IN HINDSIGHT: MARK SCHWARZER
E HAD a professional career that spanned more than two decades and took him to the heights of club football. But Mark Schwarzer will forever be associated with the Socceroos finally ending its luckless run in qualifying for the World Cup. In 2005, in the play-off between the
Oceania champion and South American fi¡h-placer, Schwarzer and his team-mates stared down Uruguay in a penalty shoot-out, a trip to Germany on the line.
The then Middlesbrough and later Fulham goalkeeper saved the first and fourth penalties, se£ing up John Aloisi’s eternal highlight. Schwarzer backstopped the Socceroos’ campaign four years later, and became something of a totemic veteran presence in his last playing years at Chelsea and Leicester. He now lends his football savvy to Optus Sport, where he’ll serve as host for the network’s comprehensive, every-game coverage of the World Cup in Russia this month. He spoke to Inside Sport about his World Cup days, and what’s in store. We spoke to you just before Brazil four years ago, just as your playing days were winding down. You noted that you were going to enjoy the World Cup as a spectator. Covering the event this time around for Optus Sport, how have you found the transition to the media?
I think the biggest challenge has always been, particularly when you’re a player and you do the odd appearance on commentary, you tend to be very neutral and you didn’t want to offend anyone. You wanted to basically brush over things, particularly when they were difficult questions. Whereas now, because it is your job ... I still want to be very fair, I still want to be honest, but I also want to give hopefully a bit more of an insight as to why I would be critical of somebody. Rather than just the standard throwaway question comments, like “he should have done beer” or “that was rubbish”.
During your long career, did you ever make it to Russia?
I played once, a Europa League game for Fulham against a team called Amkar Perm; the most easterly European city – during the Second World War it wasn’t even on the map because it was apparently where they produced a lot of the ammunition for the Russians. So it was an interesting place. It’s based on a lot of chemicals that they produce there, pesticides.
We played at Amkar Perm on an artificial pitch, because the weather there can be very extreme. And it was literally a place that popped up out of the middle of nowhere. It was a smaller club, so it wasn’t a huge atmosphere, wasn’t a packed stadium. But it was kind of that Eastern European feel, they have a particular number of hardcore
“It’s funny, you look at 2006 and 2010 and the parallels are almost identical: the results were the same in terms of how many points we got, but obviously we lost one game 4-0 to Germany. That was the difference.”
supporters, fanatical, I suppose. And that was very much the case. We turned up the airport, there were guys all dressed as the Grim Reaper.
You were a part of dressing-rooms that had blokes from everywhere. Do players of different nationalities relate to each other differently these days?
It’s definitely different now compared to 15-20 years ago because there weren't as many foreign players, of course. When I first came to Middlesbrough, we only had four or five foreigners. But I was never really classed as a foreigner. They’d talk about the foreigners, and I was like, “Hang on a sec, I’m a foreigner.” And they’re like, “No you’re not, you’re an Aussie.”
So it was very different. Back then, there wouldn’t be a huge number of players from one country, necessarily. You may have another teammate from the same country, all the rest, generally from all parts of the globe. So the interaction with players was far greater back then. Now it’s a lile bit less because you tend to have bigger groups of foreign players. It’s not that players don’t interact, it’s that there doesn’t seem to be that urgency to really kind of get to know your other team-mates so much because you’ve got your own lile community within that group of players.
With so much big-time football these days, does the World Cup still maer as much to players?
I still think it does. It’s still regarded as the tournament ... The World Cup, it’s every nation on the planet that participates, 200 nations or whatever it is on the planet competing for that one trophy.
I think the danger is in the future – and there’s a lot of sound coming out and noise coming out of FIFA – that they want to expand the groups, more numbers. I think that’s the danger, actually, of taking a bit of gloss off it. Particularly the early stages of the tournament – it no longer becomes this tournament that is such an incredible accomplishment to just to get there, let alone to win it. We’re in danger of increasing the numbers and losing that mystique of geing to a World Cup.
I don’t think it should be necessarily just a tournament for numbers – it needs to be a tournament of a certain level of class. You want to have nations continuously trying to push themselves to get beer year aer year, campaign aer campaign to make the next one, if they miss out on the previous one. Or if they’ve made it, to realise how good it was, like we did with Australia ...
What are your memories of qualifying in 2005? Was it relief, joy or were you just locked into the process?
It was all of the above because of the journey we’d taken. And I’m not talking about just that qualification part, I’m talking about how many failed campaigns, nearly campaigns, we’d been a part of. The elation of qualification, finally, aer 32 years, to finally break the so-called hoodoo. To have done it in the most difficult way, through Oceania and the play-off, where the level of competition all of a sudden goes to the likes of
the fi h-best team in South America. And Uruguay is one of the big names of world football.
There’s so many different emotions, so many different feelings that you go through qualifying for that particular World Cup. I don’t think – you can never say never – but it’s going to be incredibly difficult for any Socceroos team to replicate that, unless we go through a period of time where we don’t qualify, then there’s that, you know ... that period of having missed out for so many times, for so many years, and then you wake up and finally it's your turn. Then there's that sort of adrenaline, that sort of experience, again. But it's unlikely.
How was the experience of a World Cup campaign? One thing we o en fail to appreciate is how quickly it can pass, three matches at its shortest ...
There aren’t a lot of games, and the pressure that’s on each individual game is enormous. The longer you go on into the tournament, whereby you start to see how many points you need, what results you need, the pressure grows even more.
Germany was an incredible World Cup for so many reasons. And one of the reasons being because of where it was: the accessibility, the atmosphere in the stadiums, our first World Cup in 32 years, the type of players in the squad, and that pressurised situation where you had a manager who had experience, knew he was up against it with a team that had never qualified out of the group stages, but had potential. So the pressure that was put on us was enormous, purely by virtue of the fact of being at the World Cup. But also the environment that you’re in: the competition for places, the manager puing pressure on players to perform. That is really tough to explain, one of those situations that I don’t think anyone will really fathom unless they're in that position themselves.
You’ve made the point before about how similar the Socceroos’ 2006 and ’10 World Cups felt, even if the outcomes were not.
It’s funny, you look at 2006 and 2010 and the parallels are almost identical: the results were the same in terms of how many points we got, but obviously we lost one game 2-0 to Brazil and 4-0 to Germany. That was the difference. That was why we got knocked out.
That was our problem (in 2010), the worst result we’ve ever had was in the first game. It was a rude awakening for us. We all know that was the game that cost us. You can lose 2-0 to Germany, there’s no shame in that. But 4-0, and the way we did it – player sent off, then we continued to try and press and get back in the game – it was ultimately going to cost us.
If you look at our next two performances, we were equally as good as we were in 2006. Against Ghana, we were incredibly unfortunate to have had a player sent off early in the game. But we dominated the game, even still should have won the game with ten men. And then we beat Serbia, and it wasn’t a dead rubber. We needed enough goals to knock out Ghana, and viceversa, Serbia could have qualified if they’d beaten us. Aer the Germany game, we lied and we played as well as in2006 ... But people don’t judge it on that.
And to see what the Germans became at that World Cup, and four years later ...
When you talk about 2010, for a lot of people, it’s kind of those tournaments that people want to write off and put it down to being a bit of a disaster, when it actually wasn’t. I thought the manager (Pim Verbeek) was unfairly criticised for a large proportion of the tournament, and the players. When you analyse the games, it was as plain as that – it was one result, and unfortunately for us, it was the first game. If we had four points going into our last game against Germany and lost 40, I don’t think the negative connotation would be as extreme.
You had a fantastic vantage point to one of the great underdog tales in recent sport, Leicester City in 2015-16. How did that happen?
Inside Leicester, gosh, I don’t think any of it was rocket science. It was a combination of incredible team spirit, hard work ethic, a culmination of everybody reaching their peak at the same time and doing it for prey much the course of 38 games throughout the season. And the further it went on, the greater the selfbelief became.
There was very lile expectation from anyone, even in the change rooms. Even until the last couple of games, really. It was a case of, right, let’s just go out and play and continue along this incredible journey and see where it takes us. No pressure, because weekin, weekout everybody kept writing them off.
Could an underdog tale – and we’re certainly talking Socceroos – happen in Russia?
Definitely, even more so at a World Cup. With a knockout series, you get out of the group, then it becomes knockout. And I think anyone can beat anyone in 90 minutes or 120 minutes ...
The Aussies, starting off in their group – of course, you can’t look beyond that – they are the underdogs. We're probably perceived as being one of the weakest teams in that group from the outside world. I don’t have a problem with that. I like it when people write us off, when people underestimate us.
But the guys need to do the work; there’s no doubt that the guys are going to work incredibly hard, going to be as fit as they possibly can be going into a major tournament. The manager will have them tactically as bestprepared as he can in the period of time that he’s got. With the Australian sort of aitude and the way they qualified, that will actually put them in a great position because that confidence, that experience, that highpressure situation, it’s gonna be fun.
"We're probably perceived as being one of the weakest teams in our group. I don’t have a problem with that. I like it when people underestimate us."
Schwarzer keeps out Marcelo Zalayeta’s attempt in that penalty shoot-out of 2005. With Sutton United manager Paul Doswell before an FA Cup match in 2017. “Guess what? We’re going to the World Cup!”
A farewell lap with Brett Emerton and Jason Culina in 2014. With Petr Cech at Chelsea training in 2013. Schwarzer on high alert against Germany’s Sami Khedira at the 2010 World Cup. B Tim Cahill, Lucas Neill and Schwarzer celebrate against Japan in ’06.