Australia bade farewell to one of the national team’s great servants last week with the sudden retirement of midfielder Vince Grella.
After several injury-plagued seasons at Blackburn Rovers, Grella was persuaded to join hometown club Melbourne Heart by coach and former Socceroo team-mate John Aloisi.
However, Grella’s A-League career lasted just 23 minutes, with the 33-year-old suffering a torn calf muscle on his debut last weekend against Western Sydney Wanderers.
“I was pretty upset with firstly the result, and also my body not allowing me to do what I do,” said Grella, a fierce competitor to the last.
"I've tried and left no stone unturned. It's been frustrating because I'm a competitor, and I've always tried to compete at the top level as often as possible.
"Ending in this way, not because of a lack of passion or lack of enjoyment, but a physical problem which doesn't allow you to compete any more, that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
"But I enjoyed so much the good times. Now I've just got to accept my time's up."
The praise came from far and wide with former Socceroo coach Graham Arnold, and former New Zealand skipper and Blackburn Rovers team-mate Ryan Nelsen, both describing Grella as the best professional they had worked with.
While the likes of Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell stole many of the headlines for Australia in their breakthrough showing at the FIFA World Cup Germany 2006™, it was Grella that was an unsung cornerstone of the team.
A tireless worker in front of the defensive line, Grella’s disciplined positioning and game sense was crucial for the Socceroos, and coach Guus Hiddink’s continued selection of the then Parma-based midfielder was telling in a frequently changing starting side.
Long and winding road
Grella began his career in Australia’s National Soccer League with Canberra Cosmos and then Carlton, before departing for Italy along with Carlton team-mate and close friend Mark Bresciano.
The pair, both of whom are of Italian parentage, were closely linked throughout their careers and played together at Empoli and Parma in Serie A, as well as for the Socceroos, where they were key members of Australia's squad for the 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cups.
A three-year stint at Blackburn Rovers proved to be a constant battle with injuries, however his time at Ewood Park meant Grella is one of the few Australians to feature in both Italy and England’s top flight.
The defensive midfielder was a core member of Australia’s drought-breaking qualification for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, and his retirement leaves only Lucas Neill and Jason Culina still playing of those who started all four matches in Germany.
Given the historic and dramatic nature of Australia’s qualification for Germany 2006, it comes as little surprise that Grella describes the Socceroos’ epic penalty shoot-out win against Uruguay in 2005 as one of the two biggest games of his career.
“The game against Uruguay was the biggest and most enjoyable of my career,” said Grella, casting his mind back over a 17-year journey spanning 345 matches.
“(The other most memorable was) my first game in Italy which was a childhood dream.”
Grella described Bresciano, who scored the winner in the second leg against Uruguay, as the best he had played alongside.
Grella said he would return to Italy and base himself there with his young family, hoping to remain involved in the game post-retirement.