By Greg Baum
(The Age, Wednesday 13 September 2000)
Appreciations of Mark Viduka all have the same theme.
“He’s big, he’s strong, he’s quick,” they say.
“He holds the ball up.” With the ball at his feet, Viduka, once of St Albans and the Melbourne Knights, latterly of Croatia Zagreb, Celtic and Leeds United, has the world in his hands.
It was ever thus. He was six when he began with the Knights, nine when he scored 13 goals in one match.
At 16, the senior team was short for a practice match among themselves and the coach called up Viduka from the reserves.
Vlado Vanis, a footballing gypsie from Croatia via Canada, then playing out his career in the Australian NSL, had to mark him.
“I was thinking, why I have to mark this kid? I hit him once and he is gone,” said Vanis, now the Knight’s coach.
“But, I tell you what, kid was giving me trouble.
He was shielding the ball … you can make stupid free kick, but I didn’t want to hit a kid! I was thinking to myself, ‘this kid’s going to be player’.”
Moreover, he was temperamentally impervious.
“When I was hitting and pushing him, he didn’t complain; he just played his way,” remembers Vanis.
Viduka scored two goals in his first NSL match, and in the twinkling of an eye, he had twice lead the national league in goalscoring, had twice been named player of the year, and had won a championship with the Knights.
“Nearly every game he scored,” said Vanis.
“We knew if we were struggling in defence, we could just hit a long ball and Viduka was there to hold the ball and wait for middle players to come in.”
Vanis paused, then added, wistfully: Now, I’m missing that type of player.”
Viduka was still only 19. He had a weakness for chocolate cake and, according to a teammate, sometimes after a few drinks on road trips broke down and cried for his girlfriend.
Vanis called him “kid”. He knew so little of the world, yet somehow it had become his oyster. It could not be any other way.
Real Madrid, Juventus and Sporting Lisbon all showed interest, but when Croatia Zagreb put in a bid, and Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, in Melbourne on official business, interceded personally with Viduka on the club’s behalf, his mind was quickly made up.
Viduka was the son of Croatian immigrants, learnt to speak their language and grew up with strong awareness of his heritage. This led sometimes to misinterpretations.
“Viduka loved his culture, but he loved the Knights,” said Tonci Prusac, a journalist with the Croatian Herald and now a Knights board member.
“Every time he scored a goal, he’d kiss the logo on his shirt.
The media always said he kissed the Croatian coat of arms, but it wasn’t so. He was kissing the club’s logo.”
Viduka’s Zagreb experience became both salutary and cathartic. He made such immediate impression that after scoring two goals in an early match at the club’s Maksimir Stadium, the crowd clamored for him to take a late penalty instead of regular Josko Jelicic. He did, whereupon Jelicic stormed from the pitch and ripped off his shirt.
“Normal Croatian behavior,” remarked Viduka to Matthew Hall, author of a book about Australian footballers abroad called The Away Game.
Zagreb won the league and cup double three years running with Viduka up front. But there was also an awakening for the young man. Far from a paradise, Viduka discovered Croatia to be a country still suffering from the ravages of the Balkans war. He had seen his father’s home town reduced to rubble, and lost an uncle and another relative in hostilities.Later, Viduka would remark to Hall about how expatriates romanticise their homelands.
“People living in Australia don’t often realise the sort of country that they live in until they go somewhere else,” he said.
“Then you really find yourself. That’s what happened to me anyway.”
John Aloisi discovered something similar when he went to Italy to play for Cremonesi; he was not Italian after all, but Australian.
If Viduka had been uncertain about his loyalties before leaving Australia, he was certain now. He was a step closer to finding his place in the world. Tudjman had turned Croatia Zagreb into a political football by insisting that it abandon its original name, Dynamo Zagreb, because of its communist associations, and play with a name that would make it recognisably the country’s flagship in Europe. As Tudjman’s popularity waned, this began to rankle with the fans.
“It signified so much to the fans,” said Prusac.
“It would be like Collingwood changing its name to Northcote Magpies, or Southern Cross Magpies.”
Viduka’s connection with Tudjman, at first such an asset, began to work against him. When his form slumped, an aggressive and partisan media rounded on him savagely. Viduka negotiated to move to Glasgow Celtic, but the transfer became infamously protracted. Club and player baulked twice, first when Viduka could not put behind him the trauma of his departure from Zagreb and went home to Melbourne to rest, then when a dispute arose over his cut of the transfer fee. Twice in a month, he submitted to psychological tests, passing both, whereupon the ran the headline: “It’s Official: Marko’s Not Mad.”
Viduka was learning more about the world every day. So were his parents, Joe and Rose, and his three sisters, in Melbourne. Their house in Keilor was besieged by media for a week, a vexing experience for a family of quiet, industrious and private migrants. The Vidukas were reluctant to be in a photograph this week, insisting that the spotlight should be on their superstar son.
Turbulence notwithstanding, Viduka was instantly successful in Scotland, leading the goal scoring and winning the players’ player-of-the-year award.
In the off-season, he was sold to Leeds United, joining Harry Kewell there, for $15 million.
“Who would thought a few years ago,” asked Vanis, now a dedicated Australian, “that we would have two Aussie strikers at a club like Leeds?”
Viduka is only 24, and Vanis thinks the best is still to come.
“When he was leaving for Europe, I was worried about his sharpness. When he left the Knights, he wasn’t so sharp,” he said.
“Then, he was working three or four times a week. Over there, he would be training twice a day.
“I said to him, Mark, you must work a little bit extra, a little bit longer, to be sharper on the ball. Over there, you have more time on the ball, but also players are just waiting for your mistake. But he came up. He was one of the best players in Croatia, he was the top scorer in Scotland and now I expect him to be even better in England.
“I still think Mark is going to go to Italy. To me, Italy is the best soccer. In Italy, it’s more technical and tactical. In England, if you’re not 100 percent fit, it doesn’t matter who you are, you can’t play the game. In Italy, you can be 70 or 80 per cent fit, but doing tactically what the coach wants. But Viduka could play in any league in the world now.”
Prusac agrees. “He was always a daunting figure for any defender. But he’s actually improved out of sight since he’s gone overseas. His temperament, his skill … he’s become so much more defined, if you like.”
Already, and allowing always for partisanship between states, Viduka is regarded as one of the best five footballers produced by Australia.
Crucially this week and next, he is also one of the most patriotic. He shrugged off a niggling calf injury last year to give an inspired performance against Brazil on the MCG, and later dedicated it to the city of Melbourne.
He resisted the importuning of Leeds and the certainty of playing in three Champions League matches this month to come home to the Olympics, and said there was never a doubt.
Viduka said to Hall that he believed Australians in time would become as proud of their country as Americans were of theirs, as the sons and grandsons of “new Australians” like his father gave themselves over to their new home.
His parents, who had come to Australia as teenagers, had felt like strangers to begin, and he himself had sometimes been called “wog” at school. But their sense of belonging was powerful now. Vanis, who believes footballers who refuse to play for their country should be suspended from all competition for life, said:
“Mark appreciates the country he comes from. I respect him for this. If Viduka promises he’s going to come, he comes. If he has to give his life for his country, he will.”
Friends and associates aver that Viduka is older and wiser than when left Australia. Necessarily, he is more remote; it is the lot of the superstar. But they say he is essentially unchanged.
“He was always very confident with the ball, but he was very quiet,” said Vanis.
“I find him like a great kid. He never lifted his voice up; he always did what the coach asked. He never put himself on top of the other players.
“He was top man, top player. What else can I say?”