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Mark Viduka, Croatian Australian
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  07/5/2007 | Sports , People | Unrated
Mark Viduka, Croatian Australian
Trophy hunter

International silverware would cap Mark Viduka's career, writes Michael Cockerill in Bangkok.
Heart of gold & hearing his son sing the anthem and seeing a Socceroos shirt in Croatia told Mark Viduka where his heart lay. Photo: Getty Images

MARK Viduka has wrestled with his conscience and will lead Australia into battle in Bangkok on Sunday with a clear purpose, and a sharp focus - to win the Asian Cup.

Thirteen years after he made his Socceroos debut as a teenager in Adelaide, even Viduka is surprised how much the green and gold shirt has become ingrained in his soul. He has contemplated leaving behind the national team many times but never more seriously than early last month as his boat pulled into the marina at Split, on Croatia's Adriatic coast.

A draining season of unfulfilled ambition with Middlesbrough behind him, and a new chapter in his career with Newcastle United in front of him, he felt, instinctively, that the sacrifices of playing for his country had become too much.

He rang Socceroos coach Graham Arnold and told him what he was thinking. Arnold gave him a couple of days to ruminate before a media teleconference was scheduled to announce the decision to the world.

It's history now that at the last moment Viduka pulled back from the brink. And so he will be at the Rajamangala Stadium on Sunday night, leading out the Australian team for the tournament opener against Oman. Some people wonder whether his mind will be on the job. He insists it will be. What surprised him when he thought deeply about it, was how much playing for Australia meant to him. Now he's determined to become the first captain to lift a major trophy. After that, whether he will stick around for the 2010 World Cup campaign, we'll have to wait to see.

Viduka looks back on the 48 hours he had to firm up his retirement and says: "I was a wreck. I couldn't function at all, and that showed to me I wasn't ready [to retire] just yet."

There were also other factors at work, as he explains: "My [five-year-old] son [Joey], after the World Cup, he was obsessed with soccer & him and my little niece, at the World Cup, they'd watch how we did the national anthem, and & they'd have to stand up and do this [holding his hand on his heart] and sing Aus-tralia, Aus-tralia, Aus-tralia & so I'm thinking about retiring, the press conference is that night, and I get up in the morning and my son is in front of me, standing up, singing the anthem. I'm thinking, 'What am I going to do?'.

"Then I go down for a coffee at the marina, and this guy walks past - he must have been chartering a boat - and he's got this Socceroos top on. I'm thinking, 'F---ing hell, man, these are signs'. And it hit me just then. How much it [playing for Australia] meant to me. That was basically it. I rang Arnie back and told him I'll be sticking around."

Viduka has always played by instinct, and made his career choices the same way. Football has made him rich and famous, but he has often struggled with the constraints of professional sport. Supremely talented, but frustratingly inconsistent, coaches, fans, and even his fellow players have wondered how to switch him on. They are not alone. Viduka often wonders about it himself.

So how would he coach Mark Viduka? "I wouldn't have a clue," he laughs. "Honestly, it can be different things. Sometimes when you're under pressure, you do well. Sometimes when you're too relaxed, you do no good. You've got to find the middle ground & not too complacent, not too relaxed. It's difficult to explain. But in the last few years I've found if I focus on just enjoying the game, that's when I do the best. In general, I've noticed a pattern that when I've relaxed, things start to happen automatically."

Enjoying the game is not a given in an environment of such high stakes. When people attacked Viduka after he went AWL after agreeing to leave Dinamo Zagreb for Scottish side Celtic shortly before Christmas 1998, they should have known better. When he said the pressures had gotten to him, he was telling the truth. Some players thrive on pressure, Viduka often seems suffocated by it. He still gets misty-eyed when he thinks back to his junior days in Melbourne's western suburbs, when football was played for the pleasure of it.

Viduka might have joined Real Madrid as a teenager, and later, when he was at Leeds United, he knocked back a "concrete" offer from Italian giants AC Milan. Instead, his journey has taken him to Dinamo Zagreb, Celtic, Leeds, Middlesbrough and, for the next two seasons, to Newcastle United. Good clubs but not great clubs. It's a question worth asking. Has he fulfilled his potential? Has he made the most of his career?

"I could have gone to AC Milan, but who knows, maybe I wasn't ready for it," he says. "Things can happen for a reason. Maybe if I'd went there, I would have died in the arse. Maybe I wouldn't have but I started off at St Albans kicking a ball against the wall, and my only goal was to play for Melbourne Knights. If you look at it from that perspective, I'm happy with what I've done."

There has been some success. Three titles in Croatia, player of the year in Scotland, a record of a goal almost every two games [173 goals, 376 games] over more than a decade in Europe, and - not least - leading the Socceroos into last year's World Cup finals. It says a lot about Viduka that when pressed on his biggest achievement in the game, he goes all the way back to the beginning. "Can I tell you something? My biggest achievement was winning the Australian championship [1995] with Melbourne Knights," he says. "At Middlesbrough, there are young boys, all they dream about is playing for Middlesbrough. It was the same with me when I was their age. It's been so long, I've forgotten about that feeling.

"But now you've asked, I look back and think, 'Gee, I was so happy about that'. I'd grown up dreaming about playing for Melbourne Knights, guys like 'Stabber' [Andrew Marth], Ollie Pondeljak, Mark Silic, David Cervinski, I looked up to them. When we won the championship, I was so happy. Looking back, it was probably the happiest I've been. When you're young, starting out from scratch, the only way is up. Later on, all these other factors come into it."

A family, for one. Viduka's wife, Ivana, hails from Zagreb, and he has two sons, Joey and Lucas, who is turning one next month. Viduka left home at 16 to go to the AIS in Canberra, returned for a couple of years before departing for good at 19. A career that is, by definition, nomadic has always gone against the grain.

"I just love being with my family. One day I miss out of my kids' lives, and I go crazy," he says. "That's why coming here to Asia for six weeks was such a hard decision. Every time I go away, it's very difficult for me."

Viduka loves playing for Australia, but hates that it draws him away from his loved ones. Two failed World Cup campaigns, in 1997 and 2001, didn't help. Six years ago, as he sat on the baggage carousel at Montevideo airport, he first aired the idea of retiring. He now insists he wasn't serious. "I was just sick of the disappointment ... there were so many disappointments in those years, it was difficult to keep coming back," he says.

For all his perseverance, however, international football has not been kind to Viduka. Just eight goals in 39 appearances - although last week's brace against Singapore bodes well - and mixed performances in big games. But one match will always stick out. The fateful night in Stuttgart, when the Socceroos knocked Croatia out of the World Cup. For Viduka, who was on the receiving end of a 7-0 hiding in Zagreb in 1998, revenge was a dish best served cold. It was one of his finest Socceroos displays.

"Of course Croatia is a big part of my family, my life. My wife is from there, but in football terms, you can't confuse the two," he says. "I was with Joey Didulica [Australian-born keeper in Croatia's World Cup squad] at a wedding in Split a few weeks ago, and we were talking about the game. I asked him how he felt when the Aussie anthem was going, and he said he felt weird. It was the same for me, obviously I knew all the words to the Croatian anthem. It was strange. It was an occasion I would never have thought would come about.

"But I remembered the game in Zagreb. It was such a bad memory for me. The Croatians, they play us down a lot, they think the Aussies don't have a clue. I always got that feeling when I was playing there. So I wanted to win the match, I wanted to show we could play. Judging by the way the game was played, it should never have even been a draw. We were a lot better than they were."

The World Cup has changed perceptions of Australia on the international stage, and the Socceroos go into the Asian Cup among the favourites. Viduka's role will be key, and he insists he's primed to deliver.

"That's a big part of why I decided to stick around," he says. "Australia has never won a trophy, and we're a big chance. I want to be part of the first team to win something."

Viduka will contribute as a striker, but perhaps more importantly, as a captain. "It [captaincy] motivates me more, of course it does," he says. "I like the leadership role, it's part of my character. I'm not an organised type of person ... That's not as important to me as maybe going to the young players, trying to give them a bit more confidence ... sometimes they're a bit nervous before a game, and I like to tell them to be relaxed, and everything will be fine & I don't view myself as a soccer star, or something like that, but those young boys, they've grown up watching us on TV, so when you do say something it can mean a lot to them."


Formatted for CROWN by   Marko Puljić
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