Ange: My life's work

Brazil 2014 will be Ange Postecoglou’s very first FIFA World Cup – not just as a head coach, but ever. It’s a baptism of fire for the newly-appointed Socceroos boss, but it’s what he’s been gearing up for his whole life.

Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou lives and breathes football. He has worked in the game his entire life and has played and coached the code all over the globe from the Soviet Union to Trinidad and Tobago to Lakeside Stadium. Yet remarkably Brazil 2014 will be the 48-year-old’s first ever FIFA World Cup experience.

Not as a fan, not as a player, not as a media pundit, not as a coach, has Postecoglou ever been to a FIFA World Cup. There’s nothing quite like the universal sense of buzz, passion and culture generated by the melting pot that is a FIFA World Cup. It’s an unrivalled atmosphere of genuine excitement which simply cannot be artificially cultivated by any other global sporting event.

While there’s some trepidation among supporters about the number of inexperienced Socceroos heading for Brazil for their first taste of the big time, surely it is daunting for Postecoglou to be entering his maiden FIFA World Cup in the hot seat as the head coach of his country. But Postecoglou refuses to see it that way. “It is exciting,” he says. “From my perspective, there’s nothing there that is too daunting.”

In many ways, Postecoglou has been preparing his entire life for this challenge where he’s excited to test himself against the best. “It’s why I got involved in the game and why I do what I do,” he says.

“We all aspire to rise to the highest possible level. I get an opportunity in a privileged position to experience the biggest tournament on earth against the very best our code has to offer. There can only be excitement within that and looking forward to experiencing that and hopefully making an impact.”

Despite physically never attending a FIFA World Cup, Postecoglou has been there every step of the way as a football fan, albeit from afar. Speaking after he named the Socceroos’ provisional 30-man squad, Postecoglou has no shortage of FIFA World Cup memories to share from Diego Maradona to Roberto Baggio.

However, his love of the tournament and lifelong passion for football was borne as an eight-year-old in 1974, watching the first-ever Socceroos side to qualify for the tournament punching above their weight in West Germany.

“I remember watching it on an old black-and-white TV and we sat up in the middle of the night,” Postecoglou recalls. “Watching it, it bought home to me how big the game is. I do remember the West Germany game and Australia acquitting ourselves very well against a side which went on to win the tournament. The impression it made on me as a kid reaffirmed my love and passion for the game.”

Postecoglou has spoken about the Socceroos coaching role being a “mission” for him, having wanted the job for years, fuelled by his passion for his country and the game. Athens-born Postecoglou may have migrated to Australia from Greece with his family as a five-year-old, but there was never any doubting his allegiance after cheering on Rale Rasic’s Socceroos from afar in 1974.

“With my background, coming into this country as a five-year-old, this is my adopted country and I wanted to fit in and part of that was understanding the pride of wearing the national team shirt,” Postecoglou says. “Watching the Socceroos in a FIFA World Cup and trying to reconcile that even though I was in a country where the code wasn’t the number one sport that we can still reach those heights, it certainly fuelled something in me.”

Back in 1974, there was no send-off game for the Socceroos who played Uruguay twice in back-to-back fixtures in Melbourne and Sydney in April, before reconvening in May for two warm-up games in Indonesia and Israel on route to West Germany.

Australia’s first FIFA World Cup match was against East Germany in Hamburg on June 14, where Rasic’s side were written off but held their opponents scoreless until half-time. A Colin Curran own goal and Joachim Streich strike within 20 minutes of the restart sealed the win for the East Germans.

Four days later, the Socceroos were again in action at Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion in front of 35,000 West Germany fans against the hosts who were favourites to lift the title, boasting the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Berti Vogts and Gerd Mueller among their ranks. It was a David versus Goliath contest and the brave Socceroos battled manfully, but were brushed aside 3-0.

Australia faced Chile in their final group game in torrential rain in Berlin, with both sides out of the running to reach the second round. On a strange afternoon when a group of Chilean fans ran onto the field mid-game with a car-sized flag and when Socceroos defender Ray Richards received two yellow cards but wasn’t sent off until a linesman later realised the situation, Australia claimed their first-ever FIFA World Cup point.

Thirty years on, the Socceroos will be out for more history against the Chileans, who will be Australia’s first opponents at the 2014 FIFA World Cup on June 13 (June 14 AEST) in Cuiaba. “It would be great to create some more history against them, but it’s a different Chile we’re facing and we’re a different Socceroos team,” Postecoglou says, refusing to draw any parallels.

Postecoglou instead draws upon Australia’s experiences in 2010 under Pim Verbeek, when they suffered a disastrous 4-0 opening loss to Germany which put them behind the eight-ball for the remainder of the group stage, when analysing his approach to the Chile clash. “From our perspective that first game is a pretty critical one,” he says. “We saw in the last FIFA World Cup if you don’t get off to a good start you put yourself under a lot of pressure for the rest of the tournament. We’ll do a lot of planning and a lot of our work leading into the first game is to ensure we perform well.”

As a former Australia youth international player and coach, Postecoglou has enjoyed a number of experiences at FIFA youth World Cups. Back in the 1985, 19-year-old Postecoglou was part of Australia’s 18-man squad for the FIFA World Youth Cup where the team travelled to Minsk in the Soviet Union to face the hosts, Nigeria and Canada. “That was my first taste of international football and it was a fantastic experience,” he recalls. “I hadn’t travelled abroad much so it was definitely an eye opener. We got a chance to play against the best in the world at our age level. I loved every moment of it. It sunk into me that I wanted to play for the senior Socceroos one day because it was such a great experience.”

Three years later, Postecoglou made his Socceroos debut as a 22-year-old, starting in defence as Australia drew 1-1 with Czechoslovakia at Olympic Park in his home city Melbourne. Postecoglou would only add three more senior caps to his career tally and never played at a senior FIFA World Cup, but said his Socceroos debut had remained a very fond memory. “It was definitely a special moment,” he says. “Even though I had a goal to do it, I never thought I would. That was a special moment particularly being in Melbourne in front of family and friends, it’s something I cherish.”

Postecoglou insists he was a limited player who got the most out of himself, before being forced by injury to retire in his late 20s. He treasures memories like his international debut, National Soccer League titles with South Melbourne, but also a magical night when he was part of the Socceroos squad which defeated then world champions Argentina 4-1 in the Bicentennial Gold Cup in July 1988 in front of almost 20,000 fans at the Sydney Football Stadium.

The tournament, involving Australia, Argentina, Brazil and Saudi Arabia, was played to celebrate the bicentenary of the first settlement of Port Jackson and fittingly led to scenes of patriotic joy. After losing 1-0 to Brazil and defeating Saudi Arabia 3-0, the Socceroos got the better of an Argentine line-up featuring players like Diego Simeone, Sergio Batista and Oscar Ruggeri.

“Watching our guys take on Argentina who were arguably the best side in the world at the time and beating them 4-1, I remember the impact it made that night,” Postecoglou recalls. “It made me believe the code could grow in this country. It didn’t matter the next morning what code you followed, everyone wanted a piece of the Socceroos and wanted to know how we did it. It gave me a glimpse into the future. This was back in 1988 and it’s taken a while for us to get where we are, but it showed us what we were capable of as a code when everything comes together.”

The result also goes to show nothing’s impossible, a pertinent message for the Socceroos ahead of the daunting assignments against 2010 World Cup finalists the Netherlands and Spain in Porto Alegre and Curitiba respectively. “Especially in our code anything’s possible and with our team we’ve always punched above our weight and there’s no reason why we can’t in Brazil,” Postecoglou says.

“We’re not going to go there and just play three games, we want to go there and measure ourselves against the best and if an opportunity presents itself, we’ll take it. That means if at any given moment, the opposition aren’t on their game, then we’ll try and knock them off.”

During Postecoglou’s time as national youth coach, he also went to six Under-17 or Under-20 FIFA World Cups with varying success. Nothing compares to the real thing, but the experiences of playing in tournaments in different environments in Argentina, Trinidad and Tobago, UAE, Finland, the Netherlands and Peru during those tournaments, has taught Postecoglou a key lesson for his preparations for Brazil.

“The one thing I learnt a lot through that time as a coach on the international stage is the understanding your time with players is limited, so it’s so important to plan well leading into these camps and leading in to these tournaments,” Postecoglou says.

The former Brisbane Roar and South Melbourne coach has the Socceroos’ daily itinerary in Brazil planned to the T. He adds: “I’ve certainly used that since I went into the role in the last six months to make sure by the time the players have arrived in camp that everything has been planned to the smallest detail so we can maximize the time we have together. I think that’s the biggest lesson I learnt through that time.”

Now the test comes for Postecoglou himself, and learning how to deal with the pressure and excitement which the World Cup brings. And as a debutant at the tournament, he admitted he will allow himself a moment to enjoy it all come June 13 at Cuiaba’s Arena Pantanal. “It’s important as a coach to take my time to experience it,” the 48-year-old says.

“Obviously my role is to ensure everyone is prepared to play to give them an opportunity to perform at their best, but there will be a moment when I’m there before the game when I’ll take the opportunity to soak it all in… and that experience will be pretty unique.”