I have been covering the Socceroos 2018 World Cup qualification campaign for the last three years and have been to many press conferences and watched many games; I’ve also been privileged to interview Postecoglou one on one.
So, when Postecoglou announced he was stepping down as Socceroos coach despite qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia, like may Australian fans I didn’t believe it; and more to the point I couldn’t understand why.
Why, after proving his critics wrong – and there where many in recent months, could he not finish the job especially when earlier this year he told me he was ready to take on the world.
“It’s not just about qualifying, it’s about qualifying, and hopefully going to a World Cup and making an impact there,” he told me in May.
“I have a certain philosophy and for me it’s about qualifying playing a certain style of football, that’s why I came to the job and that’s what I’m going to see it through.”
While the decision to leave was puzzling it also made me upset, perhaps for selfish reasons. For me, Postecoglou’s journey from migrant kid to Asian Cup winner shone a light on the Greek Australian migrant experience. This was never clearer than when Ange was speaking at a fundraising event and told the story of how he fell in love with football and it really resonated with me.
“Why I love this game and I’m passionate about it was because it brought me closer to my father,” he said.
“We came out here in 1970, I was five years old and my sister was 10. Mum and Dad didn’t speak the language, didn’t know a soul in this country, and there were no job prospects and nowhere to live.
“In the Greek community there were two places of worship. It was church on Sunday morning and then there was Middle Park aand watching South Melbourne Hellas play in the afternoon. My dad’s subconscious knew that we were in a foreign land and he thought, how do I get close to my son? My dad didn’t understand footy (AFL), he definitely didn’t understand cricket. He didn’t understand why people would sit out there for six hours with a stick and a ball. Sport is the easiest ways for fathers and sons to bond so he thought I want my boy to love this game that I love so he really encouraged me to love the game and that is where the seed and the passion for football grew in me.”
Ange told this story in his book Changing the Game and on many other media platforms. It made me think that Ange’s voice as national team coach was pretty powerful, not only to Greek Australian migrants, but to all Australians.
Ange’s impact on Australian football was all encompassing. He not only wanted the game to grow but he was also proud of its traditions and former heroes. Before Australia played their World Cup qualifier against Honduras, Football Federation Australia (FFA) invited a number of former Socceroos to form a guard of honour as the team walked out onto the pitch. One of those players invited was Ange’s close friend and former Socceroos teammate Peter Raskopoulos. He recalled the moment to Neos Kosmos.
“A few of us didn’t really want to do it but once we heard that Ange requested it we decided to do it for Ange and the team,” he says.
“That’s the type of person Ange is: he is humble and he doesn’t forget where he came from. If you ask Ange he will tell you proudly he was born in Greece and that he came to Australia when he was a young kid. It just tells what type of person he is.
“I can tell you honestly that Ange will go down in history as a person who reshaped Australian football for the better. His greatest achievement besides winning the Asian Cup in 2015 was being able to bring out the best in his players. That is a skill that not many coaches around the world have.”
In the final months of Postecoglou’s tenure he was under great pressure after Australia missed out on direct qualification for the World Cup. His tactics and style – the bedrock of his success – were now scrutinised and belittled. You could hear rumblings about his formation in the press box during the Syria play-off. But against Honduras, Ange’s way prevailed helping to secure Australia’s fourth consecutive World Cup appearance and he did it in a way that defied his critics who had called for his resignation.
So again, why give up a chance to play at the World Cup in June next year? It’s a question Raskopoulos appreciates is on the lips of many Socceroos fans.
“Of course, it’s confusing for a lot of people that don’t understand or haven’t been in that situation,” he says.
“I am definitely not puzzled by the decision, I can relate and understand it. It’s not so much that Ange wanted the accolades or things like that. He was probably fed up with certain parts of FFA and certain parts of the media and things to do with his family life. For Ange it was just the right time and he made the decision that he did.”
One of the most touching moments during Postecoglou’s resignation was when he struggled to hold back tears as he spoke about the impact his journey as coach had on his family.
“To my three boys, James, Max, Alexi, you make me smile every day and to my beautiful wife,” he said during the press conference to announce he was stepping down.
“I left 24 hours after Max was born because we played Ecuador in London. I’ll never be able to repay the sacrifices she’s made for me to follow my dream over the last four years of coaching our national team. Hopefully someday along the track I do get to repay her before she realises she can do a lot better than me.”
Perhaps the man who understand more than most about what it’s like overseeing a national team at the highest level is Rale Rasic. Like Postecoglou, Rasic had a young family when he took the Socceroos to the 1974 World Cup in Germany and he said he can empathise with the sacrifices Postecoglou made.
“I understand that because every coach in the world is a victim,” he says.
“When I got married in 1968, Daniella my daughter was born shortly after and my son Simon was born in 1970 and that was the year I took the Socceroos job. Even when you are in the house and you look at your family you don’t see them because your mind is on something else. When you are away, you are with the team and media, so your mind gets toggled into the players’ problems and the complexities of the job.
“I lost my son at 43 and that is the price. Kids take up certain duties and certain responsibilities which are to not go to school or to leave school early or not to finish their schooling or their occupation. Those are some of the consequences of being totally involved in your profession.
“There is a price in everything we do and the price is not being with your children. Not seeing them grow up, not attending education functions or following up their exams. The price is heavy and it’s called life.”
Perhaps it’s not about understating why Postecoglou left but appreciating all that Ange has done for Australian football.
That he is simply a Greek migrant kid who coached his adopted country and ironically showed Australians how to play football the Australian way – with character and a winning mentality. Raskopoulos says that best here.
“Ange believed that we are here to win every game possible,” he says.
“I take my hat off to him and I told him that. Just recently we were only reflecting on when we were playing together for the Socceroos, that if we lost 1-0 or 2-0 it was a good result.
“Back then we were scared of losing 3-0 or 4-0 to the better nations and if we had a draw or respectable loss, it would be a good result for our coaching staff but that wasn’t Ange’s philosophy – he always wanted to win.”