Stuff of dreams in Eden

I am the first to admit that this job has its pleasurable moments.

I write this in the midst of just one of those, from Kota Kinabalu, capital of Sabah state in Malaysia, a nice place.

Penny Wong, the Australian finance minister, hails from here, which is likely the only reason most Australians have heard of it.

For me it’s more famous for being the home of Scott Ollerenshaw, the former Socceroos’ flying lefty who in 1988 so terrorised Brazil’s Jorginho that the latter got himself sent off for trying to stop him with a waste-high rugby tackle.

He was a fiery red head, our Scott, with a combustible temperament on which his coach, Frank Arok, once commented: 'What do you expect? He has red hair.’

Frank would be disappointed to learn that the hair is now gone, and not just its colour.

Scott, or Ollie to his friends, now makes a living running sports tourism events in this tropical Eden on the north-eastern tip of Borneo. It’s here where Ollie played out the final years of his career and just couldn’t bring himself to leave.

It’s an idyllic place - as you might guess - with balmy temperatures, palm trees, quiet beaches and, not far up in the hills, wild orang-utans with whom one can have encounters of the third kind.

I’m here at Ollie’s invitation, although I’ve been coming here for various reasons - including on holiday at my expense - since 2006, even spending one New Year’s Eve here (which I don’t recommend unless you get off on excruciatingly bad karaoke).

My not unpleasant chore is to contribute, as guest speaker, to Ollie’s premier event, the Borneo Football Cup, a two-week annual tournament for invited junior teams (anyone can apply), from ages 12-16.

Craig Foster is here also, so that he too can impart some wise words to the kids, including probably something about Barcelona.

In the hotel lobby, one mingles with bright eyed boys from many corners of the region, all track-suited up like young professionals and displaying fine manners. They are in bed by the time I have a late night drink in the lobby bar with George Konstandopoulos, a one-time NSL player with West Adelaide, as some of you will remember. The blond Greek.

He is here as the coach of Adelaide Olympic’s Under 16s. He talks passionately about his team playing an ideal brand of football, and it does try to, but then presides over a loss in the final the next day to a bunch of mainly Korean school kids from the TY Sports Academy, ironically a Brisbane-based institution.

It doesn’t please George, who seems about as blackened by the loss as Jose Mourinho would be after another defeat at the Nou Camp. George’s memory of a similar result in the final two years ago doesn’t help.

The kids, being kids, shake it off and are soon seen happily frolicking around the pool at the Sutera Harbour Resort, where they are staying. It’s all the usual education about who responds how to a loss, and at what age. In any case, at this age it’s not about results and trophies, as we non-coaches find it easy to say.

What it is about, though, is development and experience. That’s why this event is more to the kids than splashing about in swimming pools while their parents drink at the swim-up bar. Down time is pleasant, to be sure, but it’s all primarily about the football and about playing well.

They play in unfamiliar conditions (the heat and humidity alone can be sapping), against foreign teams, with foreign styles and philosophies.

They are constantly challenged and it means a lot to them.

Last year, when I handed out winning trophies to a team of Japanese 12-year olds, several of them broke up crying. That’s fine, by the way. What you don’t want to see is children crying because they lost. Nobody should care, provided they learned something.

Other familiars who arrive at various times include Brad Maloney, Milan Blagojevic and Terry Greedy, all former Socceroos of various vintages. Aytec Genc, who runs his own football academy and is the technical director of Sydney’s vast St George district, is coming in with a party of 65. It’s a wonder he didn’t hire a private jumbo.

There is something serenely agreeable about watching - and mingling with - eager-faced, innocent young footballers, and teams acting as families on their collective little voyage of discovery.

Not all of them are so-called 'elite players’, indeed most are far from it. And that goes for not just the Australians but the others from Korea, China and elsewhere (no team from Japan could make it this year because of the after-effects of the earthquake and the tsunami).

They are kids trying to play and to learn, and trying to match their wits against foreign opposition. Most of these Australian boys will probably never become Socceroos or ever wear the green and gold at any level.

But as you observe them, you can’t help getting the feeling that they see these as fair-dinkum international games, a small way to a dream of playing for their country.

They will scarcely forget it, not to mention how much good it will probably do for their human development, through comradeship, the team ethic and the building of a sense of cultural identity. And all through football, an almost unrivalled vehicle for such things.

This naturally makes me, a football man watching it, very proud. Craig too, I am suspecting.

Scott Ollerenshaw spawned a good idea when he dreamt up this tournament four years ago. It’s a living for him, in a part of the world where income opportunities for an expat Australian can be a challenge, especially through the medium of football.

But I’m not sure if he counted on the value and rich sense of fulfilment his idea now brings every year to at least a small group of impressionable people from beyond Borneo’s shores, Australians included.