Lucy Zelic - 'In conversation with': John Aloisi

Former Brisbane Roar coach John Aloisi. Source: AAP

John Aloisi scored against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, he's the only Aussie to have ever played in the Premier League, Serie A and La Liga and he scored the most important penalty in Australian football history. But as Lucy Zelic discovers, there are so many amazing stories still to uncover from one of Australian's football biggest legends.

When you hear the name John Aloisi, the first thing that springs to mind is that iconic moment in 2005 when he slotted home the winning penalty against Uruguay which saw us qualify for our first World Cup in 32 years.

The next thought generally leads to his coaching career which includes a difficult spell with Melbourne Heart and resignation from Brisbane Roar but few pause to acknowledge the glittering in between.

An enviable career abroad filled with success and Socceroos stardom - Aloisi did it all.

After almost seven years in this industry, I also can’t say I’ve met a bigger gentleman than John.

Win, loss or draw he was always humble, polite, professional and he commanded respect wherever he went - just ask the players who have worked under him.

But as we’ve learned recently, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the 44-year-old who recently revealed he had open-heart surgery to repair a faulty mitral valve.

Here, Aloisi opens up about the scary experience, how Ernesto Valverde ended up as his landlord and what scoring at the Bernabeu against the Galacticos was really like. 

LZ: Firstly, I was both shocked and relieved to hear that you overcame this terrifying heart surgery. Can you talk me through it and how it all started? Had you been feeling any symptoms for a while or was it something that came on suddenly? 

JA: I felt it for probably one or two months. I thought it was me just feeling unfit but obviously it wasn't.

I thought 'I am getting old, I need to start getting back into my training.' [Laughs] But the thing that was scaring me a little bit or that just didn't feel right, was when I would sit down and I could really feel my heart racing and pump and that's when I started to get a little bit 'alright, I need to get checked.'

But in hindsight, I think if I was working in full-time coaching, I don't think I would have got checked, I think I would have just deal with it because I wasn't feeling sick or that I couldn't do anything, I was feeling okay. But luckily, I did go and get a check-up.  

I've read a couple of interviews that you've done about it where you've spoken about how scary it was and that your life effectively starts to flash before your eyes, especially being a parent. I can't even imagine what starts to go through your head? 

When I first got told, I walked in to see the cardiologist at the hospital and I was by myself and he just wrote down a piece of paper, ‘severe’ so I knew that there was something wrong.

But straightaway you go into a sort of a calm state because you want to try and gather as much information as possible.

Then when I walked out of there, I knew what was happening, what had to be done and when it was going to be done.

I rang my wife and you're trying to be strong for them so they don't panic, so with my wife I was fine. With the kids, again, I was being positive and I look back now and it actually helped them a lot but it also helped me because I was being positive around them, they weren't panicking at all.

But when I was alone, that was the time when thoughts start to creep into your mind: 'I don't want to be without the kids', 'I don't want them to be without a father' - all that stuff starts to play on your mind ' 'how's the operation going to go? I hope it's a success.'

It's a major organ that they're going in to try and repair but I ended up trying to bring it back to my playing days and also coaching.

I started to write down how I wanted the operation to go, how I wanted the recovery to go, just so I can start to visualise it and it helped me mentally more than anything, because Lucy, you do get scared.

But you try to block all the negative stuff out your mind as much as possible and I found that helped when I started to write positive affirmations down and start to read them as much as possible to myself. That helped me a lot.

The last night before I went in, my daughters were saying goodbye and they were crying really badly and it hit me pretty hard that 'let's hope it all goes well' because I wasn't going to see them again before the operation.

I was just trying to picture my mind that I was going to see them after.  

In one of the interviews you said that you started to think about whether or not it was because of the stresses of your coaching career or even from your playing days and it wouldn't be the first time I've heard of players suffering from heart issues.

My brother Ivan had a couple of things pop up with his heart and Kiki Naumoff had to stop playing because of issues with his.

Were the doctors 100 percent certain that this was just bad luck and wasn't as a result of your football?  

Well, they said they were 100 percent, I don't know because you never know where it could come from and why it's happened.

But they said, 'you're just unlucky, it's like crossing the road and getting hit by a car.' It's not like it was disease, it's not like you're born with it, it's not hereditary because they were the first questions that I asked when I did get told was 'is it because of playing days?'

Like you, I'd heard about a number of elite athletes either having heart issues or even dying on the pitch - there was a player in Spain, Antonio Puerta - so you start to think, 'is it something that we did in training, is it even the stresses of management?’

Even though I didn't feel that I was stressed, you don't know but they said, 'no, it's got nothing to do with it, it's just one of those things that have happened.' 

Well, thank God that you've been given the all-clear. I noted that one of the first things you asked was, 'can I get back into coaching again?'  

[Laughs] It was funny because when he told me I had the issue, he must of looked at me like 'bloody hell, you're going in for major heart surgery, you've got more things to worry about than that!'   

Well, you were obviously thinking about it!  

Yeah, of course I was because I've still got a lot that I want to achieve in coaching and I love coaching.

I love the game and I want to be successful in coaching. So, it was one of those things that I asked first of all, and then when I got through my operation and it was success, again, I asked it [laughs] and they were positive.

The surgeon goes "yeah, we want to see you coaching so we can follow you" because they were football fans, so it was a relief.  

You’ve had some time away from coaching since you left Brisbane and when I've spoken to players who have worked under you, they all have nothing but glowing things to say about you - they think you're a fantastic coach.

A lot of them actually say, had you been given more resources at a club, you could do great things.

When you reflect on your coaching career so far, do you feel like it's an accurate reflection of what you're truly capable of? 

Look, the results don't lie, so you have to understand that sometimes you might have not been doing something right, you have to self-reflect and actually try and learn from your experiences and I have.

A lot of it is not just the tactical side - the coaching's important, the tactics and all that - but it's the whole club in general.

There are situations, and we see it now in the A-League, that there are certain clubs that still need to improve and it's very hard for them to sustain success and be at the top for a long period because they haven't got that structure right.

I'm not here to criticise the clubs that I was at, all I want to say is that I've learned a lot, I'm always improving as a coach and with Brisbane Roar, people forget that we were one point off of winning it the first season.

If we actually beat Victory in the last game instead of drawing, we would have won the Premiers Plate and in the second year we finished third and we also beat Shanghai Shenhua away from home in the Champions League qualifiers.

John Aloisi masterminded a win over Shanghai Shenhua in 2017. Shanghai's side included Carlos Tevez and Obafemi Martins.

 

So, there were a lot of successes in the club that everyone knows was struggling internally.

When I first arrived, we got kicked out of our training facility and players hadn't been paid their super but I'm also smart enough to understand that people don't really see that and don't really care about that - they just want to see results on the pitch.

It's important for my next coaching stint that I pick the right club and where I know that I can have a real good chance of winning.  

Can I ask what happened to Brisbane? What pushed you to resign? I was shocked and thought something must have gone wrong because it's not in your DNA to just walk away from something.  

Sometimes, and this is another learning experience, you have to realise when your time's up at a certain club.

It had nothing to do with results because I've been through situations before where I know that I can turn things around and I wanted to be there for the players to keep the group together but I just felt my time was up.

I also don't want to go into too much detail because I don't think it's the right thing to do, to talk about a club that I've just left.   

What were some of the lessons learned from the Melbourne Heart experience? 

The lessons from Melbourne Heart was definitely the club situation.

At the time, they were looking to sell and they'd made massive budget cuts from the year before when John van't Schip was still in charge and the overall budget was a lot higher than when I ended up taking over.

John Aloisi with Harry Kewell
Getty Images AsiaPac

 

I didn't realise at the time that could make a big difference and make a massive impact, so now walking into a club, you need to know what you've got available to you and what sort of players you can bring in.

Everyone talks about the salary cap and that it's even but there are certain clubs that are allowed to spend a little bit more because their budgets more - we can see it now with a Mariners, compared to a Sydney FC - it's not a level playing field.

I learned pretty quickly at Melbourne Heart that sometimes you need to make sure that you're going into a job that you're not going to have those challenges in terms of your budget.

Not only playing budgets, just your all-around budget in terms of your football department and all that stuff.

At Brisbane Roar, it ended up being a little bit similar but I felt that we still had enough, especially in those first couple of years with the players that we had, that we could challenge.  

One of the big topics of conversation right now are Australian coaches versus foreign coaches and historically, the records show that the Aussies are the better option but they're still being overlooked. Where do you stand on that? 

I don't want to say that foreign coaches can't coach in Australia because then we'll end up thinking that way when we going overseas that people are looking at us like that. 

I actually believe that people underestimate Australian coaches.

We've got a good generation of coaches the last few years, I can name so many.

The reason why I can say that is because I've also played overseas, I go visiting clubs still when I'm not coaching and seeing what they're doing and seeing how they coach.

We have to coach in a different way here compared to some clubs overseas because we have to manage a salary cap, we have to manage an actual group of players and it's not like overseas where you can just go and get rid of someone and bring someone else in.

You have to understand the environment that you're in, we're playing in summer, which is completely different to European leagues, the Australian mentality is completely different to the mentality of players or leagues overseas, so I think the Australian coaches have a massive advantage and I'm not just saying it - the results are there.

The year that we nearly finished top, Popa was up near the top, Kevin Muscat and Graham Arnold were up near the top.

When Ange Postecoglou was coaching, he was up near the top so it's all Aussie coaches.

It's the same this year with Steve Corica and you've got Popa and Ufuk Talay - we've got a good generation of coaches and a lot of that has got to do with the older coaches that we've had like Ange Postecoglou and Graham Arnold.

We've had to go to their level and that's helped us a lot.

You can see it in certain places around the world like Spain - because of the way Guardiola has been for the last 10, 15 years, the rest of the Spanish coaches have had to go to a certain level.

In Germany, it's the same with Jurgen Klopp and then all of a sudden you've got Naglesmann and all these young coaches coming through and they had to go to a certain level. It's the same with us here in Australia.

We've had to go to a certain level also because, a lot of the coaches had that European experience as well. We're underestimated and we're probably undervalued at the moment still in terms of what we can do.  

I want to go back to your playing days and how you coped with retirement because it's not an easy thing to do, especially for someone like you who had such an incredible career. How did you handle it?  

I sort of knew the last few years of my career with my injuries that the time was coming so I already started doing my coaching courses because I knew that I was going to retire, so that was already in my head.

I didn't miss the pain but it is a hard transition because you're going from every day training with your team-mates and something that you've enjoyed doing, what you've loved doing for virtually your whole life to all of a sudden, it's gone.

And then you're a coach and sometimes being a coach is very lonely because you haven't got your teammates with you, so you have to be out there by yourself.

You have certain people around you but it's a completely different way of being and so that that was strange.

But, I always talk to players that I've coached and that are going through the actual transition period and I sat down and talked to Matt McKay and Jade North last week just to see how they're going, I also saw Michael Theo a couple of weeks ago.

That first year especially is a hard transition for a player. The first month or two Lucy, they're excited because they haven't got structure but then after that, they want structure and they want something in their life that they're waking up and going to. We have to be careful.

I think there should still be more education because the mental health side comes into play.

But I was able to deal with it quite well because I had something to go to. 

How much has football changed from, say, when you were at the peak of your playing powers to watching it now? 

I think it's changed in the sense that physically, everyone is at a level - especially when you're talking about Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, the German league - and technically, I think that the improvements there.

But that's also because of the way the players look after themselves now recovery wise - we started to do that towards the end of our career because that started to come in.

The video analysis has gone to another level, I can't recall too many times in my career that we had video analysis over in Europe so we had to learn a lot of that on the pitch.

We were learners on the field, whereas the generation now learn more through video than probably what they will on the pitch.

They have to see it first because they've grown up different to us. They've grown up with computers, they've grown up playing games on PlayStation and all those things so they're more visual learners, whereas I think that we had to do it on the pitch to understand the concept of what the coach was trying to say.  

That’s really interesting. Obviously social media has a lot to answer for too because that can start to affect their performances on the pitch and that then changes how you have to coach doesn't it? 

It does. The social media aspect is something that coaches especially need to be on top of.

When we were coming through, social media wasn't around and when we were playing, it was just starting to come in towards the end but it was mainly newspapers, radio and television where there'd be that critcism but the coach would know about it because it's media, it's in their face, whereas the social media side - a lot of the time, you might not know what's being said to one of your players through social media.

It's something that you need to understand and be on top of and explain to players.

The biggest thing I used to say to players, was that the most important is that you're doing what we ask you to do on the pitch.

If you're doing it and you're working as hard as possible to actually do the right things and you make mistakes - everyone makes mistakes - you can't worry about what people, media, social media and whatever say because they're not out there doing it like you are.

So, you try and sort of guard them from the outside world but it's not easy.  

You were the first Australian ever to play and score in La Liga, Serie A and the Premier League, you've played in the Confederations Cup, the World Cup, the Olympics, a Copa del Rey final and you've played against some of the best players in the world.

You are one of the best we've ever produced without a doubt.

How do you look back on your career and what are some of the highlights for you?

Because everyone immediately goes to the Uruguay game but I think you've also had such an amazing career away from that too. 

It’s funny because that's what people stop and talk to me about all the time - the penalty, the Uruguay moment, which I'm happy that I'm in people's minds about that and I'm lucky that I was a part of that special night.

But, in terms of my own career, I probably reflect more now that I'm not working.

When you're working, you're looking to the future, you're looking to keep on improving as a coach but if I reflect back now, there were so many moments that I probably didn't even realise at the time.

Your career goes passed very quick so you don't enjoy it as much as you probably should.

But the Confederations Cup was a massive highlight for me because I scored two goals against Germany, two goals against Argentina and I was second-leading goal scorer of the tournament and we didn't even make it to the next round. So, those little things personally, was a highlight.

Scoring in the Copa Del Rey. I ended up going back to Pamplona where Osasuna played in April last year and the whole stadium were singing my name and it just hit me that 'shit, this is something special.'

 

It was 14 or 15 years ago when I had scored in that final but they all recall that final because I was the only time Osasuna made a final and it was against Real Betis. I scored against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.

John Aloisi of Osasuna tackles David Beckham of Real Madrid in the 2003-04 season.
Reuters

My Lord, what was that like Johnny? Just listening to you pick apart your career, you realise, wow, this is remarkable stuff.  

Obviously it was unbelievable to play at Real Madrid's stadium at the Bernabeu and the first time you go there, you're amazed by how big the stadium is and how high the stands go but you also know what you're coming up against.

You're not only coming up against Real Madrid's history you're coming up against, the likes of Zidane, Figo, Raul - Hierro was playing in that game that I scored in, so you're talking about Spanish and world footballing icons that were the Galacticos at that stage so that was exciting.

It was one of those things that I remember now and look and reflect that it was an unbelievable time to play in La LIga.

Little things that probably people don't remember, you mentioned before about the Confederations Cup, the World Cup...

You had the Olympics as well...

Yeah, the Asian Cup too. I was able to score in all those tournaments which was another thing after my career finished I back and and go 'well, I don't know how many people have done that.'

That's quite special in itself but it's one of those things, people forget about your career and then go onto something else. [Laughs]  

As football fans, we're only ever privy to the actual deals get done and maybe we're exposed to some speculation here and there but are there any clubs that you came close to signing for that didn't eventuate that still haunts you today? 

Yeah, there was a few.

After the Confederations Cup, I had a few of the German clubs that were very interested.

I would have liked to have played in Germany because I just think that their stadiums and the support that they have is amazing but nothing really ended up coming of it.

The closest I got to signing at another club - there's always speculation and there are always clubs that your agents are talking to and it's pretty close, but then your club doesn't agree - but the one that I was disappointed with was after the World Cup and just before the deadline, I was supposed to sign for Celta Vigo and at the time Celta Vigo were a team that played in Europe and it would have been nice because it's a great place to not only play, but also to live ao I was disappointed I wasn't able to go there.  

I have to ask you about this particular moment because I've watched the footage over and over again, and I still can't decide whether you punched Danny Mills or whether you elbowed him like the designated referee on that day said.

To me it looked like an open palm slap but can you set the record straight?  

[Laughs] Yeah, I'll set the record straight - it was stupid, that was the first thing.

Danny Mills was niggling at me all game and he just kept on kicking and also behind the play and it was getting frustrating and maybe I was frustrated with my own performance, I can't remember.

The ball had gone out and he gave me another little kick and I just had enough and I turned around and it was more of a slap, which is funny because I'm not left-handed - I don't know why I hit him with my left hand.

[Laughs] After the game, I was so upset with myself, I was thinking if I was going to do something stupid like that, at least hit him harder. [Laughs]  

What are some of your memories of the players that you played against that you were really in awe of? 

I was in awe of Zidane because he just looked like he was gliding all the time.

He's a tall guy and strong but he was just so elegant in the way he was with the ball and just the way his touches always used to be into space. It was just unbelievable to see live.

 

Then there was Ronaldinho - when he was at Barcelona, it was something completely different.

He would do stuff that I'd never seen on a football pitch before and that was when he was probably at his peak was when he was at Barcelona.

 

They're two that really, really stood out. Another one that stood out more so because you don't see that side was, Figo.

Just the way he used to work off the ball - his work rate was unbelievable and then on the ball, we knew how good he was.

I remember talking to one of my team-mates later in my career, (Mauricio) Pellegrino, he played at Barcelona for a little bit but then he also played at Valencia and he was playing with me at Alaves and he said to me that Figo was the best trainer he's ever trained with because he just worked so hard at his game and that was when he was at Barcelona before he went to Real Madrid.

He said that people just think that he's gifted but his work rate is something that he hadn't seen before and just his professionalism.

 

So then you see, that's probably where Ronaldo sort of understood what it takes to keep on improving and being at that level and Ronaldo has taken it to a different level and that's all because Figo was Portuguese and Ronaldo looked up to him.  

What about coaches? Who is the best coach you worked under?  

I had some different sorts of coaches.

I really enjoyed my time at Osasuna with Javier Aguirre who's a Mexican coach who is now coaching at Leganes again - he coached Atletico Madrid, he coached the Mexican national team to two World Cup appearances.

He was just one of those managers that always was able to get you up for a game and his motivational talks were unbelievable - they just got you going.

It wasn't just, 'come on boys we have to win today', it would be something that he'd bring back to maybe something that was happening in the present, in life in general and he'd bring it into his team talks. I thought that he was really good.

Guus Hiddink, of course, had his different aspects that now looking back, I can understand how he was trying to push buttons with certain individuals and what he was trying to do and he got the best out of us, really.

When you look at our performances at the World Cup, people talk about, did we play well?

We were actually a really good footballing team, first of all, and we were matching up with the best in the world.

Brazil - we lost that game but we actually matched them.

The Italian game, even though we probably lacked that little bit of threat in terms of scoring, we were still matching them most of the game and the Croatian game.

We did have a golden generation in terms of players that were playing at the highest level.

So they're the two coaches that probably stood out most to me just because they had different things that you look at and you go 'okay, that worked' or 'that's what they were trying to do' and they had a thought process behind it.  

I heard a rumour that while you were at Osasuna, Valverde was your landlord. Is that true?

Yeah but it was when I was at Alaves. My agent was actually Valverde's agent, so he was coaching Espanol at the time, I'm pretty sure and his apartment was available when we ended up renting it.

I never actually saw him face-to-face but the dad used to come around and collect rent and he was such a nice man.

Valverde would touch base with me every now and then and text.

During the World Cup he texted not only myself, but my wife to wish me all the best and when we scored against Japan and won he said 'make sure you pass congratulations on to John' and he sent that to my wife.

So, we were renting Valverde's apartment.  

That’s crazy. Another rumour I heard was that you were close to Luis Enrique's assistant coach, Juan Carlos Unzue. Is that true? 

Yeah, very close.

When I first went to Osasuna, he signed at the same time from, I think it was Real Oviedo, but in his career, he played at Sevilla but he also played at Barcelona, he was only second choice keeper during the dream team period so he had had close connections with Barcelona.

I was rooming with him and we became close friends and we remained close over the years so whenever I've gone back to Spain, I've always gone to visit him.

He was assistant to Luis Enrique and the first time I visited, they were at Celta Vigo together and the first thing Luis Enrique said to me was, "I always wanted to come up to you when we played against you". 

When he was at Barcelona, he was the captain and I go, "really? why?" He said, "because I just wanted to ask you what it was like living in Australia, because it's a dream of mine to live in Australia and I was thinking of doing it when I retired but funnily enough, I still did it."

Barcelona Luis Enrique chats with his assistant coach Juan Carlos Unzue during the UEFA Champions League Final in 2015.
Getty Images Europe

 

He ended up living in Australia for a year with this family in Noosa and the following year I ended up going to spend time with them in Barcelona for a week and learned a lot - great people.

You can see why Luis Enrique has been so successful - he's a winner and I think he'll do well with the Spanish national team as well.  

You’ve spoken a lot about the great times you had at Osasuna but when you look back on your career where do you feel you were at your happiest? 

Yeah, definitely Osasuna. Again, you have your ups and downs in your career but I just liked the way that the club was.

People talk about family clubs, now sometimes people say it but do they really mean it?

Whereas, Osasuna - when I first arrived, I knew what I was walking into when I went to get tickets for one of the first games that we were playing and the guy that was selling the tickets and giving the tickets to us, used to play for Osasuna and he still worked within the club but just in ticket sales. 

Everyone that I ended up meeting within that football club had some connection to Osasuna from the past; either players or coaches or worked in the academy.

A lot of the players, they make sure they bring through their own, it's something that they do really well because then they can drive the culture of the club and then they try and keep them involved eventually as coaches in the academy or something.

So, I found out that it was a family club and I also felt part of that family.  

Speaking of family, you and Ross are also very close. What's your relationship like with him?  

It’s really good to work with your brother obviously and when you're so close, you can actually tell them to their face what you're thinking so the honesty aspect is the thing that I like the most.

Sometimes, especially when you're the head coach, your assistant or people around you don't want to give you that honesty because they're a little bit afraid to say what they're seeing or feeling and that's the relationships I've got with my brother.

He knows, and he knew when we were working together, that I was the one that was the boss, but we've got a relationship that if we were behind closed doors, we'll have discussions.

Sometimes they were, I wouldn't say heated, but there were discussions that didn't totally agree on and then when we walked out of the room, we were on the same page again.

I think that that's the best thing that I found working with him was that basically we know each other back to front from growing up and I enjoy working with him.

Now, whether that is still going to happen in the future, I don't know, because you don't know what the future holds but, I felt that it was nice and enjoyable working with a family member.  

There are a couple of A-League jobs up for grabs and you've been very respectful of the caretaker managers in those positions at the moment by not saying too much about the roles.

You're now hungrier than ever to get back into coaching, particularly off the back of the surgery but what kind of John Aloisi will we see this time around - what type of coach?  

It’s difficult to say. I don't really want to say what type of coach I am, it's probably easier when people talk about you to get a better guide.

What I will say is that, especially the first few years at Brisbane Roar, you saw the style of football that I like to play and that's proactive football, playing on the front foot and creating a lot of goal scoring opportunities.

People talk about possession-based and this and that, I talk about possession, not for possession's sake, but to create chances.

We're there to score goals and then and within that, your defensive structure is in play.

I like to think that I'm very well organized and make sure that I've got structures in place, the processes are right and I enjoy watching good football so I want my teams to play, good attacking football that is going to win football games.

I believe that's the best way to win football games - that's my personal belief. I think it's probably better to ask players that I've actually coached what I'm like.   

Well, they all say great things about you. You mentioned when you did start with Brisbane, you were playing more proactive football, but am I right in saying that you switched it up towards the tail end of your stint to a more reserved, counterattacking style? Why the change?  

I wouldn't say it was counter-attacking, I'd say that sometimes you need to realise what players you have available and sometimes you can't play that.

The first few years, I had Jamie Maclaren, Brandon Borrello, Dimi Petratos - they were young, they had energy and I could play that style that I wanted to play and I ended up losing them.

Brandon Borrello ended up signing overseas, so did Jamie Maclaren, Dimi Petratos ended up going to Korea and they're very hard to replace.

You need time to find those players to be able to replace them and they're not always available.

If you lose one, you could probably deal with it, when you lose three or four at once and in that year, I lost Corona as well and he was an unbelievable player.

I was able to play the style of football that I wanted to.

Sometimes, you can find a replacement, sometimes you can't so then as a coach, you need to be able to adapt to the personnel that you have at your disposal.

Source SBS The World Game