For decades Johnny Warren was Australian football’s greatest advocate, its public face and its loudest voice. “When I’m up in the big football field in the sky, I just want people to remember, I told you so,” Warren said a few months prior to his untimely passing ten years ago today. Captain Socceroo, as he was affectionately known, was referring to the awakening of Australian sport’s 'sleeping giant': football.
At the age of 61, the game’s spiritual leader departed well before his time. And in a tragic irony, Australian football has made more progress in the past ten years then it did during the four decades when Warren was tirelessly promoting his religion in a land of non-believers. “I’m a self-confessed football missionary,” Warren once said of his life’s work.
One year and one day after his funeral, Australia ended a 32-year absence from the FIFA World Cup™ with a penalty shoot-out win over Uruguay in an epic intercontinental play-off. Suddenly years of heroic failure for the Socceroos had been turned around and the game in Australia has never looked back. Warren’s phrase ‘I told you so’ became almost a mantra, adorning banners and t-shirts that night against Uruguay, and again the following year at Germany 2006. The successful establishment of the fully professional A-League and the move to the Asian Football Confederation also took place within a matter of months. Suddenly generational change had occurred in the blink of an eye.
Converting the masses
Warren played for Australia during the 1970 and 1974 World Cup campaigns, the latter as a leading force as a team of amateurs somehow won their way on to the world stage. He was an inspirational figure both on and off the field. “People talk about someone that you would want beside you in the trenches - in my experience that would be Johnny,” former Australia striker Ray Baartz told FIFA.comof his ex team-mate. “From a playing and leadership perspective it was a pleasure to play alongside him.”
For years, Warren was the lone football figure to cross over into the mainstream consciousness of a nation seemingly enthralled only by other sports. He was in effect the spokesperson for the game, and happily accepted the role with tireless passion and vigour. For his devotion he was awarded the lone Australian to be awarded the FIFA Centennial Order of Merit in 2004.
When I’m up in the big football field in the sky, I just want people to remember, I told you so.
Warren forged a successful television career, and was the No1 choice on the rare occasions that a seemingly disinterested media would look for comment. Warren, unmistakeably, wore his passion on his sleeve. He famously broke down into tears on national TV in 1997 after the heart-breaking away-goals failure against Iran, just as World Cup qualification had seemed in reach. “He had a driving ambition for the game to succeed,” said Baartz. “You couldn’t help but be caught up in Johnny’s passion and love for the game.”
Legacy of an icon
Warren’s name crossed boundaries like few of his countrymen. He counted the likes of Pele and Bobby Charlton as personal friends. In his latter years Warren developed a passion for Brazil, both the country and its *jogo bonito *traditions.
Even now Warren’s impact is still being felt in Australia’s football community, where he still enjoys legendary status. Countless stars of the national team, both past and present, describe Warren as their football hero and inspiration. This weekend’s A-League fixtures will each feature a minute’s applause, while the opening match of the round will witness an ovation at the 74th minute in recognition of Warren and the nation’s milestone qualification for their first World Cup.
Warren’s legacy is also maintained through the Johnny Warren Football Foundation, Appropriately the organisation continues Warren’s basic raison d’être; promoting football and its culture within Australia.
So too Warren’s legacy lives on by the mere fact that Australian football is finally developing at the pace that he would have wished. Western Sydney Wanderers' remarkable achievement in becoming Asian champions last weekend attesting to that. The fact the Wanderers wear Flamengo-style red and black hoops would also have been appreciated by Warren and his famed sense of humour.
“It’s just so disappointing that Johnny is not here to see the development in the game and the recent heights it has achieved,” said Baartz. “Johnny had the foresight to envisage the true potential that the game had. Johnny rammed it down everyone’s throat. We thought he was kidding himself, but he was right and we were wrong.”