While Australia did not make it past the group stage at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013, it was certainly not for the lack of experienced and knowledgeable figures working behind the scenes in the team’s backroom staff, including two national legends.
Paul Okon, a former Australia international who starred for a host of top European clubs, including Club Brugge, Lazio and Fiorentina, fulfils the role of head coach of the Young Socceroos, having captained the team in the 1991 edition of the tournament.
Craig Moore also played at the prestigious event, in 1993, as he did at every 11-a-side FIFA tournament, from the FIFA U-17 World Cup to the Olympic Football Tournament and the FIFA World Cup™. Capped no fewer than 52 times, the former skipper has been providing his former team-mate with valuable assistance at Turkey 2013.
It would be difficult to find two figures better placed to evaluate the standard of their successors in the U-20 side and the changes that Australian football has undergone over the past two decades. FIFA.com decided, therefore, to bring them together around a table for some debate, memories and good humour.
Both players were part of teams that surprised Planet Football by reaching the semi-finals of the U-20 competition in 1991 and 1993, at a time when Australia was not regarded as anything like the force it is today. Twenty years later, and despite boasting a senior team that are feared at major tournaments and players who ply their trade in the world’s top leagues, the Antipodeans failed to get out of their section, losing to Turkey and El Salvador, after holding Colombia to a draw.
“At the beginning of the 1990s, and maybe even today to a lesser extent, we didn’t really get the respect that we deserved from many countries,” recalled Okon. “They thought that Australians only had the physical side of things to offer, and that we didn’t really know how to play the game. It was important for us to show them what we could do.”
“The players are also partly responsible,” added Moore, referring to the exodus of young Australian talent, whose moves do not always necessarily work out for the best.
“They sometimes put themselves in difficult situations," he said. "If they’re at a club where they’re not getting a game, their development will be slower. In Paul’s team in 1991 or the one I was a part of in 1993, the majority of players were playing first-team football. These days, while there are more and more Australians playing abroad, there are fewer and fewer holding down a first-team place. And that has an impact when they come together for a tournament like this one."
The former Rangers defender refuses to paint too negative a picture, however. Although results have been hard to come by, his country is in the process of instigating fundamental changes that will likely take time to bear fruit. “As a football nation, we’re currently trying to transform our methods compared with how we used to do things,” he explained. “Our teams are now aiming to play a possession and passing-based game, which brings with it certain risks.”
Okon and his players learned about those risks the hard way, picking up just one point from three games during which they were never truly dominated by their opponents. “We only started the process with our youth teams recently, while several countries have been doing it for many years, such as Japan, Spain and Germany. It takes time,” added the 41-year-old.
But the generation gap is not only evident via the style of play. When asked to provide examples of paraphernalia belonging to young players today that they did not possess themselves, the two national icons are not slow off the mark. “iPods, iPads and Playstations! That’s what they’ve got that we didn’t have,” exclaimed Okon with a broad grin. “And now their phones are like friends, and they feel lost without them. When we played, our friends were our team-mates.”
As one of those friends, Moore is in a good position to confirm this difference: “For us, a ball was enough. With our friends and a pack of cards, we had everything we needed. That was the kind of thing that forges real bonds within a team.”
Rapturous roar and golden goal
It was doubtless those bonds that helped two separate generations of young Australians reach the last four of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Portugal in 1991 and again on home soil two years later. These remarkable feats have inevitably left those involved with lasting memories.
As far as Okon is concerned, the best recollection that springs to mind is also the saddest. “The semi-final against Portugal, obviously,” said the former Middlesbrough player. “The match was played in front of 112,000 people in an amazing stadium. When Rui Costa scored... the noise still makes my ears ring to this day. It’s the kind of moment you never want to experience, because it means you’re losing the game, but you’re still able to put yourself in the shoes of all the ecstatic fans celebrating the goal. It’s impossible to forget.”
For Moore, talk of the 1993 event conjures up nothing but good memories, including a victorious quarter-final with Uruguay. “The match went to extra time. Anthony Carbone scored the winner, but the Uruguayans seemed to think that extra time consisted of two 15-minute periods. But that year, the golden goal rule was in effect,” he said, bursting out laughing. “There was then total chaos; afterwards they were very disappointed, but for us it was a real moment of joy.”
In addition to memorable moments, Okon and Moore retained something else from rubbing shoulders with the globe’s top U-20 players: invaluable experience. “We had the chance of playing against the best in the world in our age category,” said Okon. “That enabled us to analyse what level we were at compared to other teams. Seeing what others can do at your age shows you what you still need to learn to get closer to the best.”
This assessment is also shared by Moore: “It meant we could compare with others, which is important, because you never know where you are if you’re only judging your own work all the time. You have to be able to compare and contrast. This tournament encourages you to do things better.”
That advice could easily be aimed at this year’s crop of Young Socceroos, who have seen with their own eyes in Turkey the gap that separates them from the world’s best. Taking into account the respective careers of those handing out the pointers, they would be well advised to heed them.