Despite the aspirations of many die-hard football fans, the round ball game – locally known as “soccer” – still lags behind other Australian sports in terms of popularity. While at a participation level football is the clear winner, in terms of elite sport Australian rules football (AFL), rugby league and rugby union all stake a claim to being Australia’s most-loved code. Sadly, football is some way behind.
Football’s second-class status in sports-mad Australia has a number of consequences. The talent pool of athletes is divided among the various “football” codes, not to mention cricket and the numerous Olympic pursuits at which Australians excel. In a country of 24 million – a bit more than a third of the United Kingdom – that means Australia’s top footballers are drawn from a rapidly diminishing pool.
Given the intense competition for sponsors and other financial support, domestic football also lacks the money and prestige enjoyed by other codes, or club teams in other continents.
While football’s position in the Australian sporting landscape may have otherwise hindered the game’s development, for decades now the Socceroos have had an abundance of riches in the goalkeeping position. Jim Fraser, Ron Corry and Jack Reilly starred in the 1970s – the latter at the 1974 World Cup, Australia’s first appearance at FIFA’s flagship event – followed by the likes of Tony Franken and Allan Maher at the end of the decade and into the 1980s.
Then came the golden generation.
Mark Bosnich, known for his stints at Manchester United, Aston Villa and Chelsea, and self-confessed cocaine addiction. While Mark Schwarzer may have been latterly famous for winning consecutive English Premier League titles without making a single league appearance (for Chelsea and Leicester City respectively), before his twilight the custodian was among the best in the world. He holds the Australian national team all-time appearance record (although Tim Cahill is close behind). Schwarzer spent a decade at Middlesbrough, before moving to Fulham – where he was the club’s player of the year in 2008/9.
Such was Schwarzer’s stranglehold on the national team number one jersey that he outshone two other very capable rivals. Zeljko Kalac – “the spider” due to his gangly physique – had successful stints at Roda, Perugia and AC Milan, but was often in Schwarzer’s shadow for the national team. Australian-born Joey Didiluca, who won a Dutch league title was Ajax, became so fed up waiting for opportunities behind Schwarzer and Kalac that he switched to Croatia and was part of their 2006 World Cup squad.
More recently, Mat Ryan has enjoyed successful stints at Club Brugge, Genk and currently Brighton and Hove Albion, with the 26-year-old consolidating his status as Australia’s undisputed first choice goalkeeper in the process. Last season, Ryan helped Brighton to first division safety despite being on the receiving end of the most shoes in the league (556) and the third-most on target (181).
Ryan’s performance against France on Saturday – he made several impressive saves in the first 10 minutes alone – was a key factor in Australia almost hanging on for a draw against the European heavyweights. Waiting on the bench for the Socceroos in Russia are Brad Jones, a long-term back-up keeper for Liverpool and now at Feyenoord, and Genk’s Danny Vukovic.
Why, then, is Australia consistently able to produce talented goalkeepers, while struggling in other areas of the pitch? One strong hypothesis for this tradition is the very multi-sport environment in which Australians spend their childhood.
Almost all Australian goalkeepers grow up playing other sports. Whether fielding during a cricket match or passing the rugby ball, involvement in several sports requiring good hand-eye coordination is almost a rite-of-passage for young Australians. That gives kids a major advantage when they first start to specialise and choose, or are pushed, into goals.
Ryan, in fact, was a promising junior tennis player.
“My coach wanted me to pursue a career in tennis,” he told the Daily Express last year. “But if I lost a match I used to smash my racquet and at $300 each that was expensive for my mum, who was a single parent from when I was 10, and I was getting grounded by her all the time.” Ryan has even kept his tennis skills, regularly playing former world number one Kim Clijsters when he was based in Belgium. “She always beat me, but I like to think I made her fight for victory,” he joked to the Daily Star.
When Australia play Denmark in Samara on Thursday, in a match the Socceroos need to win or at minimum draw to keep their World Cup hopes alive, the abilities Ryan learned during his early days on the tennis court will be important. Australia’s glut of sporting options may be detrimental to the national team in some ways, but it has helped forge a tradition of goalkeeping excellence. Ryan is just the latest in that long line.