Mat Ryan was living in a caravan when he watched the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ as a raw 18-year-old youth team player at A-League club Central Coast Mariners. Fast forward four years and Ryan was Australia’s last line of defence against the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Arjen Robben and David Villa as the Socceroos contended with Chile, Netherlands and Spain in a “group of death” that will rarely be surpassed in FIFA World Cup™ history. Seldom has a goalkeeper faced a more intimidating World Cup debut.
Since then Ryan has helped Australia to perhaps their greatest triumph - an AFC Asian Cup crown - and firmly established himself as Australia's No1. Meanwhile, at club level he secured a move from Belgium’s Club Brugge to well-regarded Spanish La Liga side Valencia. Of all members of the Socceroo squad during Russia 2018 qualifying, suddenly it is Ryan who arguably plies his trade at the best credentialed club side.
Life back at the sleepy Norah Head caravan park a few hours north of Sydney is a world away in every sense.
The hard way
Ryan grew up in Sydney’s blue collar outer suburbs with a single mum. Luxuries may have been limited, but a supportive family network ensured Ryan had everything he needed. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – Ryan is imbued with a fierce work ethic, grounded outlook and resilient personality.
A move out of home aged 17 to chase his dream started with that rudimentary lifestyle overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Ideal if you’re backpacking, but not typical for a young footballer with big dreams.
Not that the low-key laid-back atmosphere of the abode - where he lived with fellow Mariners Bernie Ibini and Nick Fitzgerald - lessened Ryan’s drive. “It was always the dream back then (to reach the top level),” Ryan told FIFA.com. “I have always been prepared to work hard to achieve my goals.
“We lived on the beach in a little shack – just a little caravan and annexe. It was a great little spot and I miss my time living there, and playing for the Mariners.”
Having made a instant success amid a two-year stint at Club Brugge, Valencia came calling and Ryan made the switch during the most recent European off-season. After starting the campaign well, an injury made for an unpleasant recent period but Ryan, nevertheless, feels he has settled well in Spain.
Learning life’s lessons
“I learnt from my first big change from Australia to Belgium,” Ryan says of adjusting to his new lifestyle in Spain. “I have done some things to help me settle quicker. I have taken up language classes to embrace the culture and generally give respect to the local lifestyle.
“The technical ability and intelligence of some of my team-mates, and who I play against, is something I have experienced a little in internationals and in the Europa League. However, playing in such a big league is something we all dream of.”
Ryan says the life of a goalkeeper is an unforgiving one. Indeed a long-range effort from Netherlands’ Memphis Depay which eluded his grasp at Brazil 2014 drew unwarranted headlines. Ryan, however, says learning from experience is part of being an elite professional.
The biggest thing I took from it (2014 World Cup) was to have faith in my own ability and skills, no matter who I come up against.
“It was well documented just how big a learning curve the World Cup was for me,” he said. “In hindsight, assessing it, I was probably over-thinking it too much. Not respecting my own ability and what I had done to get into that position in the first place. The biggest thing I took from it was to have faith in my own ability and skills, no matter who I come up against.
“Playing a near mistake-free game is sometimes the only way we goalkeepers can play a good game. One little thing can make us look pretty ridiculous and be the reason we lose a game. So it can be pretty tough mentally, but you just have to get on with it and learn from mistakes, and do your best not to make the same mistake twice.”
Now life on the Costa del Azahar is agreeing with Ryan. The boy from Blacktown, however, is not one to forget his roots.
“Being raised in western Sydney, we just had what we needed and without the luxury of nice and glamorous things, and that shaped me into the person I am. I am lucky enough to have a great family around me, and they played a big part in helping me to where I am today.
“My mum (Carol) and sister (Megan) will spend their first Christmas in Spain. A few years ago I never dreamed we would spend Christmas in Spain, and I’m looking forward to sharing my experiences in Spain with them.”