The World Game resumes its monthly series on Socceroos stars who left their mark on football in Australia. Midfielder Carl Valeri was devastated to miss out on his bold ambition to play in Italy's Serie A but was elated to realise his other childhood dream of taking part in a senior FIFA World Cup.
Socceroos midfielder Carl Valeri, who has played in many tough matches in hostile stadiums around the world while on club and national duty, has no hesitation in naming Melbourne Victory's 2018 A-League semi-final against Sydney FC as the most difficult match of his career.
Valeri’s Victory faced runaway premiers Sydney for the right to play in the grand final and Kevin Muscat’s team caused an upset to prevail 3-2 in an all-time classic before going on to win the title by beating Newcastle Jets 1-0.
Valeri has played in 52 matches for Australia and spent many years fighting for survival in the fierce and intense world of Italy’s Serie B.
But never did he feel a greater need for his team to lift to another level as Victory did on an extraordinary night at Allianz Stadium.
“I played in a lot of cut-throat matches at club and national level but the one I remember very clearly as the toughest is the A-League semi-final against Sydney in 2018,” Valeri said.
“The Sky Blues had a fantastic team and were better than us and had proven it throughout the season.
“They were a seriously strong side with Adrian Mierzejewski, Milos Ninkovic and Bobo up front and Alex Brosque being a pest as usual.
“We were winning 2-1 and Kevin Muscat made some substitutions to bring in fresh young legs but Sydney scored in the last minute to take the game into extra time before Terry Antonis sealed our win. It was a special feeling to win that match against such a top team. It was incredible.
"I also remember another extremely hard match, this time playing for Australia against Japan in a World Cup qualifier in Brisbane in 2012.
"The Japanese are always good and hard to beat and our job was made even harder when Mark Bresciano went off injured early on and was replaced by Mark Milligan who was sent off with more than half an hour to go. We managed a 1-1 draw but it was tough. International football is a different beast and playing Japan is hard work."
Valeri was happy to speak about his career that was marked by doses of disappointment and elation.
What are you doing now?
“I’m enjoying the time with my family and relishing the fact that I do not have to worry any more about being fit or being at my best. I also work for Victory in a football operations role which basically entails helping the club off the pitch in several areas.”
Do you remember your father Walter playing in the NSL in the 1980s?
“Dad retired early because in those days when you had a knee issue they just took the cartilage out and that was it. When he went into coaching he used to take me to matches but, like every other kid, I was only interested in playing in the background with my friends not watching games.”
When you were a young player still learning about the game, Inter came calling. How did that move eventuate?
“My hard work ethic got me in the Australian team under Ange Postecoglou that took part in the Under-17 World Cup in Trinidad and Tobago in 2001. That quality enabled me to have a good tournament and goalkeeper Nathan Coe and I were selected in the team of the championship. That was the catalyst for us to go to Inter.
"I had an awesome time at Inter where I felt I had to learn football all over again. It was very tough. I was considered a talent in Australia but the quality of players coming from a younger age group was incredible. After two years I thought I had found my feet and I was loaned out to SPAL.”
You spent most of your career with Grosseto and Sassuolo. Did you ever get the feeling that people in Australia did not realise how tough Serie B can be?
“I don’t think anybody outside Italy appreciates the cut-throat nature of Serie B. Especially if you play for clubs that are always fighting for promotion, as I did. I tell you, Serie B is as tough as the Championship in England, if not tougher.”
You played a key role in Sassuolo’s first-ever promotion to Serie A in 2013. What did it mean to the town whose entire population would fit easily in Stadium Australia?
“It was crazy. We had failed three times before when we lost in the playoffs but it was clear the club was destined for bigger and better things. The town basically went on holiday for a week. We players were kings of the town and could do what we want. Coach Eusebio di Francesco created a fantastic team environment and his man-management skills probably got us over the line.”
Your childhood dream of playing in Serie A was never realised. You seemed to become out of favour at Sassuolo?
“I got injured during our promotion season and probably pushed myself too much. I was getting back to normal in pre-season but a couple of hiccups set me further back. Sassuolo had strengthened their squad and I slid down the pecking order. The gap in quality between the second and first tiers of Italian football is huge.
"I was on the bench for several matches but the nearest I came to making my Serie A debut was in a home match against AC Milan, my favourite team as a kid. The coach asked me to warm up because he wanted a change in midfield. I was ecstatic but before I knew it our striker got hurt and the coach replaced him with another striker and I missed out because we had used up our substitutions. That’s football. I suppose.”
After a short spell with Ternana, you came home to play for Melbourne Victory, a club that would provide you with some very special memories.
“With the 2014 World Cup around the corner I was keen on regular football and I spoke to the coach. He wanted me to stay but he also said if I wanted to leave he would make it happen.
“In hindsight, going to Ternana in January was probably a mistake because the coach wanted to use me in a different position to what I was used to. So I decided to come home and sign for Victory.
“To be honest I had declined their first offer in January because I wanted to give Italy another crack. But after Ternana I knew that Victory would be the club for me. I knew it was a great club that was run by great people but I didn't realise how special it would end up being to me. I felt an instant attachment with the organisation and all I wanted was for the club to be successful. At Victory I won two championships and the FFA Cup.”
How strong was the Victory team that won the 2015 grand final vis-a-vis the promotion-winning Sassuolo side you played for?
“Look, the Sassuolo team was a lot stronger. It contained players who would have extended careers in Serie A, some of them even playing for the Azzurri.”
You have not scored many goals in your career but the one you got for Victory against Western Sydney Wanderers in 2015 will go down as an all-time A-League classic.
“I remember being very tired and sore and I just wanted to get through the game. I did not go into the game feeling 100 per cent right and started rather poorly, misplacing a few passes. We always do that corner set piece at training and every time I go to the edge of the box but it never worked because the ball never came to me. That game it sat perfectly, I had a swing at it and hit it sweetly … it was the best connection I ever had. We won the game 2-1.”
When Graham Arnold picked you for Australia in 2007 you had some big boots to fill because you effectively were replacing Vince Grella. Was that one of your stiffest challenges?
“I never saw it that way. Vinnie was a fantastic player who spent many years in Serie A so I was never going to fill his boots. I just wanted to learn from the experienced Socceroos players as much as I could. I would ask them open and honest questions about anything and they respected me for that. These are the fond memories of my efforts to break into the fantastic team.”
You more than adapted yourself in the role of defensive midfielder and had become a regular starter by the time the 2010 World Cup came around. What is your take on the Socceroos’ performance?
“A lot of our experienced players were underdone in that World Cup because they were coming back from injury. There was a group of us working very hard and was super fit but others were still catching up. If we had another month of preparation I think we would have been in a different spot.
“Having said that we did not have as bad a World Cup as many thought. When you look back, our 4-0 defeat against Germany cost us qualification to the knockout stage due to goal difference. Putting things into context, the Germans were very strong and would put four past England and Argentina later in the tournament. It was however a dream come true for me to play three matches in a World Cup. Not many people can say that.”
The 2011 AFC Asian Cup final loss to Japan in extra time would have been hard to take.
“What a game! I was not playing at first under Holger Osieck but I got my chance when Jason Culina got hurt and was forced to pull out of the event. I was angry at not being selected but continued to work hard. I was glad I had that mentality because when the opportunity arose I was ready and we ended up having a marvellous tournament.
“Everybody was in great form … especially Harry Kewell upfront and Lucas Neill and Sasa Ognenovski at the back. Finals can go anywhere and they usually are decided by split-second decisions. We definitely did enough to win that game but, as the old saying goes, you win some and you lose some.”
What prompted your decision to quit international football in 2014 after playing in 52 international matches?
“I tried my best to make the 2014 World Cup squad despite having some niggling problems. The physio said he did not think I was going to be right for the World Cup and I missed out. After playing two more matches later that year I decided to come back home.”
Was your illness to your brain in 2015 that could have stopped your career prematurely football-related? What caused it anyway?
“No one knows. It started gradually and I felt a bit off in a game against Adelaide in 2015. One thing led to another and I had some tests done. Putting it simply, there are wires in the brain and the rubber coating was a bit damaged so signals were not getting through properly. I developed a sort of 'short circuit' on the left side of my body that affected my vision and the movement of my leg. I was all over the place.
“I was told by my neurologist that I would not be able to play again but I preferred not to announce that because I did not want to scare my colleagues in the middle of the season.
“But I was not prepared to stop. I said to myself I would be fine and take my time to return to work. I recovered slowly and in time I got back to training and continued to help the team.
“I ended up playing again and in 2018 I won another A-League championship. So you can say that my decision to defy medical advice was not a bad one. The neurologist could not believe I ended up playing again.”
How would you like to be remembered by Australia’s football fans?
“I guess, I’d like to be remembered as the type of player I was … hard-working and generous. I can live with that because when people tell me I was a team player that is the biggest compliment I can receive.”
Finally, who were the best players you have played with and against at both club and national level?
“Sassuolo’s Francesco Magnanelli, who still plays for the club and is the captain, was an awesome midfield player who had everything. A true exemplary footballer whom I’d pick in front of me.
“Ninkovic is such a gifted and consistent player. You would think he’s not in the game and then he pops up and creates mayhem.
“He is always switched on and dangerous and when you think you have got him covered and let him go for a split second he’ll make you pay.
“At a national level, I cannot go past Mark Viduka. When I made my debut he was playing upfront and every time I got the ball I looked up and gave it to Dukes. He would hold off two defenders and do something amazing. His sheer ability was just awesome to watch.
“I was fortunate enough to play against Lionel Messi in Melbourne in 2007. I thought he was little and you could push him around but he is quite solid and has a considerable physical presence. He could play a bit, too."
CARL VALERI FACTFILE
2014-2019: Melbourne Victory
2007-2014: Australia (52 matches)
Melbourne Victory: A-League championship 2015, 2018; FFA Cup 2015