Football the only focus for Aussie hopefuls

“It might seem unbelievable, but we don’t have any rugby fanatics in the team,” said Alan Delic, media officer for the Australia squad currently taking part in the FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015. That being the case, will the players really not watch Sunday's Rugby World Cup semi-final between Australia and Argentina?

“Probably not,” insisted two of the Joeys’ starlets here in Chile, Jackson Bandiera and Jonathan Vakirtzis, in conversation with Indeed the pair, along with their squad-mates, are fully focused on ‘another’ Argentina-Australia meeting, which will decide whether the Aussies reach the knockout stages or head for home.

Though it is perhaps understandable that, in a group of elite young footballers, there is less interest in the sports in which Australia have a longer standing tradition – such as rugby league, rugby union, Aussie Rules or cricket – the players insist that the beautiful game is rising fast.

“In Sydney, where I’m from, the rugby scene is very strong, but football has grown a lot,” said Bandiera. “When I started to play at six years old I was the only one of my friends playing soccer, but now they all love it and play the game, whether it be socially or more competitively,” added the young left-back, who opted for the round ball, instead of choosing the oval one like his older brother.

Popularity on the up “I used to watch my cousin play football and that encouraged me to give it a try,” continued Bandiera. “At school I was asked several times to play rugby as well, but I preferred football. Besides, I don’t think my coach would have liked me trying to juggle them both!” added the versatile defender, who is also able to turn out in wide midfield.

“I’m from Victoria and Aussie Rules is the most played sport there,” said right-back Vakirtzis. “My dad played it and he was pretty good, and I started playing when I was little too. I didn’t really like it though, so I started playing football with some of my class-mates and enjoyed it”

Both Bandiera and Vakirtzis could be considered part of a generation of Australian children that caught the football bug in 2006, when the country appeared at the FIFA World Cup™ in Germany, having been absent from the competition since 1974.

“I’d already started playing, but it was at the 2006 World Cup that I began watching games,” recalled Bandiera, an ardent admirer of ex-Italy striker Alessandro Del Piero, who later ended his career in Australia. “I remember watching all of that World Cup, and wanting to be like those players.”

Vakirtzis too followed Germany 2006 closely, though his football-viewing began a little earlier: “I remember watching Australian league games with my dad, and I became a Chelsea fan when they won the League in 2004/05. My dad bought me football shirts and got me a signed ball for my birthday, and I’ve been watching their games ever since.”

Adventure on Chilean soil Having thus absorbed plenty of action on television over the years, for the talented young wide-defenders this U-17 World Cup on Chilean soil is proving an opportunity to live their own international footballing adventure.

“We’ve played in France before, but that was just for a couple of weeks,” said Vakirtzis, before touching on the tough group the Joeys have been drawn in. “At first, when we saw the teams in our group , it was a bit daunting. But we’ve gone on to build a team which is hungry and determined to prove itself.”

“When we first got here we were a bit tired, half-asleep, because the time difference is 14 hours,” chipped in Bandiera, on the initial difficulties in adjusting to their surroundings, but, despite a defeat against Germany and a draw with Mexico, Australia can still make the Round of 16 should they get the right result against La Albiceleste. “If we play well and focus on playing the game, rather than working out the maths, we can pick up a good result,” he insisted.

And should Tony Vidmar’s charges achieve their objective on Saturday at Chillan’s Estadio Nelson Oyarzun Arenas, perhaps they will find the time to catch the next day's rugby clash between the Wallabies and Los Pumas. Or, if you are to believe Jackson Bandiera and Jonathan Vakirtzis, perhaps not...