When Jade North was announced as one of the over-age players in Graham Arnold's Australian squad for the Men's Olympic Football tournament, Australia's group opponents Argentina may have taken more than a passing interest.
North was a member of the Australian team at Athens 2004 which gave eventual gold medal winners Argentina their toughest test of the tournament. And North was Australia's outstanding player in that encounter.
"We really gave them a run for their money. We should have gotten a result out of that game," recalled North, who will be keen for revenge when the "Olyroos" face Argentina again in Shanghai. ""
Employed at right-back in Athens, North now operates in central defence for both club and country. As captain of the Newcastle Jets, he lifted the 2008 A-League crown in February, and his impressive form for his club has made him a regular for the senior Australian side in their Asian qualifying campaign.
Now, the 26-year-old has been recalled to the Olympic side, and will be the only member of the Olyroos to have already competed at an Olympic tournament. So what will be his advice to the younger troops? "I'll tell them to really enjoy the experience, and not just the football side of things," said North.
As a veteran of 2004, North is uniquely qualified to comment on the chances of the current Olyroos. "In 2004, we had the experience of [Craig] Moore and [John] Aloisi, and Tim [Cahill] was really taking off," he observed, referring to the over-age players Australia employed at that event. "This time, we [the over-age players] are closer to everyone else's age. But this squad is strong all over the park. They've got pace, technique, and mentally they're strong. And Arnie [Arnold] has been with them for a long time."
Although the squad is made up mainly of locally-based players, there is a smattering of European experience within the squad, and North feels that the European polish of players such as James Troisi and Trent McLenahan, both based in England, will benefit the Olyroos.
"James is a real standout player for me, he's trained at the top level. And Trent is a very strong defender. The European guys, their positioning is just a little bit better, and they tend to think a bit quicker."
Is North, whom many Australian critics rate as the finest defender in the A-League, keen to make the move to Europe himself? "Sure. The Olympics is a perfect opportunity for me," he confirmed. "I'm certainly looking for a European move. But if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen."
Mark the marksman
The inclusion of North will allow Olyroo captain Mark Milligan, who was used as a central defender throughout the qualifying series, to occupy a midfield role instead. Graham Arnold explained his reasoning after a recent trial game: "I really like Mark in that holding midfield position. He's very good on the ball, he can break up the play and play good football as well. When we play Argentina, he'll have the job of looking after [Juan Roman] Riquelme."
Milligan proved a surprisingly prolific marksman during the qualifying series, providing vital headed goals against Iraq and Korea DPR in the final stage of Asian qualifying for the Olympics. He and fellow defender Adrian Leijer were especially dangerous from set-pieces, and all their Asian opponents will confirm that the Olyroos are to be feared in the air.
Arnold stressed that the athleticism and physical qualities of his squad would pose problems to the other competitors, although he admitted that there was still work to do in that respect. "We're about 75 per cent of where I want us to be, in terms of fitness levels," he remarked. "But I don't want us to peak now. I want us to peak when we're in China!"