Opinion

Mabil has some big shoes to fill on his Champions League odyssey

Awer Mabil in action for Midtjylland. Source: FrontzoneSport

When Socceroos striker Awer Mabil makes his dream debut in the UEFA Champions League this week he will join an elite band of Australian stars who have distinguished themselves in the world's richest and most glamorous club competition.

Mabil plays his club football for Danish champions FC Midtjylland who sprang a surprise in the qualifying rounds by beating Slavia Prague to reach the group stages for the first time.

On Thursday (AEDT) Mabil's Midtjylland will face Italy's Atalanta on matchday one of this season's tournament.

Mabil, who later on in Group D will have to deal with the formidable threats posed by Liverpool and Ajax, is the only Aussie in this season's event.

Whatever happens in the group, Mabil will earn his spot in the rich tapestry that is Australian football.

Over the years, many Australians got a taste of the grandest tournament of them all. Some were even lucky enough to play more than a handful of matches yet only a select few were able to leave a legacy.

Their displays on Europe's battlefields not only boosted their own image but built a reputation for the country they came from.

By achieving so much with some of the world's most famous clubs they would have dismissed any European notions that Australians were not very good at football and did not really belong in the rarefied world of the Champions League. 

The first Australian to leave his mark on the tournament was Craig Johnston.

The combative midfielder played in all but one of Liverpool's matches in the old European Cup in 1983-84, including the final against Roma which they won. He also took part in the following season's ill-fated Heysel final against Juventus, which they lost.

However no player enhanced Australian football's image abroad more than star striker Harry Kewell, who played in 32 Champions League matches including qualifiers for Leeds United, Liverpool and Galatasaray.

Kewell was plagued by injury during his 15-year stint in Europe but he did enough to play in two finals for Liverpool against AC Milan, winning one of them.

Johnston and Kewell remain the only Australians to play in a final. And they did it twice.

Kewell's best years however came as a Leeds winger when he played a key role in the Yorkshire team's powerful surge to the 2000-01 semi-finals before it ran into Valencia.

His strike partner Mark Viduka was also instrumental in the club's finest hour on the continent. 

At his peak big Viduka seemed unplayable - as some of Europe's finest defenders would testify - and the two Aussies were seen as one of the game's deadliest partnerships. It's just a shame that they crossed paths at club level for only three seasons.

Wingback Scott Chipperfield played 29 times for FC Basel and is regarded as a club legend.

He faced most of Europe's elite players and teams in 11 straight seasons with the Swiss club and he regards the first time he lined up on the field and heard the Champions League anthem on his debut versus against Manchester United in 2002 as his "fondest memory".

Defenders Craig Moore and Tony Vidmar made a name for themselves after spending 10 and five seasons respectively with Rangers.

Rangers were regular participants in the Champions League in the years just before and after the turn of the century.

Moore took part in 27 matches and will always remember the battles with the likes of Juventus, Bayern Munich, PSV Eindhoven and Manchester United. Just as Vidmar will never forget his stunning goal against Parma that effectively knocked the Italians out of the competition in 1999.

Another Australian who excelled in the competition was Jason Culina, who was PSV's defensive midfielder for the best part of four seasons.

Culina was involved in many stoushes across the continent and played a vital role in PSV's elimination of Arsenal in the round of 16 in 2006-07.

The most rewarding years for striker Scott McDonald came when he donned Celtic's green and white hoops for three seasons.

He scored many times for the club and will always be remembered for his last-minute goal that gave the Bhoys a famous 2-1 victory over eventual winners Milan in 2006-07.

Amazingly, injury-prone attacker Tom Rogic has knocked up 29 appearances for Celtic although he played a full game only four times.

Other Australians like Milos Degenek (Red Star/27 matches), Brett Emerton (Feyenoord/15), Ljubo Milicevic (Thun/9), Zeljko Kalac (Milan/9), James Holland (Austria Wien, Linz/9), Eddie Krncevic (Anderlecht/8), Brett Holman (AZ/6) and Mile Sterjovski (Lille/5) also experienced the special atmosphere surrounding the tournament.

Mabil, who is only 25, would have seen very little of these Australian stars locking horns with the cream of Europe while he was growing up in a refugee camp in Kenya.

But through a twist of fate his incredible journey to the highest level of European football has captured the imagination of many Australians, among them those heroes of yesteryear who played such a major part in showing the Europeans that, hey, we can play good football too. 

The responsibility of promoting the Australian game abroad is not lost on Mabil.

"It feels like I'm representing my country even though I'm playing for my club," he told reporters.

So go for it and enjoy the ride, Awer. We're all behind you.