A sleeping giant is slowly awakening
Runners-up in the FIFA Under 17 World Championship New Zealand 1999, South Melbourne SC taking part in the FIFA Club World Championship Brazil 2000 as Oceania champions, and over 200 players engaged with overseas clubs - Australia has made striking progress as a footballing nation.
The latest demonstration that there is serious football talent in Australia was provided just a couple of months ago when the Aussies reached the final of the U-17 World Championship in New Zealand and held their own in that match against Brazil, only to lose on penalties. The "Joeys”, as these young players are called, hopped cheerily on their way in New Zealand from one success to another, taking hurdles such as Germany, Qatar and even the USA in their stride. "This is a historic moment,” enthused Basil Scarsella, President of Soccer Australia after the terrific success of his juniors. Often before, teams from Down Under have been on the edge of a sensation, but have just failed at the last moment; for example at the World Youth Championship in 1991 and 1993 and at the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992 they just missed out on the medals, ending up in fourth place each time. Knowledgeable observers of the Australian scene, such as Bernd Stange, previously a coach with the national teams of the former East Germany and today with the first division club Perth Glory, sees Australian football as a sleeping giant. Almost two-thirds of the over 600,000 organised players are youths or children. In terms of numbers, football is even ahead of other sports such as rugby, cricket and netball, in which Australia are World Champions.
For many overseas clubs, Australia is regarded as a potential source of young talent when their scouts are on the lookout for new players. Every week there will be talent-spotters watching games in the national Soccer League (NSL) in Adelaide, Perth or Sydney. More than 200 players with Australian passports are active overseas at the moment - some for example in the USA, Argentina, Chile, Malaysia or Japan - but most of them are trying to make their careers in Europe.
"We are very determined, never give up, and our technical skills are pretty good too," says David Mitchell about the qualities of his compatriots. The 36-year old former professional, now coach of the first division club Parramatta Power, knows what he is talking about. In the 80s he was a professional player himself, and it was for exactly the same qualities he describes that he was signed on as a goal-scorer by clubs such as Glasgow Rangers, Eintracht Frankfurt, Feyenoord Rotterdam, and Chelsea.
Now many other Australian players are following in Mitchell's footsteps, and some of them too are with the very top clubs. Mark Bosnich has secured his place as goalkeeper for Manchester United, winners of the 1999 Champions League. Before this season started, the well-known Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni made a personal effort to secure Paul Okon from Lazio Rome to play for AC Fiorentina and strengthen the defence. Defender Ned Zelic of TSV 1860 Munich in the Bundesliga, his team-mate David Agostino, as well as Frank Juric (Bayer Leverkusen) and David Zdrilic (SSV Ulm) are four of the eight Australians playing in Germany. "It is important for our young players to get into the tough world of professional football and to come through," says Zelic.
The absolute high flyer of the moment is undoubtedly to be found in the English Premier League. Still only 20, Harry Kewell is a key player in the Leeds United forward line and has played a big role in helping the team to the top of the table. He has countless fans back home who admire him for his lack of respect as well as for his football. "No-one can stop me," he said recently after scoring a goal. At the Olympic Games in his home town of Sydney next September, the star forward could become a national hero with the Australian Olympic team.
Young national trainer
Bosnich, Zelic and Kewell are continuing proof of Australia's ability to spot highly-talented players at an early age and to develop their skills to the full. There is a strong emphasis on the country's youth development programme and it receives solid financial backing from the state. Youngsters who show promise in the eyes of club or national coaches receive a grant to go to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra. "There we train the youngsters over a period of several years and give them time to develop," says Les Scheinflug, coach of the Australian U-17 team. With the Olympic Games coming up, the AIS is looked on as a medal-factory and has an expert staff of coaches, medical assistants and sports scientists, all dedicated to bringing on the nation's talent in swimming, rowing and athletics, as well as football.
The whole development programme will of course benefit the national A team - and that is something that the Australian football public are very enthusiastic about. They have not had a great deal to celebrate in the past. Only once, in 1974 in Germany, have the "Socceroos" managed to qualify for the final round of the World Cup, and the fans are still mourning the events of 1998 when the team was coached by the ex-England manager Terry Venables and stumbled at the last hurdle in a play-off against Iran. After a 1-1 away draw in Teheran, the team went 2-0 up in the home-leg in Melbourne only to see their opponents draw level at 2-2 and thus qualify on the away goals rule. Venables left and a new era began.
In the person of the 35-year old Frank Farina, Australia has one of the youngest national head coaches in world football. "This change of personnel should see the start of a new and successful period for Australian football," says Basil Scarsella, who has stated that the aim is a place in the World Cup final round in Korea/Japan in 2002.
Farina comes from Darwin and ten years ago had his biggest personal triumph when he won the Belgian league title with Club Brugge and was also the top goalscorer. The son of an Italian immigrant, he first drew attention to himself when he started knocking in goals in the Australian NSL. He comments: "The standard here is better than many people think." The 16 clubs in the NSL draw a lot of support from the European immigrant section of the population. They are the ones who founded a number of the clubs, such as South Melbourne SC (Greeks), Sydney United (Croatians), or Marconi Stallions (Italy). It was with Marconi, a team in the suburbs of Sydney, that Christian Vieri, now famous for his exploits with Inter Milan and the Italian national team, first honed his skills, before he and his parents returned to Italy. South Melbourne SC really hit the headlines in 1999 when they became Oceania club champions and thus earned the right to play in the Club World Championship in Brazil in January.
Australia has clearly reduced the gap between itself and the top nations in world football in recent years. Perhaps the fifth continent will be host to the World Cup itself one day in the not too distant future. "We are bearing that possibility in mind," says Scarsella, without going into details. Knowing Australians, it is more than a possibility.