It is 12 November 2005 and in Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario Australia midfielder Jason Culina is making another lung-busting run in defensive cover to try and quell a hungry Alvaro Recoba-led Uruguay attack. The Socceroos defence was creaking under pressure from a frenzied crowd in the storied stadium, not to mention the fearsome Charruas spirit that four years on would help the small South American nation reach the semi-finals of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™. Perhaps, most of all, the Aussies were suffering under the weight of history in which Australia, a nation with its own proud sporting traditions, had been absent from the world’s greatest football stage for 32 years.
Australia went on to break their drought by the narrowest of margins with a penalty shoot-out victory in the Sydney return. Names like Mark Schwarzer and John Aloisi claimed the subsequent headlines, but in many ways the metronomic, and largely unsung, Culina played as big a role as anyone in helping to turn Australia’s football fortunes on its axis.
Passion and determination
Few footballers in the modern game would surpass Culina for driven ambition and pure passion for the game. Culina has defied a naturally diminutive frame as teenager, when he became the youngest player to appear in an Australian grand final – a record he still holds – and went from the backblocks of suburban Sydney to a hugely successful club and international career. Despite the modest profile, Culina is one of the few Australians to play in all of the Socceroos' seven matches at the 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cups. His club career has - after a schooling at Ajax Amsterdam - been highlighted by a silverware-laden four-years at PSV Eindhoven, under another driven achiever with more than just a footnote in Australia’s football narrative; Guus Hiddink.
I think stepping away for a little bit and just watching has opened my eyes up a little bit. It's made me realise it's just a game.
Despite his many on-field achievements perhaps Culina’s greatest challenge was still to be faced. A seemingly innocuous injury at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup precipitated a nightmare period of operations and rehabilitation over almost two full years. Culina even went as far as having his leg surgically broken to help correct complications pertaining to a knee that refused to heal. It says a lot for Culina that he has overcome such difficulties and come back looking physically perfect.
Little wonder though that Culina feared the worst about a return to the game that has long been his driving force. ''Twelve months ago, I was thinking about giving the game up because it was difficult,'' Culina said. “I've been a full-time professional since I was 16, so football is all I know. There were a lot of sleepless nights and days sitting around at home thinking about what I wanted to do, and everything that kept coming back to me was to get playing football again.''
Now the newly-signed Sydney FC midfielder Culina is hoping to play a full 90 minutes on Saturday against Newcastle Jets, for the first time since that muggy evening in Doha last year. Culina who played two seasons for Gold Coast United on his return from the Netherlands, has featured for the Sky Blues in recent weeks but is yet to last a full game.
His potential combination with Alessandro Del Piero, considered the biggest name to venture Down Under on a permanent basis, has the increasingly-desperate Sydney fans salivating. The two-time champions are in unfamiliar territory on the A-League ladder, holding down bottom spot after a disastrous opening to the season.
But the off-field experience has seen Culina develop a fresh perspective on the game. "I think stepping away for a little bit and just watching has opened my eyes up a little bit," Culina said. "It's made me realise it's just a game. Sometimes we put all this pressure on ourselves and stress out and create this big kerfuffle about things when there's no need to. It's a football game and we've just got to go out there and enjoy ourselves."