Lucy Zelic - 'In conversation with': Kosta Barbarouses

Kosta Barbarouses chats with Lucy Zelic about his career, being called a 'snake', having a flash grenade thrown at him in Greece and a traumatic event he experienced while playing in Russia.

At 29 years of age, New Zealand international Kosta Barbarouses has become a treasured foreign mainstay on the Australian football circuit.

When he made his debut for his hometown club Wellington Phoenix at just 17, the fast-paced winger quickly announced himself as one to watch but it wouldn't be until Ange Postecoglou took a chance on him three years later at Brisbane Roar, that his profile would truly explode.

A noble visionary in front of goal, Barbarouses enjoyed great success with A-League powerhouse, Melbourne Victory and scored over 60 goals across his two spells with the club.

In June this year, his shock move to Sydney FC hijacked headlines and his first appearance against his former club this month would have no doubt sent waves of regret through the opposition bench.

Warm, polite and ever the professional, I caught up with Kosta to find out which high-profile Brazilian player he traded shirts with at the 2012 Olympics, how a traumatic event in Russia scarred him for life and why he goes by the name "King Cobra" at the Sky Blues training ground.

LZ: Tell me, how are you finding Sydney FC? Are you feeling settled and at home now?  

KB: Yes. It's interesting you put it that way because it was sort of a strange feeling first of all, coming here and settling in, not that I didn't feel settled - it was just a new environment, a new state, it was a lot to take in.

We gave up our holidays to make the move as smooth as possible; we came down for the press conference for me signing and then Tara and I came and we were looking for places while I was up here.

We actually found a place that weekend so we didn't have to be scrambling once I got up here because Tara was heavily pregnant at the time.

We sacrificed a bit to make that smooth and I am really glad we did because we hit the ground running. I have to say, the club's been amazing to me and my family.

The boys are great and Bimbi was very generous with giving me time off to come to Melbourne for the birth of my daughter because little Lola born in Melbourne.

I can't say enough nice things about the club and everyone that's made me feel welcome here.  

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I remember when the announcement was made that you'd signed for Sydney, I was a little bit shocked to be honest because I didn't expect you to leave Victory. Can you tell me what was behind that decision and how heavily you considered it?  

Well, I think it's the same as what most footballers would say, it was the intent of the club and how eager they were to get me here, that was a big factor in it.

The second factor is thinking about my family. Sydney came and offered me a three-year deal, which is massive.

At the time there were a lot of changes happening at Victory, which made them unsure of what direction they were going to be heading this year so I had decisions to make.

I don't think Victory were completely ready to commit to players and I think getting the head coach was their main priority and football moves very quickly.

That was the reasoning behind me having to move on. The other options were maybe going overseas to Asia, there was something on the table from the Middle East and possibly in Japan but those things might have been a little bit down the line.

I just thought once Sydney came in relatively early, I think it was early June, it was such a great opportunity and great security for my family and to be honest, I knew Sydney was going to be a strong team again this year because they held onto most of their players.

I want to be in a team that's successful as well, moving on from the success I had a Victory, that was important too.

It's tough to go from somewhere that has really high standards to going somewhere and dropping those. It's tough to accept that sort of thing. 

Your first game against your former club couldn't have gone any better. You scored and you played incredibly well but were you carrying any nerves coming into it? Did it feel strange to you?   

It didn't feel too strange. I try not to think about it too much and I'm sort of lucky that I've got a lot of other things to think about now during the week other than football when I get home.

But, I'd be lying if, when you see some familiar faces on the other team, it didn't feel weird. Once the handshakes were done it was all business really.

I thought it was going to be a different build-up to the week and I told Dave, the media manager, that obviously, I was going to have a lot of media commitments with the game, I told him to just pencil them all in for the Tuesday so I can get them all done early in the week so I can just focus on the game.

I think that's something that I've learned over time just to get all the stuff out of the way and just focus in the few days leading into the game.

I think that worked out well just to normalise everything as much as I could.

Like I said, there are a lot of changes at Victory as well - there were a few familiar faces but it was like facing a whole new team at the same time.

After the game when Trimmers comes and says hello and Trent, it does give you a little bit of that you've just come up against a lot of people that you've known for a long time. 

I know the Victory fans have loved giving you stick. How sick are you of seeing that snake emoji, by the way? 

[Laughs] It's gone pretty quiet now since the game, which is interesting but the boys here have jumped on it aswell - Alfie (Adam Le Fondre), Busta (Rhyan Grant) and Brattsy (Luke Brattan) were all jumping on it.

I'm being called King Cobra around the traps here as well but it's good that they make a joke out of it and normalise it a little bit. 

Can I rewind and go back to Kosta as a kid and what it was like growing up in New Zealand, playing football and how it all came about for you? 

I've got an older brother that's two years older than me so whatever George was doing, I was doing. But before that, my dad played semi-professionally in Greece in his younger days and I think at about 17 he was playing semi-pro at his local club near the village.

Having to go to the army disrupted that a little bit and then my mum and dad moved to New Zealand. Mum was quite young, but dad about 21, 22 and once he finished with the army, he came over.

I guess my love for football comes from him and my older brother. I didn't really know otherwise for a good while there.

As soon as I was able to walk, we were playing football and my childhood really consists of the memories I have of us; my three brothers and my many cousins that I've got, all playing football either in the backyard or downstairs at my grandparents place.

They had a granny flat underneath with carpet and we used to play in our socks until they got holes in them - it's a clear memory that I've got. A lot of my childhood memories are that.

I was lucky enough that I've got a big family and we all love to play football so those are really fond memories. 

So would you say that they were your biggest influences in terms of your development growing up? 

Yeah, they have to be. Even my mum didn't have any idea about football but grew to love the game.

She was the one taking us on the weekends - imagine having to take three boys, my younger brother didn't really like football that much so he didn't play but me and the two other brothers, having to take us three to different fields on a Saturday morning.

Mum ended up liking football that much that she'd always tune in to watch the New Zealand Knights, even if we weren't watching, she would be watching so I remember that. I still don't know how much of an idea she has about football but she loves watching it.  

So you would have a pretty strong connection to your Greek heritage then, wouldn't you? 

Yeah, very strong. Me and my older brother learned to speak Greek before we spoke English - it's a big, big part of our lives.

We used to get looked after by our grandparents in our younger days and they would just speak mostly Greek.

They owned a couple of fish and chip shops and I don't know how they got by taking orders but they did and to us kids it was always Greek.

We're very, very proud and obviously there's not too many Greeks in New Zealand and when I tell people that I'm Greek and I was born in New Zealand, they sort of freak out.

Most assume that I was born here in Australia. To be able to speak the language coming from somewhere where there's not too many people of Greek heritages, I'm pretty proud of that. 

You mentioned earlier that you had received offers from overseas and at 29, you've still got a lot to give in your football career. Do you still feel like moving abroad could still be an option for you?

To be honest, I was really keen on going to Japan just because it's somewhere where I know the football is strong there and it's somewhere where I would love to live.

Going back to family, it's somewhere that I know is a safe place to take my family as well, so that ticked a lot of the boxes.

But I don't think people here realise how lucky we are to have the A-League, even the level of the competition, a lot of people are quick to dismiss it but I've played overseas for a couple years.

A lot of the boys here have played overseas and it's not as easy as what people think.

The standard, I think is improving and even now is at a pretty good level. I know how lucky I am to be here and I'm not in a rush to go anywhere.

There's not something that I think, I need to prove myself going overseas again - I'm not thinking like that.

Obviously, it's my family first and then where I think I get the best out of myself. I've been around the league for a while now and I think I can give even more to the game here.

I don't want to speak on behalf of other people but even Ninko (Milos Ninkovic) said to me the other week that, if he had the opportunity to come to the A-League at 25 years old, he would of. 

Why do you think that Is? Is it because we live in a great country and the lifestyle is really good? Does that play a big part? 

Yeah, that's obviously a big part of it but I think the football matters, too.

He is one of the best ever and he was at a tough team, Dynamo Kiev for almost ten years and you go from somewhere where It's very regimented to somewhere like Australia where the boys still work extremely hard but then you've got a great life outside of it. I think that, definitely has something to do with it.  

You mentioned having played overseas. You played in Russia with Alania Vladikavkaz and then you were in Greece with Panathinaikos. I've heard some wild stories over the years from players, especially out of Russia and places like Greece. How do you reflect on those spells, in particular, Russia - what was that like?

Russia was tough. I went there as I'd just turned 21 and it was a bit of a strange move.

Looking back now and that season at Brisbane, I was 20 mostly and scored 12 goals and I think now maybe with stronger management or somebody looking out maybe a bit better, I could have gone to a stronger league.

It's a pretty big achievement now if somebody scores 12 goals at 20 years old but I went there and the club was in the second division and coming top and it seemed like a good stepping stone for me.

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Things didn't work out too well there, there was a lot of stuff behind the scenes going on; the coach was the chairman's son of the club, our chairman was a legend of Russian football, Gazzaev who coached CSKA Moscow - they won the Europa League, he's coached a national team of Russia, I think a couple of times but, he had his son as the first team coach, which didn't work out great.

We had the best players, I think that's why we got promoted but even just the city, I felt like I was back in time about 20 years ago.

There is one pretty traumatic thing that I witnessed, I haven't told too many people, so I'll share it with you.

I got a lift from one of the guys who worked at the club, he was one of the only guys that spoke English and I got along really well with him.

He was giving me a lift back home after one of our games and I just asked him to leave me around the corner where there was a supermarket and I wanted to get a couple of things.

So he took off, I got my stuff and I was walking back to my place and as I was walking one way, these two girls were walking the opposite direction and there were parked cars across the other side of the road facing us.

I got to the corner of the street and the girls were about a hundred meters down the line and the headlights of one of the cars turned on and a guy jumped out of the car and actually took one of the girls. He had a mate in the car as well.

The girl's friend was screaming as well, there's not much she could have done and I thought about intervening but I remember my mate telling me that most of those guys, they carry weapons, whether it's guns or knives so I thought against it.

I didn't sleep too well that night. So the next day, I asked the guy at the club, I told him what happened and I said; 'what can we do? Can we call the police?'

He just said that happens sometimes and that the guy will take this girl to his family and they'll call her family and offer money for them to get married.

That was the sort of place I was living in as a 21-year-old and that was tough, it sort of scarred me a little bit.Just how he normalized what I saw was a bit crazy to me and I didn't know how to comprehend that for a long time.  

That’s full-on. Did that push you to leave because you went out on loan to Panathinaikos while you were with Vladikavkaz right?  

Well, I stuck out the rest of the year, we got promoted and I played about 15 games, so about half the games and a few off the bench as well so it wasn't going too well.

Once that year was done, we had the Nation's Cup with the national team and it was good to get away obviously.

An agent called me and said there was a club in Cyprus that wanted to take me on loan so I said I'm ready to do it and then the next day or a few hours later, he said, "I think you're going to want to hear this, Panathinaikos want to take you on loan" and I said, "stuff Cyprus, we're going there." [Laughs]

So that was sort of a dream come true for me because that's my boyhood club, it's the club I supported as a kid.

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How did you rate your time there? 

I loved it there. We didn't have a great year, we finished third or fourth, which is actually a bit of a disaster for the club because there are standards.

We changed the coach four times, it was crazy every time. It happened twice - I went away with the national team and when I got back, the coach had been sacked so I wasn't aware both those times until I got there.

It was a bit crazy but like I say to the guys here, there are people at the club there; we had three kit men, so many staff, we had two full-time chefs, a barista making coffees full-time - it's a big club and those people just love the club and if you respect the club, they love you too.

I'd get in, in the morning and Yianny the barista would have my frappe ready for me there and the kitmen would come and give you a hug and kiss.

I guess it's a different sort of feeling - you can sense the pride they have in just being there.

My family was really proud, my family obviously in Greece as well. Most of my dad's side of the family are still there, a lot of my mum's side of the family, too.

They were rapt that I got to do that and I think they were really proud of me.

I did okay there, the last coach that was in, I played every single game with that coach and they wanted me to stay on but they were struggling financially.

They owed me, I think six or seven months wages, which I was willing to cooperate with them and I wanted to stay but my Russian club wanted a transfer fee so that was out of the question for Panathinaikos.

It ended up that I couldn't stay there but I loved my time there.  

And then you from there, you came back to the A-League. Looking back now on the career that you've had so far, do you feel it's gone the way you wanted it to go? 

Not the way I wanted it to from the ambitions I had as a young kid, probably not.

What were those ambitions? 

I wanted to go to the top. I wanted to play in the Premier League, Serie A at the time when I was young was up there as well - that's where I pictured myself playing.

But, even from being in Wellington at 17 and sort of being stuck there for three years, playing about 15 games in three years, that put a big, I guess halt in my career.

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Maybe I should have tried to get out and just go and trial at places a bit earlier.

But, I have to say, since the year in Brisbane, I'm quite proud of what I've achieved in the game, especially here in Australia.

I'm proud that I got to represent Panathinaikos and tried to go overseas and did okay for a couple of years.

I think I've left a pretty good impression so far in Australian football and the A-League. I still think I've got a long time to go in the game so hopefully I can still achieve a lot more. 

I want to touch on the 2012 Olympics. It was a tough tournament results-wise for New Zealand but you got to play against Brazil and the likes of Hulk, Neymar and Marcelo. How do you reflect on that?  

It was amazing. You're allowed three overage players in every team and we had Smeltzy, Mikey McGlinchey and Ryan Nelson come along.

I was already pretty close to Mikey and Smeltzy but Ryan Nelson hadn't been to a lot of the camps with the national team that I had been in at the time so I hadn't spent too much time with him and just having him there at the tournament with us, I think that was great too.

And then obviously playing against those guys and playing at Old Trafford against Egypt was amazing.

We drew that one-all and I just remember the last 10 minutes being end-to-end and anyone's game.

At St James' Park, we played Brazil and it was a tough match for us, we lost 3-0 but we stayed at the same hotels as the teams we were playing against.

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After the game, Neymar was doing media and I think there was about five or six of the boys standing behind him as he was doing his interviews.

I had come off so I was on the bench and I was just taking it in all in and I slowly started making my way to the tunnel and as I was, Neymar just finished his interviews and didn't look back to where the boys were waiting and he just ran straight down the tunnel and he came alongside me and shook my hand. I said, 'can we swap shirts?' and we swapped shirts.

Then, after dinner, they were coming out of their dinner at the same time as us and we were playing table tennis and I asked him to sign my shirt, so I got a signed Neymar shirt out of it which was a great experience as well. 

Do you have any games that you've played in that really stand out to you as a great memory?  

The derby Panathinaikos, Olympiacos at the Karaiskakis - their home ground was crazy. That was amazing and I was lucky enough to start that game as well.

I remember we pulled into the stadium and the team bus was a big green bus so it's pretty obvious who we are.

We stopped and there's about a 10 to 15-metre walk to the change rooms and I was first off and was almost in the door and there was a bit of a hole over the top of where we parked which was the walkway for the fans to go into the stadium.

Their fans saw that our bus had just pulled up and they threw a flash-bang grenade. I was lucky I was 10 meters away from it but I was deaf for about 10 minutes.

Some of the guys who were a metre or two metres away from it couldn't hear anything for 15, 20 minutes.

That was before the game, then we had to go and play in front of 35, 40 thousand of their fans because our fans aren't allowed to go to that game. So that was pretty special.

We drew that 1-1 and they were the strongest side in the comp at that time as well so that was great.

 

I remember the Brisbane Grand Final, personally it wasn't great, I think I got taken off after 60, 65 minutes but it ended up being a classic game. I learned a lot from that.

Ange spoke to me a few weeks later and said, "you weren't great in the final. You need to find consistency in your build-up to the games - get habits, eat the same thing, prepare the same way for every game, because that's going to help with your consistency."

So I ended up getting something out of that. The other three finals that I've been involved within Australia, it's been pretty good - I scored in two of them and I won the Viduka medal in the FFA Cup Final so maybe that bit of advice did help a lot. 

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What was Ange like to play under? 

He was great. He was a little bit tough to talk to man-on-man but I was a kid so I was never going to go up and speak to him anyway because I was shit scared of going up to speak to him.

I just remember taking in everything that he was saying. Even Rado Vidosic was great as well - he was always in my ear every training.

I was playing on the right-wing and he'd stand on the touchline that I was on and scream at me for the whole session.

But Ange was great, I think he's a master of getting his point across and you just know that if you don't do your job because your job's crystal clear, if you don't do it, you're not going to play, it's as simple as that and you've got no leg to stand on, to argue.

He was fantastic for me and he signed me at 20-years-old as a New Zealand's foreign player so he took a big gamble on me and I'm happy that it paid off for both of us. 

I hear a lot of great things about Musky, too. How did you find him?   

You’ve got to just think about, he was only the second assistant coach for about 18 months, if that.

I think he put his hand up to take over from Ange I'm guessing, they wouldn't have just given it to him it so he knew that he was ready for the job and what a fantastic job he did.

That's not easy to do. He took over a squad that Ange put together and we did okay that year and then the following year, he changed the formation a little bit - the principals were similar, but we put Bes up top, we didn't play with a central striker the year before that so he had the ideas in his head to think that we needed that that focal point and we won the championship that year.

I think the Muscat that people despise or hate, which, a lot of people do, is just from his playing days or his demeanour on the field as a player.

Then, what they see on the touchline - he's very animated but if you work with him, you see that he's very calculated, he's very composed, he very rarely lost his temper or lost his nerve.

I think that's a very important trait to have as a coach and in five or six years, we played in I think five finals so you can't argue against his coaching ability.

Even for me, I spent a lot of time as his player and we had a lot of success together.  

Last question and I'll let you go. How has becoming a father changed things for you?  

It’s changed everything, really. There's not one thing that's the same anymore.

I have to think about looking after my daughter now and obviously being married, that's a big change, too but you're married to somebody who can take care of themselves and think for themselves.

When you have to take care of, protect and do everything for a little baby, it changes you. It softens you a little bit, you become a little bit more sensitive.

Normally it's tough to get emotions out of me but having a little one now, that's all changed. Even this morning, she was fast asleep when I had to leave for the airport and I gave her a little kiss on the cheek as she started smiling and then you have to leave after seeing that.

It's changed me for the better - I get home after games and everything's just all right, no matter what, everything's good.

If you win, lose, score, don't score, you're still happy to get home. It takes your mind off it a little bit more.

You've got a responsibility to raise somebody the right way and that's something that I'm really looking forward to and I'm happy to have the privilege of being able to do it so I'm really excited to see how my daughter grows up and how I can help her along the way. 

Source SBS The World Game