Kewell: Australia will have to be at their best

Two decades have passed since a fresh-faced Socceroo, barely 19 years of age, lit up the 1997 FIFA Confederations Cup with some eye-catching performances and a memorable semi-final golden goal. Harry Kewell may now be creeping closer to his 40th birthday, but he remembers that tournament of champions, as if it were yesterday.

The former winger, who went on to feature at the 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cup™ tournaments as well as forging a successful career in the English Premier League with Leeds United and Liverpool, came face-to-face with the Confederations Cup trophy at a media event in Sydney alongside former Brazil midfielder, and two-time Confederations Cup winner, Gilberto Silva.

While back in his hometown, Kewell sat down with to reminisce about Saudi Arabia 1997 and give his take on Australia’s class of 2017.

You were still a teenager when you played at the 1997 Confederations Cup. Did you fully comprehend the significance of the tournament? To be honest, no. I was still young and I just loved playing football. I was playing in the English Premier League at that time and with Australia, we weren’t playing too many international games, so to be placed in my first real tournament, I didn’t know what to expect, so I treated it exactly like any normal games. As far as understanding, the more I played, the more I understood what the tournament was all about.

You scored the winner against Uruguay in the semi-final, a golden goal, how does this memory rate in your international career? I do remember that game, it was a tough one. Previously, we’d had encounters with Uruguay and it had always been a physical game, so it wasn’t for the faint-hearted. Tackles were flying in left, right and centre it was aggressive, we knew what we had to do to progress through. We knew that if we kept it solid at the back, we had a chance to go forward and we took it to extra time.

I remember the goal vividly. I received the ball on the right-hand side of the 18-yard box, dropped my shoulder, cut inside, it just bobbled up nicely for me and I put as much power as possible behind it. People often talk about putting the ball in the corners, but sometimes the easiest way to beat a ‘keeper is to hit it straight at him. I struck it with enough power that there was a bit of swerve behind it, the ‘keeper tried to get his hands behind it and missed it completely and it went in. It was a great moment for me.

The final was not a good result for Australia – a 6-0 defeat to Brazil - but what was the experience of playing in the final of an international tournament like? To be able to play in a Confederations Cup final is a fantastic experience. You’ve got to understand that we were Australia versus Brazil, we had a man sent off and we were playing a Brazil team that were basically the Harlem Globretrotters of football. You had Romario, Ronaldo, Dunga, Roberto Carlos, Cafu, Denilson … they had everyone! It was a phenomenal team to be able to have the experience of playing against. Even though we lost, it was still an experience that I’ll never forget.

Australia head to this Confederations Cup as Asian champions for the first time, what lessons will the team take from the AFC Asian Cup that they can use in Russia? Once you get to a final tournament, it’s all about keeping that composure. Some people can get more nervous, some can get too comfortable, they think having already made the finals that it’s theirs to win. The good thing about winning the Asian Cup is that Australia now know how to win a tournament, which is important. The Confederations Cup is difficult for them because it’s a tournament of champions, so this is going to be a massive test, but it’s a fantastic one because it’s going to give them an insight into what Russia is all about and that’s an experience that money can’t buy.

What can supporters expect to see from the current Socceroos in Russia this year? It’s going to be interesting. At the last World Cup in Brazil, we had a very difficult group, but we surprised a lot of people. We put in good performances and were unlucky. I think a lot of teams will make the right preparations to play against Australia, but we have to be at our best. We have to make sure everyone knows their job and what is expected of them. If they can do that, then it’s going to be in God’s hands really. There’s only a certain amount of the game that we can control.

Australia have a tough group, with Germany, Chile and Cameroon. Can they repeat the success of the 1997 side and reach the final? You’re talking about World Cup winners, the Copa America winners and the Africa Cup of Nations winners, who are in form. The Asian Cup was a while ago, whereas the Africa Cup of Nations was only recently, so Cameroon are going to be on a high and close-knit. Germany are always going to be a powerhouse, so that’s going to be a difficult game, and Chile are finding some fine form too. The one good thing is that we played Chile in the last World Cup, so the manager will have an idea about how to play it. How do I see Australia progressing? I think it’s going to be difficult, but they’re all champions, they need to hold their head up high, go out there and fight for everything.