Though lacking the profile of today's current crop of Australian stars, Paul Okon remains one of the most gifted players to wear the green-and-gold.
The long-serving Socceroo skipper achieved a great deal during a club career in Belgium, England and Italy, where he became the first Australian to play regularly in Serie A, pioneering a rarely-trod frontier for Australian players during the early 1990s. Though an appearance at the FIFA World Cup™ eluded him, Okon captained his side to two wins over former world champions within a fortnight as Australia recorded a surprise third-place finish at the 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup.
Okon was earmarked for an extraordinary career immediately upon making his debut in the Australian National Soccer League, with the teenager winning the young player of the year award in his first two seasons of senior football. He then captained the national team to an unprecedented semi-final berth at the 1991 FIFA U-20 World Cup and played a key role as Australia repeated the feat a year later at the Barcelona Olympics. A cultured player and accomplished passer with an uncanny ability to read play, Okon excelled as a libero and also as a defensive midfielder.
Five highly successful seasons at Club Brugge culminated in Okon being named the 1996 Golden shoe winner as the best player in Belgium, the first non-European to win the award, and with it a subsequent move to a star-studded Lazio side. The transfer to Rome was a dream move for Okon. "I grew up watching Italian football idolising players in Serie A, so to have that opportunity to play there was unforgettable," he said.
Four seasons in Serie A, incorporating a year at Fiorentina, were largely interrupted by injury, but Okon still played alongside some of the greats of his generation including Gabriel Batistuta, Roberto Mancini, Rui Costa, Marcelo Salas and Christian Vieri, who grew up playing for the same Marconi club in south-western Sydney. Sadly, Okon's club career continued to be hamstrung by injury during spells in the English Premier League with firstly Middlesbrough, and then Leeds United.
Stretching over 12 years, Okon's international career witnessed intermittent success, with a number of important results recorded laying the foundation for the success enjoyed by today's Australian team. Though he earned only 28 caps, Okon captained his country on 24 occasions to become the fifth-most capped Australian skipper.
In identifying highlights of his national team career, Okon picks out his lengthy stint as captain and debut against Czechoslovakia in 1991. "That is always special, it is something that you dream of and like your first car, your first girlfriend, you always remember it," he says of his first appearance for his country. "When you captain your country, you are not captaining the team, but also the 20 million or whatever living in the country so it is a great feeling and a big responsibility, but I one I was happy to accept."
Although Australia had previously defeated a reigning world champion when they stunned Argentina in 1988, never had they achieved such a result at a major tournament. That all changed when the Okon-led Aussies shocked France at the 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup. "The French had a very good side out, and though they had a couple of players missing, were favourites to win the Confederations Cup," recalls Okon of a match Australia won 1-0.
"Going into the game I don't think we really believed we could beat them. We were just hoping to play well and get a draw, but I think we fully deserved the victory. The thing that stands out from the match is the look on the French faces when we scored and at the end of the game they really couldn't believe that they had lost to us. At that stage, Australia wasn't getting the credit that we now get in international football, which didn't really come until Australia reached the 2006 World Cup." The Socceroos success didn't end there either; they went on to beat Brazil to finish third at Korea/Japan 2001.
The portents were positive for the Australian team when they took on Uruguay six months later especially after a 1-0 home win had the team on the verge of a historic FIFA World Cup qualification. But it proved a false dawn for the Aussies with the return leg in Montevideo won comfortably by the home side, although captain Okon still sees the bright side out of a major career disappointment. "The positive was that the experience helped the team a couple of years later when they did eventually qualify against Uruguay (in 2005), as to what to do in preparation, and how to go about things better, and at the end of the day it is about the game and the nation rather than the individual."
It is no surprise that an astute and cultured player such as Okon is eyeing a career in coaching, with the 37-year-old already making positive impressions in that field of endeavour. Currently assistant coach at fledgling A-League club Gold Coast United, Okon is part of a new breed of young Australian coaches cutting their teeth at domestic level. Okon is also helping prepare the next generation of Socceroos in his role as coach of the Australian U-18s team, plus also finds time to work as a TV pundit. "Playing is very different to coaching," says Okon, "You need many tools in your kit-bag. For me, the knowledge is there, it's just a matter of having the skill to impart your message and have the players take your direction."
Clubs: Marconi (Australia), Club Brugge (Belgium), Lazio (Italy), Fiorentina (Italy), Middlesbrough (England), Watford (England), Leeds United (England), KV Oostende (Belgium), Apoel Nicosia (Cyprus), Newcastle Jets (Australia).
National team honours: 28 appearances (24 as captain)
Personal honours: Australian U-21 player of the year (1990, 1991), Belgian Player of the year (1995/96), Oceania Footballer of the Year (1996).