Mile Sterjovski returned to France recently to relive some of his glory days at Lille. But as Con Stamocostas discovered, the 'Quiet Socceroo' has no intention of retiring from the game since hanging up his boots. Instead he has big plans to build a French connection for young Australian players.
Former Socceroos star Mile Sterjovski turned back the clock when he took part in a Lille legends game last week, celebrating the French club’s 70th anniversary.
The 2006 World Cup veteran lined up with the likes of former Liverpool and French International Bruno Cheryou and his brother Benoit as well as other teammates from the Aussie’s time at the club.
The trip was a tantalising glimpse into the past and future for Sterjovski, who found himself on the same flight home as newly crowned kings of Asia, Western Sydney Wanderers.
It turned out to be a memorable occasion for 35-year-old, who took time out to catch up with Belgium-based Socceroo goalkeeper Mat Ryan and further plans for Australians to play in France.
But for the humble Aussie the highlight was a chance to relive his formative 2000-2004 years with Les Dogues.
“It was just an honour to be invited back to the club and, to be able to catch up with old friends, was very special,” Sterjovski said.
“We ended up playing a legends match. There were about 24 players against the old guys and it was a very competitive game to be honest, it was a pretty good level.
“I scored a goal and I probably could’ve scored a few more, it was good to be part of the game.”
Sterjovski looks back on his time at Lille with great fondness. It was his first sojourn overseas, leaving the NSL as a then 21-year-old to join the newly promoted outfit.
Topflight success came almost immediately, with his new club finishing third in Ligue One and qualifying for the following season’s Champions League.
“It was a huge step coming from the NSL to be able to do that stuff straight away,” Sterjovski said.
“I was part of the first European game that the club had ever played. Last week Lille also celebrated their 100th game in European football, so that’s also pretty special to be a part of.
“The first European game we played was against Manchester United in the Champions League… I played at Old Trafford when I was 21.
“I still remember lining up in the tunnel against the big players, and thinking is this really happening? But once the whistle blows you forget about who you are playing against and just get on with the job.”
Sterjovski is one of a number of players of his generation who enjoyed great success playing abroad.
He spent nine years in Europe including stints at Swiss club FC Basel, Turkish Super Lig outfit Genclerbirligi and English Premier League side, Derby County, before returning to the A-league where he played for Perth Glory and Central Coast Mariners.
And he admits he’d like to smooth the way for more young Australians to play overseas through his coaching academy Mile Sterjovski Football Coaching Clinic (MSFC).
“With my experience I know what’s good for development and which steps for players to take,” he said.
“Just apart from the experience, to open some doors which I think would benefit the players in their development I, think that’s the key.
“Lille is a great club and it’s a club that I would strongly recommend players to go to. They look after their players, they have a plan on how to develop their players and make them better for the future.
“While I was overseas at Lille, I was having a few meetings to see if we could form some kind of link, because I’d like see more Australian players go to France.
“I think it’s a great country to continue your football development. The talks went really positive and hopefully that could be a pathway for young Australians.”
Lille is just a 40 minute car ride to Bruges and Sterjovski used his time in France to catch up with his ex-Central Coast Mariner teammate, Ryan.
“I played a season with Maty and we’ve kept in contact a lot of the time,” Sterjovski said.
“I act as a mentor for him, whenever he has any issues or problems or just wants to have a chat about anything football related or not.
“I’m always there to have a chat with him, I got to see him play twice and we caught up a few times for lunch and dinner.
“He’s already a club legend - the fans love him. The president and the board really like him. He’s doing really well and I can see a really long and bright future for him.”
Then, in some fine football synchronicity, Sterjovski found himself booked on the same return flight to Sydney as the Wanderers.
Sterjovski, who used to play for the now-defunct Parramatta Power says the old NSL club didn’t make Parramatta Stadium quite the cauldron the Wanderers have made it today.
And he was struck with amazement at the unprecedented scenes he witnessed at Sydney airport upon the team’s arrival.
“I was flying through Dubai and just as I’m about to board the plane, I saw a few of the players and I thought wow they must be on the same flight,” he said.
“Then I saw (coach) Tony Popovic and all the players and congratulated them on their win and obviously I saw the reception they got back in Sydney, which was pretty special.
“I never thought that would happen - it’s great to see how much the A League has grown.
“Even when I was at Lille for the legends game, there were people talking about the A League and about the Wanderers and what they’ve done. It was great to hear.
“I have only experienced that once before when we were flying back from a European game where we had a few thousand supporters.
“I never thought that would happen in Australia, full credit to the Wanderers and their supporters it was a job well done. They really are putting the A League on the map.”
Sterjovski, a member of the Socceroos’ golden generation, also offered his thoughts on the state of the national team under Ange Postecoglou and the looming Asian Cup.
“Everyone expects them to be in the final if not win the Asian Cup with it being on home soil,” he said.
“I think since Ange has taken over nobody can disagree that the team is playing much better football, but everyone wants to start seeing results now, including Ange himself.
“I’m pretty sure he is driven by results as well as the performance.
“We kick start the tournament with a good win and go on from there.”
Con Stamocostas is an Australian football writer check out Episode Two of his latest OZ Football Snobcast with co-host Rob Toddler.