The World Game resumes its monthly feature on Socceroos stars who left their mark on football down under. Defender Kevin Muscat reveals his frustration at some coaches who were not completely honest with him, and pays tribute to lethal trio Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka and Tim Cahill.
Socceroos defender Kevin Muscat, who never shied away from speaking his mind, admits he still is in the dark as to why coach Guus Hiddink did not pick him for the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
After playing 45 full international matches for the green and gold, Muscat saw his hopes of playing in the game's biggest tournament evaporate before his own eyes.
And what still hurts the tough defender is the fact that the famous Dutchman never explained why there was no room for him on the plane to Germany.
"I was in the team that played in the 2005 Confederations Cup under Frank Farina but when the group met again under new coach Guus Hiddink, I was the only one not to be invited to the camp," Muscat said.
"I thought I was good enough to be in the 23-member squad for the World Cup. But Hiddink, in his wisdom, made the decision not to pick me. I appreciated his difficult task of naming the squad but it would have been nice to get an explanation why I was left out. I was very disappointed.
"Hiddink did not even give me the news himself and got his assistant Graham Arnold to call me but I was none the wiser after speaking with him. Arnie was rather vague and said something like I was not selected because Hiddink knew what I could do. What the hell does that mean? You tell me.
"Arnie and I have talked about it again, but I still do not know why I was dropped."
After his World Cup knockout, 'Musky' picked himself up, dusted himself off and got on with this club commitments at Melbourne Victory, the club he joined in mid-2005.
He would become the heart and soul of the club, helping the Navy Blues win two A-League championships as a player and two more as a coach before quitting at the end of last season to seek a fresh challenge abroad.
Muscat, who is now 46, spoke candidly and at length about his extraordinary and colourful career as a player and a coach.
What are you doing now?
"I'm living with my partner in Leuven, Belgium, but the two children are completing their studies in Melbourne. I am employed as a coach with Pro League club Sint-Truiden, who come from a small city by the same name. I had a problem at first because my AFC coaching licence is not recognised in Europe so they gave me the role of football analyst. But now that UEFA have recognised my badges I should have no problem with coaching.
"The league in Belgium has been stopped and Club Brugge have been declared champions. The next season starts in early August."
The Belgians have loved Aussie footballers ever since Eddie Krncevic blazed a trail in the 1980s but you are breaking new ground as a coach. Do you feel you have to be much better than a local to survive and be respected? All things being equal they will look after each other, won't they?
"There is definitely something in what you say and I have already noticed this. You've got to be realistic however: same as what happens in Australia, foreigners are perceived to be better so they are under extra pressure to perform. Sint-Truiden, which represents a small working-class community, are no different and they will stick together and look after their own in every shape and form. But once we gain that respect we would be able to use that as a positive."
Did the time you spent at the Australian Institute of Sport and the four seasons with South Melbourne prepare you for a career that would take you to Britain?
"I was a little different to others because I had already played in the National Soccer League at 16 for Sunshine George Cross before I joined the AIS. When I finished with the AIS, I went to Heidelberg for one season. I later had options to play for several clubs but I chose South because I knew I would be training and playing alongside such great players as Micky Petersen, Mehmet Durakovic, Con Boutsianis and Paul Trimboli. They taught me so much."
Yet it probably was your performance as Olyroos captain at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta that earned you a contract with Crystal Palace?
"I had had a couple of attempts at English football before that but the Olympics certainly opened a few doors for me. I could have gone to Holland but when Dave Bassett, a manager I already knew, asked me to join Palace I made my way over to London."
Would it be right to say that the most rewarding part of your European journey was your stint at Rangers when they landed a domestic treble?
"It all depends on what you mean by 'rewarding'. If by that you mean results, yes it was because we won the treble with an unbelievable team. But I also won the championship playoff with Palace at Wembley and I got to play a few games in the Premier League. Captaining Millwall all the way to the FA Cup final was also very special."
You had a problem with manager Alex McLeish and you left Ibrox after only one season to join Millwall. What was all that about?
"I had signed a pre-contract with Dick Advocaat in January to join Rangers but by the time the season started the Dutch coach had moved on and McLeish took over. I did not have a problem with McLeish and I did not leave Rangers with any issue. After playing in the first eight or nine games of the season I was not picked for the derby against Celtic which I did not understand why. But I realised then how hard it is to be a manager.
"By the same token, however, I expect managers to be truthful because I believe that honesty should be the best policy when dealing with people."
You missed out on captaining Millwall in the 2004 FA Cup final at the Millennium Stadium after you got injured in the semi-final. That would have been hard to take.
"Of course. Unfortunately, I got badly injured (ruptured medial ligament and fractured tibia) in the semi-final against Sunderland at Old Trafford and my dream to play in the cup final was crushed. I had led the side throughout the campaign but the injury came at the worst possible time for me."
When Victory came calling a year later, did you see the invitation as a step into the unknown - a gamble, if you like - or an opportunity to finish your career in your home town?
"A bit of both, to be honest. There was always an element of risk in coming to Australia to play in a new league. I was speaking to Frank Lowy before the A-League started and he explained his plans for football in Australia. I was genuinely interested but the man who ultimately talked me into coming back was Victory's football operations manager Gary Cole, who is someone I respect and trust and with whom I spoke many times before committing. I had been away from Australia for 10 years so I saw it as a chance to play the next chapter of my career back home."
You won plenty of trophies with Victory. Which one gave you the biggest thrill?
"If I were still at the club I would say the next one. Looking back, I have some pretty solid memories. They were all unique in their own way and it's hard to put one above another. It's like asking me which is my favourite child. Yet winning the first championship as a coach when we beat Sydney FC 3-0 in 2015 gave me a totally different perspective on football. Not many get an opportunity to win a championship as a player and a coach with the same club ... and I did it again in 2017 when we beat Newcastle 1-0. Unfortunately our great all-round performance that night was overshadowed by the VAR controversy surrounding the winning goal."
You were a tough and uncompromising defender but also a very good player. Are you concerned that some people will remember you more as a hard man and less as an accomplished footballer?
"The less you and your colleagues write about this the less chance there is of people remembering that part of my game ... but, fair enough, I understand and I take your point. It is what it is, after all. We get to a stage in life where we have to accept that you cannot change anything from the past, especially people's perceptions which tend to stick. I was always driven to win and succeed and I admit that sometimes I pushed the boundaries.
"By the way, I appreciate your recognition of my playing ability which is something I did not often get from 10 years playing in England."
Apart from being a strong defender you also were an accurate passer of the ball and a very successful penalty taker, do you believe that a well struck and placed penalty with the right weight cannot be saved?
"It shouldn't be, if goalkeepers stay on the line, that is. But now that they can move sideways it becomes a bit of a lottery. The advantage is obviously still with the kickers and the goalkeepers' best chance is to anticipate but if they try to do that too early they would give the takers that split-second chance to change their mind. So the timing is crucial."
Are you still haunted by the penalty you missed in the 2010 grand final shootout against Sydney?
"I'm not haunted but it gnawed at me for a while. I was involved in six grand finals as a player or coach and I won four. The other two I lost on penalties. I remember sending Sydney goalkeeper Clint Bolton the other way and I hit the ball well but the accuracy was not there because the ball hit the post and bounced away."
You did not score too many goals from open play in your career, so the one you scored for Australia against Hungary in Budapest in 1997 would have been up there with the best, right?
"Good memory. We beat Hungary 3-1 in a friendly and I found the net with a powerful rising shot from just inside the box that ended up in the top corner. When you are a fullback you relish these rare moments. I also remember scoring a similar goal for Wolves against Ipswich."
Your penalty for Australia in the 2001 playoff with Uruguay in Melbourne would have given the Socceroos a strong hope of qualifying for the World Cup. Were the Uruguayans too good in Montevideo?
"Look, I am 46 now and I've got to a point where I try to eliminate exterior factors like luck when it comes to assessing football outcomes. You always get what you deserve. We performed really well in the first leg and deservedly took a 1-0 lead but in the return it was a different story. They were far better than us and beat us handsomely 3-0.
"Maybe if we had got to halftime without conceding we would have had a chance. We gave it our best shot but I have to be honest and admit we could not cope with their superior class and the hostility of the crowd at the Centenario."
What annoys you most in football?
"We have many forces working against us as a sport in Australia yet we don't help ourselves as a football community by making the same mistakes over and over again, like playing on cricket pitches. It is very frustrating because we have not progressed as far as we should have."
Who are the finest Australian footballers you have seen?
"As far as technique, poise and elegance without doubt it has to be Harry Kewell. However, in terms of what one means to one's team my preference would go to Mark Viduka. Then if we look at impact I have to go for Timmy Cahill, who scored dozens of important goals, some of them after coming on as a sub."
Finally, who are the best players you have played with and against at club and national level?
"At national level Viduka, Kewell, Cahill and Mark Bosnich when he was in his prime were some of my best teammates while I was fortunate enough to share a pitch with some exceptional footballers like France's Zinedine Zidane and Brazilian pair Romario and Ronaldo."
"At club level, my best teammate was Argentina's Claudio Caniggia, who was at the end of his career when he came to Rangers but proved his class. I faced Arsenal's Dutch winger Marc Overmars several times in England. He was at the time the world's best player in his position."
KEVIN MUSCAT FACTFILE
1989-90: Sunshine George Cross
1991-92: Heidelberg United
1992-96: South Melbourne
1996-97: Crystal Palace
1997-02: Wolverhampton Wanderers
2005-11: Melbourne Victory
1994-06: Australia (46 matches)
Rangers: Scottish League, Cup and League Cup 2002-03; Melbourne Victory: A-League championship and premiership 2007, 2009; Australia: OFC Nations Cup 2000, 2004.