Socceroos Greats - Where are they now: John Kosmina

John Kosmina in 2012 Source: Getty Images

The World Game pays its monthly tribute to the Socceroos stars of yesteryear who left their mark on football down under. John Kosmina is one of Australia's most prolific scorers but the 'goal' he will never forget was the one he didn't score against Scotland in a FIFA World Cup qualifier 33 years ago.

Socceroos legend John Kosmina used to terrorise defenders in the 1970s and 1980s with his raw aggression and bloody-minded approach but admits he was never comfortable with the ‘salesman’ side of modern coaching.

Kosmina, now 62, played 60 times for Australia and was a key member of the Sydney City team that won two National Soccer League titles in the 1980s.

He is regarded as one of Australia’s finest and most feared forwards and in 1999 he was among the first intake of inductees to the Australian Hall of Fame. 

The Adelaide-born forward turned to coaching after a successful playing career but it was an occupation that did not sit well with the man who called a spade a spade and believed that honesty was always the best policy not just in football but in all walks of life.

“You have to play politics to survive in this game but I am a coach not a politician,” Kosmina said.

“Unfortunately, professional sport today is a lot about propaganda. Fake news, if you like.

“If you’re a coach you’e got to have a bit of a salesman in you. I’ve been in the game long enough to read between the lines but today there is a lot of bluffing from coaches.

"They sell themselves, sell their philosophy and create a narrative that they stick to … whether it is the reality or not does not seem to matter. I’ve watched games and listened to coaches discuss them and you wonder what the heck they are talking about. 

“Football is a massive commercial business. The amount of money in the game is ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong: the commercial and business sides of football are great and I’ve got no problem with people making big money from the game.

“But by the same token the ‘greed’ that accompanies this commercialism takes something away from the real spirit of football. It is not the game I grew up with.

"Mind you, I’ve always been a square peg in a round hole and I have no regrets about that. I’m not in the dinosaur category yet but I speak to many people even from other sports and they all say the same thing: pro sport has changed and become more artificial and cynical. 

“Football was a working class game like rugby league used to be. It’s the way of the world, I suppose, but that does not make it right.”

Kosmina, the master of the one-liners, was happy to talk about his rich experiences for club and country.

What are you doing now?

“I am senior coach at Brisbane City in the National Premier League and at St Joseph’s Gregory Terrace, a large independent school in Brisbane, which is affiliated to the club. I also do some television work which I enjoy very much.”

You were privileged to play in the very first National Soccer League in 1977 for West Adelaide and scored the competition’s inaugural goal. What was football like then?

“In terms of the quality of play I think it was okay. At the time in the mid-1970s there were a lot of migrants in the country. I grew up at a Polish club and we had guys from England and Poland who came out here mainly as young kids.

"Some of the Polish players were internationals who got away from their communist country and ended up as labourers out here but they were all class and people tend to forget that. What we lacked those days was a certain level of professionalism. There was not a lot of money in football those days.”

After making a name for yourself in the NSL you earned a dream move to Arsenal but your stay at Highbury was brief. What happened?

“Terry Neill, who was Arsenal manager when I signed for them in 1978, came out here as manager of Tottenham Hotspur in 1976 and I had a really good game against them while playing for South Australia.

“A year later Arsenal played here and I had a blinder, this time for the Socceroos. I scored the first goal and we comfortably beat them 3-1 at the old Sydney Sportsground. After that game an agent got in touch with national coach Jimmy Shoulder and a move abroad was on.

“I was supposed to be going to Tampa Bay Rowdies in America but before I left I got a call telling me that Arsenal were interested. So I decided to have a crack. Before I knew it I was in London dealing with a temperature of minus five degrees, having left Adelaide’s 40 degrees.

“To be honest I think I was not really prepared mentally or emotionally for full professionalism. I had no idea of what it would be like. The football side of things was okay and I probably had done enough to have my contract renewed or maybe move to another club. I played a handful of games and I lasted about 15 or 16 months but then an offer came from West Adelaide and I decided to come home.

“Looking back there were times that I enjoyed and others that I did not. I was homesick at times and I had no friends or family to fall back on. I had mates of mine in London but they all disappeared to Europe for two or three weeks at a time. So I took the easy option when maybe I should have toughed it out.”

You scored 90 goals in 150 matches for Sydney City in the finest period of your club career. What made that team so special?

“I think it was the attitude that came down from the top. Frank Lowy, Andrew Lederer and others were strong people and had a winning mentality. Along with Eddie Thomson, who was a good coach, they chose the right players for the club.

"The NSL was a ruthless competition and a lot more physical than the league is now. They hated us but we used that as the motivation we needed to succeed.”

You must have considered yourself lucky to play alongside the late Joe Watson for Sydney City and Australia. He was a striker’s dream winger.

“Joe was a fantastic player and I don’t think people knew just how good he was. His touch, timing and vision were superb and when he got the ball in certain areas of the pitch you knew what the outcome was going to be.

"He played crosses nice and early and if you were prepared to attack the ball as I was a goal was always the likely result.”

Were the Sydney City players disappointed that such a strong team had such a meagre following?

“The Jewish community in Sydney is not large and there was a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment from our opponents those days. We did not have any Jewish players except for Eli Ohana late on but we were seen as a Jewish team. That is how it was.”

You took part in three failed FIFA World Cup campaigns. Which one of the three bids could have rewarded the Socceroos with qualification?

“The simplest one was the campaign for 1982 but New Zealand beat us 2-0 at the Sydney Cricket Ground after a 3-3 draw in Auckland and we were gone. That campaign under coach Rudi Gutendorf was an absolute shambles.

"The players got on okay but the  mood in camp was just terrible and we were not up to it. The whole thing was badly set up. Yet I’m convinced we were strong enough to qualify for Spain. 

“The bid for 1978 was affected by two unexpected home games we should never have lost. We missed a penalty in a game against Iran in Melbourne which we lost 1-0. I earned the penalty and I was prepared to take it but Dave Harding was a senior player and he took it but hit the ball over the bar.

"We also got beaten 2-1 by Kuwait in Sydney in a match we were good enough to win but unfortunately our regular goalkeeper Todd Clarke was injured and did not play and we missed him.”

You scored 25 goals for Australia in 60 full internationals yet the ‘goal’ most people remember is the one you missed against Scotland in a World Cup qualifier in Melbourne in 1985. Tell us about that opportunity.

“I think about that incident quite often, to be honest. It pops into my head regularly. It was a missed opportunity, no doubt about that, not a great save by Jim Leighton. The ball hit his arms. 

“Dave Mitchell went away on the right and I veered to the back post as I always do so as to attack the ball at the front post.

"There was another player behind me and Dave’s ball came in between the middle of the goal and the back post and I headed the ball across the keeper but it hit Leighton’s arm. Maybe I should have gone to my near post. Leighton made three saves that night that may have changed a lot of things.”

Which was your best performance in green and gold - maybe the two goals you scored against Korea Republic in a World Cup qualifier in Sydney in 1977 or the double you got against Vasco da Gama in Melbourne in 1985?

“The World Cup game at the Sportsground was more important. I loved that stadium and the atmosphere it generated. I still remember the two goals against the Koreans.

"The first was a tap-in from a set piece and later on I smothered a clearance from a defender some three metres from goal and the ball rebounded off my chest and into the net. It was what  I intended … it was no accident.”

“Against Vasco I scored with a header and with what commentator Les Murray described as a ‘European’ goal but it was no big deal because I used to score such goals for my club.

“I also will never forget my last match for the national team. It was a group match against Nigeria at the 1988 Olympics and I scored the winning goal in a 1-0 victory.”

You worked a lot under Thomson at club level and Frank Arok for the national team. What were their attributes? 

“Their character and their personality. Eddie and Frank treated players like adults not like little kids. Gutendorf treated his players poorly and never got his message across. When Frank came in he was like a breath of fresh air because he allowed players a bit of freedom.”

After an exceptional playing career, you took to coaching. Did you find managing players an eye-opening experience?

“When I started coaching things were a bit different. I coach the same way as I played. Without being one to seek a win at all costs, I was aggressive and had a winning mentality.

"I basically used the experiences I had gained as a player. I just wanted to stay in the game and coaching provided me with a perfect avenue. I was never going to be an administrator.”

Is man management as important in today’s game as the technical, tactical and physical preparation?

"If you look at what went on at Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United you’ve got to say yes. Man management is important and it is probably something at which I could have done better.

"My attitude is you need to get the job done and if you’re not doing it you need to know about it. As I said, I’m not one to play politics.”   

Your departure from Sydney FC in 2009 must have left you disenchanted with the game. Did you get support from the club and loyalty from the players?  

“That’s when my man management could have been better. I may have disenfranchised a couple of players along the way but the attitude of the team was wrong because they were resting on their laurels a little bit.

"There also was a change of ownership and I reckon if Lowy was still there I would have seen out my tenure.”

Finally, who are the best players you have played with and against at club and international level?

“Scotsman Graeme Souness made a few guest appearances for West Adelaide in 1977 and I could see that he was a fantastic footballer. He was not just a hard man but he could play.

"At Arsenal, I played alongside Irishman Liam Brady who was phenomenal. The only stumbling block he had to being recognised an an all-time great was the fact he was Irish.

“In Sydney striker Kenny Boden was an unbelievable footballer. He would have made it in England but he was a bit too light for the English game.”

“I will never forget playing for South Australia against two Polish stars who came out here  in 1975 with their club Legia Warsaw. Star striker Kazimierz Deyna and fringe defender Leslaw Cmikiewicz had helped Poland finish third in the 1974 World Cup. They were unbelievable players.”

JOHN KOSMINA FACTFILE

Club career
1977: West Adelaide
1978: Adelaide City
1978-79: Arsenal
1979-1980: West Adelaide
1981-1986: Sydney City
1987-1988: Sydney Olympic
1989: APIA Leichhardt

International career
1976-1988: Australia (60 matches)

Honours
1981, 1982: NSL championship (Sydney City)
1988: NSL Cup (Sydney City)