The World Game resumes its monthly instalment of the series on Socceroos stars who left their mark on football in Australia. Goalkeeper Robert Zabica says he owes his rapid rise from obscurity to national recognition to his younger days playing cricket and Australian rules.
Late-blooming goalkeeper Robert Zabica revealed that he owed his rise from relative anonymity to the coveted Socceroos jersey to his junior days playing cricket and Australian rules football in his home town Perth.
Zabica, who was one of the finest goalkeepers of his generation in the 1990s, earned his first semi-professional contract at the age of 24 and took to goalkeeping like a fish takes to water.
He quickly made his 'mark' on the game and his consistency helped Adelaide City win two championships. He also played 27 times for the Socceroos and was heavily involved in the latter stages of Australia's campaign to reach the 1994 FIFA World Cup.
“In my junior years in Perth I played a fair bit of cricket and a bit of Australian rules football,” Zabica said.
“I just found the transition from catching in both sporting codes, where you developed hand-eye co-ordination, to doing the same with a soccer ball not too difficult and I picked up the basic skills pretty quickly. It obviously got a lot harder over the years as I was trying to learn the trade.
"However I was grateful to get where I did. So playing cricket and rules as a kid gave me an advantage.”
Zabica, who is now 56, took time out to revive his short but eventful career that nearly got him to the World Cup in the United States.
What are you doing at the moment?
"I'm not involved in football at all any more other than occasionally doing some radio work for Perth Glory home games. I have no desire to coach or anything like that and all I do these days is work in sales as I've always done in my working life and play golf."
You were quite a handy cricketer, right?
"I played A-grade locally and was in the state squad for a while in my teenage years. I was a fast bowler."
So what brought you to football?
"I loved playing cricket but I loved football too and I played the game with my friends in the off-season because at the time I was growing up you could play the two sports. However a few injuries curtailed my cricket career and I had to find an alternative. My parents are European and It was actually my father who encouraged me to give football a try. So it all started from there."
You earned your first contract with Adelaide at 24. Were you surprised that such a big club would ask a not-so-young cricketer to join them?
"Adelaide had connections in Perth and when they came to town in 1988 for a series of matches in an 'Italian' tournament I played against them and did well. They must have been impressed because they offered me a contract."
Did you feel you had plenty of catching up to do?
"When I was approached I was oblivious of the National League but I never thought I had left it too late. I had a body of a young person but realistically I did not feel it was too late for me to make a mark."
Having the respected Zoran Matic as coach would have helped, though.
"Zoran took a punt on me and made me an international goalkeeper. He believed in me even though I was pretty much a rough diamond when he signed me. I owe everything to him, basically."
You won two grand finals and lost another two in consecutive years. What do you remember from that era?
"I went to Adelaide in 1988 and it was perfect timing because four years later we won the league. We had quality players so much so that almost all the team had played for Australia. I had an amazing back line in front of me. We all believed in each other and the way Zoran put together a team that lasted six or seven years was crucial. The relationship and camaraderie he built served us well because only a few of us did not last the course."
Adelaide had become the capital of Australian club football. What made City so special?
"I just think what gave us an edge over our rivals was the way Zoran prepared a group of semi-professionals as professionals. We all worked during the day and trained four times a week and played a game on the weekend. It was a tough regime because Zoran was very tough at training and demanded the best but off the field he would do anything to help you. He was a father figure to us."
It must have been very comforting to have guys like seasoned internationals Alex Tobin and Milan Ivanovic in front of you.
"Absolutely. When Milan came into the side everything fell into place. I was very lucky to have such magnificent defenders looking after me, especially when you remember that I was a guy who was just getting into the game."
Do you follow the A-League?
"Yes I do. I obviously am a Perth Glory fan but I also follow Adelaide who also have a special place in my heart."
A hypothetical question: How would your Adelaide team have fared in today's A-League?
"Yes, that's very hypothetical. The game is a lot different now, much faster. Our era was our era and we played to the best of our ability and we were very good at it. However, realistically, you cannot compare."
You played your first 'international' against Torpedo Moscow in 1990 under the late Frank Arok. How will you remember him?
"Frank gave me the opportunity to play for my country and he believed in me. It was the start of a period of transition that had qualification for the 1994 World Cup as its focus. Some goalkeepers were getting on and I took the chance when I was asked to step in. Frank was a passionate and high-tempo coach. He was great for our game because he probably took the Socceroos to the next level in regards to football's progress."
Australia's 1994 FIFA World Cup campaign was a mixed bag. You faced Canada in a playoff due to Mark Bosnich's unavailability but you got sent off after 17 minutes of the first leg.
"It was a funny part of my career. There was always competition for the jersey. Apart from Bozza, there were Mark Schwarzer, John Filan and others. Eddie Thomson was our coach and he picked me even though I had had a dip in form just before the tie.
"Unfortunately in Canada I got sent off when I brought down an opponent who had broken clear. The 'last man' rule had just come in and I was shown the red card. I did not think I deserved a straight red ... it was the only time I got sent off in my career. Thoughts of letting your side down came rushing to my head but these things happen. They did not score from the free kick and the boys did well to lose narrowly 2-1. I was suspended for the return in Sydney but thankfully that game was the birth of (penalty shootout hero) Schwarzer."
If your red card in Edmonton was disappointing, the fluke goal you conceded against Argentina in Buenos Aires must have been devastating.
"It was one of those one-in-a-million instances that are part of the game. I was waiting for the cross from Gabriel Batistuta but his shot took a deflection off Tobin and somehow the ball found itself in the net. There was a swirling wind at the Monumental that night and I thought the ball would go out but to my horror it went in. It was just a perfect storm. We played well but lost 1-0 and we were out."
What was the overwhelming sensation from that tie: was it pride in taking a world power to the wire or frustration at being so close to causing a boilover?
"A bit of both, to be honest. Obviously Argentina with Diego Maradona were a powerhouse side. We got a lot of respect after that tie (2-1 aggregate) but, geez, it would have been great to take that next step. Remember, some of us were not fully professional."
After you finished with Adelaide, you had a gap year in 1995. What happened there?
"After the Argentina tie we played Japan in May 1994 and I snapped my anterior cruciate ligament. That's when I thought I had had enough and I should retire. My wife was homesick so we came back to Perth where I got myself right and started to play locally. Then in 1996 I played some games with Glory in the NSL."
You even managed a brief stint with Bradford City in the late 1990s.
"I had a great opportunity to go to England and earn some good money. I had to think of my family. It did not pan out that well but that's okay."
What was the highlight of your career?
"The highlights are always the times you win things with your teammates after a season of hard work. Making my debut for Australia was a highlight too but at the end of the day you have to look at the two championships we won in 1992 and 1994."
Who were the best players you have played with at club and Socceroo level?
"Ivanovic was the best player I have seen in my days. He would have to be the finest import in the NSL's history. He was a great asset to our club and to the Socceroos team."
ROBERT ZABICA FACTFILE
1988-94 Adelaide City
1996-97 Perth Glory
1997-98 Bradford City
1990-94 Australia (27 matches)
NSL championship 1992, 1994 Adelaide City, NSL Cup 1989, 1992 Adelaide City.