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Ivan Franjic: “I’m thankful and grateful that I was able to live my dream”

Socceroos Ivan Franjic

Ivan Franjic’s arrival at historic National Premier Leagues Victoria side Heidelberg United has come via an unconventional journey to say the least.

From his early beginnings in the then-named Victorian Premier League with the likes of St Albans Saints and Melbourne Knights, to playing for Russian side FC Torpedo Moscow, to playing in the third-largest urban agglomeration in Korea with Daegu FC, Franjic’s career has certainly been one to savour.

Whilst his career has seen injury setbacks, a blocked loan and unpaid wages with Torpedo Moscow – and the discovery of a potentially career-threatening rare inflammatory condition known as myocarditis in 2016 – Franjic is grateful to be where he is today and to have had the footballing experiences he’s had.

“I’ve been very fortunate with the success I’ve had over my travels, and I’ve experienced some different countries,” he said.

“It’s been a great journey and I’m thankful and grateful that I was able to live my dream and play for the Socceroos at a World Cup. Some Championships as well, so, can’t complain at all.”

Torpedo Moscow

And as for why Franjic opted to return to the NPL Victoria to take up an opportunity with Heidelberg United, a family connection and the quality of the league spoke for itself.

“My brother has played in the NPL for a fair bit and I’ve watched a few of his games. If you look at the FFA Cup you’ve always got a Victorian team in the semi-finals, so it must be saying something about how good the standard of the league is,” he said.

“I know the coach George Katsakis and he called me and my brother and said he was interested in signing us. And obviously Heidelberg have had success over the last few years where they’ve won a lot of trophies, so, they’re wanting to build a great team to have another successful year once again.

“Whenever you go to Heidelberg you see that they have a decent following and that everyone gets behind them, so it’ll be good. I’m looking forward to playing in the NPL this year and to finally be playing with my brother after all these years.”

Heidelberg United

Next year’s Victorian NPL season will mark 13 years since Franjic departed his then-Victorian Premier League side Oakleigh Cannons to take up an injury-replacement contract offer with Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar.

It was under the now-Celtic FC coach where Franjic impressed the Roar faithful and built a platform to launch himself into a regular starting berth with the Socceroos at right-back.

As a three-time A-League Men’s Championship winner with Brisbane, three-time Premiership winner with the Roar (twice) and Perth Glory (once), as well as an Asian Cup winner, Franjic has certainly been a key cog in some of Australian football’s most historic sides.

“Obviously, winning the Asian Cup is a massive achievement, it’s similar to someone winning the Euros or the Copa America. But I think in Australia, with soccer not being the number one sport, it’s always hard to get the media buzz of AFL and NRL because they’ve got a huge following,” he said.

“But when you look back on it you don’t realise how high of an achievement it actually was against Asia’s best.

“I’d had Ange as a coach for a few years and he’s no doubt one of the best managers I’d ever worked under. The whole buzz of being in Brazil, with security all around the hotel and obviously Brazil is a football-mad nation, so, everywhere you went people were following you.

“It was exciting, and I thought Australia gave a good account of themselves without getting results in that tournament.”

Each of these remarkable honours were earnt between globetrotting stints with Torpedo Moscow, Melbourne City and Daegu. But before returning to the National Premier Leagues Victoria, Franjic made one final stopover with newly-joined A-League Men’s expansion side Macarthur FC. He gave credit to the side that he helped in their foundation.

“It was no doubt a challenge starting up a new club from fresh and giving it a go. Credit has to go out to all of the staff and the owners; they did an amazing job for a club in their first year in terms of facilities and the stadium. Compared to other clubs that have come into the A-League they were very good,” he said.

Macarthur FC

Joe Spiteri: “If you have players dribbling a lot in our curriculum, it seems they are being coached out of it”

Joe Spiteri is a name well known around Australian football circles and for good reason.

The former Australian international gritted his teeth for clubs in the National Soccer League, including being an influential part of a Melbourne Knights side in the mid 90’s – which is widely regarded as one of the best teams Australia has ever seen.

His exploits in the domestic competition eventually got him a move overseas, where he played for Sturm Graz in Austria, Lierse in Belgium and IFK Norrkoping in Sweden.

In a wide-ranging chat with Soccerscene, the 48-year-old reflected on his playing career, explaining the differences at the time between plying his trade overseas and in Australia.

“The NSL level overall, don’t get me wrong, was pretty high,” he said.

“Back in the Melbourne Knights days we had one of the best teams at that time and is comparable to nowadays with the ability that was in that team. The number of national players who were playing for us were fantastic and they would be a hard team to beat (nowadays).

“But overseas the fitness level was completely above the Australian level at the time, it was considerably better.”

“I think the overseas setup took training to a whole new level; we were training all day every day.

“They had doctors, pediatrists, dietitians, everything over there and that was 25 years ago now.

“The science involved – we had heart rate monitors back then, our levels of training were monitored, our supplements program were monitored, our blood oxygen levels were monitored, we had to maintain a certain weight for our playing style and position, it was all next level and basically nothing was left to chance.

“Whereas in Australia at that time, there was nothing of that scientific level that there is now here.”

After coming back to Australia in the final years of his playing career, Spiteri would eventually begin his own academy, Soccer Pro Academy, to help further develop the next generation of footballers.

“I eventually moved to Werribee City when I was finishing up my playing career and there, they offered me the position of junior coaching director,” he said.

“From there, I eventually progressed into starting my own academy at the club and then after starting that, the level of interest increased and I further developed the idea.

“I started branching out to different areas, with different clubs and schools – before Covid we had over 450 kids across 8 venues in the west of Melbourne.

“Coaching kids is something that I’ve always done, even as a professional player I was sent out to schools and so forth. The enjoyment you get from seeing an under 5’s kid come to your academy bawling his out because he doesn’t know or want to play the game and then go on to play at a higher level and push up through the ranks is something very rewarding.”

Spiteri believes that at a junior development level, promising young players are being priced out of the game which is a significant issue.

“The NPL program and the restriction of being able to play at the highest level due to financial standings is concerning to myself,” he said.

“Back in the day you were either good or bad, the fees were pretty much standard across every club and every league.

“If you were good enough, you’d play in the higher leagues and get into the super league teams, if you weren’t you’d play at the lower clubs.

“Nowadays if you want to play at the highest level, there’s huge a gap in the fees you have to pay.

“Anytime you’re restricted on financial standings, you’re always missing out on some really good players.

“Back in the day, there wasn’t the academy system there is now, the professionalism, there’s a lot of different opportunities and competition.  Players don’t always have to join a club per say, they can join an academy and play in an academy team and they can still have the same, if not better, development as a footballer.”

Overall, the former NSL striker has some concerns around the national program and the way coaches are told to implement a certain style of play.

“In regards to the national curriculum and how coaches are asked to develop their players, I think we focus too much on maintaining possession and not enough on going around players, dribbling and creating goal scoring opportunities.

“I think we are falling behind in that factor and it’s highlighted in our national teams.

“Our national teams seem to maintain possession a lot, but not score or have the attacking flair that you see from European or South American nations.

“If you have players dribbling a lot in our curriculum, it seems they are being coached out of it, which I think is an issue.”

Mark Viduka inducted into Sport Australia Hall of Fame

Viduka

Legendary Socceroo and National Soccer League Champion Mark Viduka has been honoured with an induction into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame.

Viduka, 46, joins fellow Socceroos Ray Baartz, Harry Kewell, Joe Marston MBE, Alfred Quill, Peter Wilson & Johnny Warren OAM MBE in the Sport Australia Hall of Fame.

The ‘V Bomber’ played 43 ‘A’ internationals for Australia, scoring 11 goals and captaining the side to their only ever knockout rounds appearance at the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

Viduka was born in Melbourne in 1975 to a Ukrainian-Croatian mother and Croatian father, and grew up playing at the junior ranks of Melbourne Knights (formerly Melbourne Croatia).

After spending a year at the Australian Institute of Sport in the early 90’s, Viduka made his senior NSL debut for the Knights in 1993 as a 17-year-old.

In his two full seasons for the club, he won both the Golden Boot and Johnny Warren Medal for the best player of the season, twice, and helped the Knights win their maiden title in 1994/95.

In 1995, a move abroad gained momentum and he was sold to Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia, to play for the biggest club in the homeland of his parents. The transfer money earned by the Knights enabled them to build a grandstand at their home in Somers St, named the ‘Mark Viduka Stand’.

Viduka then moved to Celtic and scored 25 league goals in the 1999/2000 season, comfortably winning the Golden Boot, and helped the side win the Scottish League Cup. He was voted the Players’ Player of the Season, and was then sold to English Premier League side Leeds United for £6 million.

It is in the famous Leeds United colours that some of Viduka’s most famous moments were created.

The highlight of his first season was a masterclass against Liverpool FC. Leeds won the match 4-3 against the Reds, with Viduka scoring all four goals for Leeds at Elland Road. He finished that season with 22 goals in all competitions, picking up where he left off with Celtic.

In his second and third seasons with Leeds, Viduka scored 16 and 22 goals respectively, with the side continuing to ply their trade in Europe. Viduka was transferred at the end of the fourth season to Middlesbrough for £4.5 million.

After the heartbreak of 1997 and 2001 World Cup qualifying, Australia had their best chance to end the 32-year drought of not making a Men’s World Cup. After losing the first leg 1-0 to Uruguay away in Montevideo, the Socceroos took Uruguay to penalties in the second leg after Mark Bresciano made it 1-1 on aggregate.

Heroics from Mark Schwarzer in the ensuing penalty shoot-out ensured the Socceroos would qualify for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, and despite Viduka missing a penalty in the shoot-out, he expertly captained the national team to one of the biggest and most memorable nights in Australian sport’s history.

And after the 2008/09 season with Middlesbrough – and despite interest from brand-new A-League club Melbourne Heart, Viduka called time on his incredible career. An icon of the game, Viduka will forever be one of Australia’s and the NSL’s finest ever exports to the Premier League.

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