Opinion

'Mad dog' Arok was a true believer in Australian football

Frank Arok prepares for a Socceroos match in Melbourne Source: Getty Images

The greatest contribution former Socceroos coach Frank Arok made to the Australian game was the way he changed the football family's mindset and made it believe that anything was possible with the right approach.

Arok, who coached the national team from 1983 to 1989, has died at the age of 88.

Tributes have flowed since the news emerged on Tuesday evening of his passing.

Arok was not merely a football coach with a wide knowledge of the game, an eye for young talent and an ability to motivate his players to great heights.

The Yugoslav-born former journalist of Hungarian descent - his original name is Ferenc Arok - was a football academic who rose to prominence after coaching St George in the early 1980s in the National Soccer League.

He would play a key role in establishing a winning culture across the country and removing the innate inferiority complex that surrounded the game in Australia at all levels.

He might have rubbed some people the wrong way in his pursuit of success. I remember England manager Bobby Robson lamenting Arok's defensive tactics that earned the Socceroos a 0-0 draw in a tour match at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1983.

Arok, of course, used the three-match series with England as preparation for the 1986 FIFA World Cup campaign and wanted to show his players that they were strong enough to mix it with the best.

And by doing that he hoped that the whole football fraternity would come around to the idea that Australia should shed its mentality that accepted mediocrity and set loftier goals. 

The Socceroos failed in the end to reach the promised land of Mexico after falling narrowly to Scotland in a final two-legged playoff.

Machiavellian Arok wanted to maximise home advantage and urged the Australian Soccer Federation to stage the return in steamy Darwin in a bid to make life as uncomfortable as possible for the Scots.

His request was rejected on economic grounds and after Alex Ferguson's side won 2-0 on a freezing night at Hampden they travelled to Melbourne where they held out for a goalless draw that gave them a ticket to the finals.

Arok's crowning glory for the Socceroos would come in 1988 when he masterminded two of the Socceroos' finest ever victories.

In a Bicentennial Gold Cup group match against Argentina in June, the Socceroos played above themselves to thrash the world champions 4-1 in Sydney.

It was an occasion that was immortalised by Charlie Yankos's long-distance bombshell that would have gone viral had it happened in today's social media environment.

"That result made people outside the game take serious notice of the Socceroos," Arok told me when I caught up with him six years ago.

A few months later at the Seoul Olympics, Australia caused a sensation when they overcame Yugoslavia 1-0 to reach the knockout stage of the competition. The winning goal came from striker Frank Farina.

Perhaps the last word on Arok's qualities as a person and a coach should go to Farina, who in 1984 earned the first of his 37 caps under the man they called 'mad dog'.

"Frank was my first Socceroos coach," said Farina, who became Australia coach from 1998 to 2005.

"He was a deep thinker and obsessed with football. I can't remember a conversation which didn't involve football.

"He told me that he wouldn't talk to me again if I didn't sign for his team St George while we were on tour with the national team in 1984, But he kept picking me for the Socceroos say I guess he forgave me.

"His legacy will continue with all the players his journey crossed, which is many."

Farina's views would resonate with anyone whose life has been touched by the mercurial Arok.

Ask anyone else who played under Arok at club or national level and he will tell you that the coach was a motivator extraordinaire, someone who would believe in you and trust you if you commit to his cause.

Do the wrong thing and you're history.

Rest in peace, Frank.