What does the World Cup mean to you? It means everything to me. Growing up, it’s how I got to learn about the football greats like Pele, Eusebio, Beckenbauer and Maradona. Toto Schillaci at Italia 90, Romario four years later and Roberto Baggio when he kicked that penalty over the bar – they’re all moments you never forget. It’s the biggest tournament in the world and it means everything to me because I’m so passionate about football and about playing for my country. To be involved in the last World Cup was a real privilege and I can’t wait to be involved in this one.
What was the first World Cup you remember watching? It’s hard to pinpoint a particular World Cup because I have so many memories and many of them have come from watching videos of past World Cups. I’ve been watching football since I was a baby and I’ll still watch DVDs today so it’s tough to pick a favourite tournament.
I guess the first one I remember watching live was Italia 90. Schilacci and what he did at that World Cup was amazing. It seemed he created a whole buzz around the country. He would score a goal and run off like crazy. His eyes were so open, he didn’t have much hair, his legs were so powerful and his arms were all over the place when he scored, but those are the things that you remember.
Who did you support when you were watching the World Cup? I kind of jumped on the bandwagon a bit so I really got behind Italy in 1990. I loved Ruud Guillit and Holland, I loved Bebeto and Romario for Brazil in 1994, and Lineker and Barnes for England. I use to collect cards so it sometimes depended on which cards I had. I remember having players like Campos from Mexico and Francescoli of Uruguay, so I basically supported everyone because I watched every game.
What are the hopes and expectations for the Australia team at this World Cup? After the way we played at the last World Cup and the way we played in qualification this time around, the expectations have gone through the roof. People at home are expecting us to get through the group and go even further than that. It’s great to have that expectation, and as players we look back at how we did at the last World Cup and think we can do a lot better.
The way we got knocked out against Italy to a penalty in the 90th minute when they were down to ten men was pretty disappointing. It was a case of so near but yet so far, but the real positive is that Italy went on to win the World Cup so it shows how good we are. Now, though, we just have to take each game as it comes and if we get through the group then we’ll see how far that takes us.
What do you think of your group? It’s a very tough group. Germany are very disciplined and in every competition they are there or thereabouts. They’ve got a great record and are always tough to beat. Ghana are strong and aggressive and can run all day. They’re powerful and skilful and can be quite unpredictable so you never know what you’re going to come up against on the day. Serbia are probably the toughest team in our group so we won’t take anything for granted and we just have to take every game as if it’s our last and battle for 90 minutes.
Do you think the Australia team of 2010 is better than the 2006 version? Every single player plays in the one of the big leagues in the world and in the toughest competitions. We’ve lost a lot of experience from 2006 but we’ve gained a lot of young legs and the young players that were involved in 2006 are four years older now. It’s a hard one but there seems to be a rejuvenated freshness about the team. The way we qualified in the Asian group was a great experience and a tough one, involving lots of travel and playing some tough teams, so to come through that was great. We’re a pretty battle-hardened bunch and we’re going to give it our best shot in South Africa.
Do you feel a lot of responsibility given that you’re one of the senior players? I do, but it’s something that I enjoy. I played a lot of matches in qualifying and scored a lot of goals, travelled all over the world and played in every match I could for Australia and Everton. It’s what you dream about as a kid, to be an important player in the team, and I hope I can help take the team to the next level. We want to have a successful Australian team so we can pass on a positive legacy for the future.
We all knew about Guus Hiddink before the last World Cup but how does Pim Verbeek compare? He’s been unbelievable. He’s worked with Hiddink before and worked with other national teams, so he’s got great experience. He’s brought a great sense of discipline and confidence to the team. He’s very honest, he’s a good communicator, he stays in contact with the players all the time and he’s always trying to get feedback. He looks after the players and he knows how many games we play for our clubs and manages that aspect well. He’s someone who has adapted to the Australian way of thinking, he’s someone the lads like a lot and we know we can trust him as a manager. I’ve got a great relationship with him and so do most of the other guys.
What Australian players do you think could make an impact in South Africa? We’ve got a few good youngsters coming through. Someone like Dario Vidosic is one to watch. He plays in Germany, he’s very quick and sharp, has a change of pace and can create goals and score them. We’ve got a lot of young players, but I still see myself as young!
What are your expectations of South Africa as a country? I’ve never been so I’m really excited. I think it’s great for the country to host the biggest tournament in the world. The African people love their football so it’s sure to be a very special atmosphere. It’s such a big deal over there and hopefully it can inspire some people to take up football. Steven Pienaar has given me the low-down on what the country’s like and while a lot of people talk about the negatives you should just focus on the positives and have a good time. My hope is to have a great campaign with Australia and enjoy being in South Africa.
Who do you think is England’s key player? Steven Gerrard, without question. He’s one of the most influential players on the pitch that I’ve ever seen. He can change a game in an instant and because he hasn’t played too much football this year I think he might just be in peak condition when it comes to the World Cup and have a real impact. England have got a lot of match winners but for me, Gerrard is the key.
How do you think England will do? They undoubtedly have the potential to win the tournament. They talk about how they can win it before every tournament and with the amount of investment going into English football and with the players being the highest paid in the world they really should be winning the World Cup. The best thing England have done is appoint a world-class manager. He’s very disciplined. I don’t think you’ll see some of the fiascos that happened in the last World Cup. I think he’s very realistic in the job in hand but I honestly think it’s their best chance for years to win the tournament.
If Australia did well, what kind of atmosphere would you expect to see back home? The country is already right behind us, and after the last World Cup I think people are getting excited about watching us perform on the world stage again. The last World Cup had such a positive impact and we want to keep that momentum going. I think the place will explode if we do well, like it does when our other sporting teams do well, but it’s up to us players to make it happen.
Interview: June 2010.