The World Game resumes its monthly tribute to the Australian stars who have left their mark on football down under. Frank Farina, who was involved with the Socceroos as a player and coach in a record 127 matches over 17 years, urges the A-League to forget about big names and seek lesser imports that are at their peak and well placed to leave a lasting legacy on our game.
Former Socceroos striker and coach Frank Farina believes the A-League should end its flirtation with fading superstar imports and put every effort into engaging middle-of-the-range stars who are still at their peak.
Farina, who played for Australia for more than a decade and coached the green and gold for six years, said a top playmaker like Milos Ninkovic or Thomas Broich is more likely to leave a legacy in Australia than a superstar such as Alessandro Del Piero, who is past his peak.
Farina was Sydney FC coach when the Italian FIFA World Cup winner spent the last two years of his career in Australia.
He said the short-term benefits of signing such big names as ADP are huge but in the long run our clubs are better served by less talented and fitter marquees.
"Alessandro was a great player and a fantastic guy. He was a dream for the league because he created a lot of interest," Farina said.
"In terms of football it was a bit hard for him because he was not in his prime, his fitness was not at the peak and the A-League was transforming itself into a tough competition when he came here.
"He had lost his legs a little bit but he still had a charisma about him and if you gave him the ball 30 metres from goal he would do something. He did reasonably well here.
"However, I believe that in the long term you are better off getting guys like Ninkovic or Broich who were not household names when they came to Australia but look at the service they have provided."
Farina, who is one of the most respected figures in Australian football, was happy to talk about his long career that took him to the four corners of the world as a player and a coach.
What are you doing now?
"I live in Brisbane at the moment but very soon I will move to Sydney to resume my new job at the Charlie Perkins Football Academy as director of football. It's something new and exciting and I'm enjoying it because once the game is in your blood it never leaves."
You started playing in far north Queensland, which is not really known as a football heartland. You must have been pretty good to be noticed.
"You're right. North Queensland was a backwater in terms of football. I'd moved from Papua New Guinea to Australia in 1975 and played football even though it was not very big. After a while I was invited to Brisbane just when the Australian Institute of Sport was launched. I won a scholarship to go to Canberra and that's where it all started for me."
You broke several scoring records in your first stint in the NSL. Your two seasons at Marconi where you were twice best player and top scorer must still be close to your heart.
"Of course, I was young and coming through and as a striker I have great memories. I take great pride in the fact that the team won the 1988 grand final against Sydney Croatia (now Sydney United 58)."
How did the big move to FC Brugge in 1988 come about?
"Prior to the 1988 Olympics in Korea an Israeli agent was following me during two qualifiers against Israel. After the Games he made contact again and offered me a trial with Brugge.
"At that time I was a bit fed up of trials but he assured me it was more than that so I went to Belgium in October. I missed their pre-season but after a short spell they offered me a contract during a transfer window so I had a bit of luck."
Brugge won the championship in 1990 thanks largely to your 24 goals that gave you the best foreigner award. Was that the highlight of your career in Europe?
"It was an accolade for the team. It was a very difficult season and we did not hit our straps before 10 games or so. After we got knocked out of Europe and the Belgian Cup our only focus was the league and we went on an unbeaten run of about 30 games, including 10 in the following season. Again, they were great memories."
Your transfer to Bari in 1990 would become a classic case of going from the sublime to the ridiculous. What happened there?
"I went from a top club in Belgium where you had plenty of scoring opportunities to a struggling club and as a striker that becomes very difficult. It was not the best time, to be honest."
So your stint in the French league would have lifted your spirits, right?
"I got injured days before Strasbourg's first league game and I struggled at first. But it was a good league and I had a good time there."
Your appointment as player/coach with Brisbane Strikers would become the stuff of legend. Tell us about that glorious afternoon at Suncorp in 1997.
"I was just a player when I came back to Australia in 1995 and Brisbane made the finals that year for the first time. We had a pretty strong side in 1997 yet we were the underdogs for the season decider. However, it all came together against Sydney United. We performed and deservedly won 2-0 in front of a sellout crowd."
You played 37 full internationals mostly under Frank Arok and Eddie Thomson. What were they like as coaches?
"Their styles were different but both were successful. They were legends of Australian football, if you like. I had my ups and downs with each of them but I respect them highly. I had a great time in a very different era when World Cup qualifying rounds were very different. It is just unfortunate that we never managed to qualify when they were in charge."
You took part in three failed Socceroos' attempts to reach the World Cup. Which one of the defeats against Scotland in 1985, Israel in 1989 or Argentina in 1993 hurt most?
"Scotland were always going to be hard. We fell 2-0 in Glasgow and probably should have lost by more but by the same token we should have gone beyond the 0-0 draw in the return in Melbourne.
"I would say the failed campaign to reach Italia 90 was the hardest to take because we ruined everything by losing in New Zealand, a result that put us behind the eight ball. The consequence of that defeat was that we had to beat Israel in our last game at home to qualify but could only draw 1-1 so we were out. Had we beaten New Zealand the draw would have been enough.
"We went close against Argentina but the narrow 2-1 aggregate defeat did not hurt as much as the debacle from four years earlier."
Your most memorable moment in a green and gold jersey must have come at the 1988 Olympics when you scored the winning goal in a shock 1-0 win over Yugoslavia. Would that be right?
"It was up there. To be honest I mis-hit the shot that gave us victory. Alan Davidson played the ball over the top and it kept bouncing and I meant to put it to the goalkeeper's right but I mis-hit it and it went to the far post.
"For me the highlight was eliminating New Zealand in the final qualifiers to get to the '88 Olympics. We were 1-0 down in Wellington and I came off the bench to score the equaliser. A defeat in a round-robin that included Israel and Taiwan could have crushed our Olympic dream so that moment sticks out in my mind."
You also took charge of the Socceroos for six years. How close were Australia to beating Uruguay in 2001?
"We were much closer than many people would imagine. They would see the scoreline of the return which we lost 3-0 (3-1 on aggregate) but we had big opportunities when we were two down and had we scored we would have made it 2-1 and probably gone to the World Cup on away goals."
Several pundits considered you rather lucky to retain the job after that heavy defeat in Montevideo. Were you treated fairly by the media?
"I can't complain about the way I was treated. The media has a job to do and you have to respect that. And that's the way it was. I was fortunate to keep my job despite the turmoil the game was going through at the higher level at the time. Looking back, I had a great time although I must say my stint as national coach was a bit too long."
You had the privilege of working with much-loved strikers Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell. How good were they?
"The highest compliment I could possibly pay to both of them and others too is they could have played with any club and in any competition in the world. It's a big rap but nobody can tell me that 'Dukes' or 'H' could not play for AC Milan, Juventus, Barcelona or Real Madrid. They would have been at home with those teams. They were that good at that particular time in their careers."
Was it hard to 'manage' the two superstars and all the outside influences associated with their status?
"Managing them per se was not hard. They were a treat to deal with. Managing the situations that the World Cup qualification process created was the difficult part. Australia was not involved in Asia at that time so we did not have any meaningful matches in our campaigns to reach the World Cup except the last hurdle.
"Getting our best players to come over to play against Solomon Islands, Vanuatu or Fiji - countries we would beat with our second team - always created problems with their clubs because our expectation was that we should always have our strongest team and I agreed. But the bottom line is that all the players who came over did so because they wanted to play for Australia."
Any regrets in your coaching career?
"Not really because I always did it my way which sometimes got me a job and on other times the sack. But I was always easy with myself because if I were successful it was because I did things the way I wanted. At the end of the day I was always able to look at the mirror and say to myself 'I did it my way and I don't give a rat's what others say'. I was never one to be told what to do.
"When I was with the Socceroos I was often urged to do this or pick this player but I never listened really and whether that cost me my job at the end I don't know."
Forget the fact that you were a player and a coach at club and national level and that results are what matter most, what's your favourite football style?
"The style of game that gives me most pleasure is one that is centred on possession and attack via quick transition. If you delay too much after you win the ball the opposition will get organised at the back and it becomes harder to break them down. Defence wins you games but you have to score goals too and you cannot score if you do not have the ball and or not use it with maximum speed."
Finally, who are the best players you have played with and against?
"I played with some great Australian players like Charlie Yankos, John Kosmina, David Mitchell, Graham Arnold, Jimmy Patikas, Robbie Slater, Rod Brown and Alan Hunter who were players who made a difference. Abroad I had the privilege to play alongside Belgian captain Jan Ceulemans, England's David Platt and others.
"The finest players I faced were Zinedine Zidane with whom I crossed paths when he was at Bordeaux, Argentina's Diego Maradona, Brazil's Zico and the three Dutchmen Frank Rijkaard, Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit".
FRANK FARINA FACTFILE
1983-1984: Canberra City
1985-1986: Sydney City
1988-1991: FC Brugge
1991-1992: Bari (Notts County on loan)
1995-1998: Brisbane Strikers
1984-1995 Australia (37 full internationals)
FC Brugge: Belgian championship 1989, Belgian Cup 1991, Belgian Super Cup 1990, 1991. Marconi: National Soccer League 1988. Brisbane Strikers: National Soccer League 1997. Sydney City: NSL Cup 1986.