.

The Holy Grail for the Socceroos, though, was getting to the World Cup finals and they looked on course to do just that until Iran scored two late goals in the second leg of their intercontinental playoff in late 1997.

Venables later said he had never felt as low as that night at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, where 85,000 fans had gathered in the hope of watching Australia break their long World Cup finals drought.

"Terry was not just a great person and character, he was a very special coach," his assistant with the Socceroos Les Scheinflug said in a Football Australia statement.

"We were incredibly lucky to have him at the helm of the Socceroos. Terry commenced our journey towards realising our ambition of returning to the World Cup stage (in 2006)."

Ange Postecoglou, the Australian now managing Spurs, also acknowledged the influence Venables had on football Down Under after the Premier League club's game at Tottenham Stadium on Sunday.

"Anyone who I've ever come across who has worked with him will say that he's by far the best coach, manager, tactician they've come across," Postecoglou told reporters.

(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Peter Rutherford)