In November 2005, an aspiring 13-year-old goalkeeper was one of 80,000 fans on hand in Sydney as Mark Schwarzer’s penalty shoot-out heroics helped Australia finally end their 32-year FIFA World Cup™ drought. Fast forward just two World Cup cycles and Mat Ryan has taken the leap from dreamy teenager to actually filling the significant void left by his childhood hero. Ryan might be light on experience but he is big on both talent and heart, two characteristics that will come in handy as he defends Australia’s goal in Brazil against the likes of Robin van Persie and Alexis Sanchez.
It is major task for the now 22-year-old Ryan, who was just one-year old when Schwarzer made his Australia debut back in July 1993. Thoughtful and quietly spoken, Ryan is not one of the larger-than-life characters occasionally found in the goalkeeping trade. However, he lacks little when it comes to work ethic or spirit. The keeper speaks with refreshing humility, unsurprisingly so given he voluntarily chose to live in a caravan for a period of his A-League career.
Ryan’s A-League debut was marked by a fumble which cost Central Coast Mariners a win. Yet the then 18-year-old remained unfazed with what has since become trademark equanimity. He kept his spot and ultimately won the national league’s Young Player of the Year in consecutive seasons, a rare feat also achieved by Socceroo great Mark Viduka two decades ago.
A 1-1 draw against Korea DPR in December 2012 saw Ryan made his international debut during a season that saw him play an integral part as the Mariners claimed their maiden crown. He subsequently secured a move to Belgium's Club Brugge where his form was both instantaneous and consistent. And the Belgium Pro League Goalkeeper of the Year award was recently added to an already burgeoning trophy collection, after he helped Brugge come close to a first title in nine years.
Swift ascent into the spotlight
Schwarzer’s surprise international retirement late last year left a gaping hole in the Socceroos team. The evergreen Chelsea goalkeeper had been on course to break Dino Zoff’s record as the oldest No1 at a World Cup. Now it is a goalkeeper at the other end of the age spectrum who is in the box seat to beat off the challenge of Borussia Dortmund No2 Mitch Langerak and Adelaide United’s Eugene Galekovic, and don the gloves for Australia in Brazil.
When I had my first few camps with the Socceroos he [Schwarzer] was here. I was a bit star-struck at the beginning seeing all those childhood heroes.
“No definitely not,” Ryan tells FIFA.com with a chuckle when asked if he saw himself in such a position while watching Schwarzer shine at Germany 2006. “When I had my first few camps with the Socceroos he [Schwarzer] was here. I was a bit star-struck at the beginning seeing all those childhood heroes, it was a little bit surreal but it was good to see they are humans also. It was good to see people like Mark up close in training and to test myself.”
Ryan points to the 2005 play-off match against Uruguay, and Australia’s win against Japan in 2006 as his childhood World Cup highlights. “I remember going crazy in the street yelling my lungs out at three or four am with the other people,” says Ryan about Australia’s unlikely comeback win against the Samurai Blue eight years ago.
South American influence
Though born and bred in western Sydney, it is Ryan, perhaps more so than anyone in the Australia squad, who boasts a quirky South American influence. Mariners goalkeeper coach John Crawley spent five years in Chile, including a stint on the books of local powerhouse Colo Colo, and has been the main influence on Ryan’s career for many years. “He was the first ever goalkeeper coach that I had,” said Ryan. “I’m a brand of his product and his style. He taught me the basics as a young kid, and then helped me adapt to professional football at Central Coast Mariners. Not only as a goalkeeper coach but as a father figure too, and I couldn’t be more grateful to him.
“He definitely has a South American influence as a goalkeeper coach. Notably in one-on-one situations to stay big, and also the distribution side of things.” Ryan is indeed highly adept with his feet as evidenced by an internet video clip which shows the goalkeeper at Socceroos training punting the ball from the penalty area directly into a bag held by a team staff member near the tunnel. “I was given a licence to play out from the back at Central Coast and I developed that side a lot,” Ryan says. “We like to do the same at Club Brugge and I like to think it is one of my strengths.”
Ryan not only follows in the long line of Australian goalkeepers to succeed in Europe – Schwarzer, Mark Bosnich and Zeljko Kalac among them – but he also follows a proud Aussie tradition at Club Brugge. Former Australia coach Frank Farina and one-time Socceroos captain Paul Okon both carved out significant careers with the Blauw-Zwart. “It is definitely good company to be in,” he says.
Ryan has adapted seamlessly to life in Belgium’s historic canal-lined city. He may no longer be living in a caravan, but his work ethic and unassuming nature remains undiminished. ''I'm not here to party or live the high life,'' he said. “But, you know what? I have the best job in the world… I wouldn't swap it.''