The situation seems unparalleled in most other national team camps, with the closest thing arguably Ronaldinho’s surprise inclusion from Dunga’s Brazil squad; despite clearly being past his best, it appears that for nostalgia if nothing else the former Barcelona superstar still commands interest regardless of the dip in his general levels of performances.
What is it then that makes us – the media – so obsessed with Kewell? Perhaps it’s the fact that out of all of the overseas-based Australians over the past two decades he has played for the most glamorous and reputable club, at the highest level. Who, after all, can boast having been at Liverpool and having taken part in two UEFA Champions League Finals and an FA Cup Final?
Yet there is something more to the Kewell intrigue, perhaps a subconscious desire to finally see a player who promised so much when he tore apart Iran in 1997 but was cruelly denied the chance to allow his bright star to shine on what would have been the perfect stage in France in 1998. For so many people, perhaps the image of Kewell celebrating the opening goal against the Asian side at the Melbourne Cricket Ground is the one that flashes in their mind whenever his name is mentioned.
The reality is that the current version of Kewell is battle-worn and mature, far departed from the vibrant winger who was a symbol of a golden generation of Australian footballers. There were fleeting signs that he had recaptured some of his old magic at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, where he scored an emotional goal against Croatia that saw the Socceroos sneak into the knockout stages. Finally, it seemed, Kewell was being granted his rightful place amongst the world’s elite.
That he was ruled out of the subsequent Last 16 clash against Italy with a bizarre injury was typical of the frustration that has followed Kewell throughout his domestic and international career; even more so because Guus Hiddink and his Socceroo coaching staff had wrapped Kewell in copious amounts of cotton wool, subjecting him to what seemed the finest and most intensive medical treatment ever granted to an Australian sportsman in living memory.
It is a testament to his character, psychological strength and physical resilience that Kewell has survived as a footballer to take part in a consecutive World Cup. His move to Turkey was intelligent and seemed to provide the perfect balance in terms of an environment in which he could flourish without being stretched, whilst being sporadically exposed to the highest standard of club football.
One cannot question Kewell’s love of football for all of the controversy that surrounded his acrimonious move from Leeds United to Liverpool and the general disdain amongst the former’s fans for Kewell’s agent Bernie Mandic. The player himself has generally stood up to be counted when his national team have needed him most despite claims from certain analysts to the contrary; the fact is that he’s often had to perform miracles in poor Australian sides, rather than failed himself to produce on the international stage.
He remains one of the few current Australian players able to produce moments on the pitch classified as ‘World Class’ along with Mark Schwarzer and Tim Cahill. Combine his undoubted natural ability with the soap opera that has surrounded his perennial injury battle, the fact that he remains one of the most marketable sports personalities in the country and his unfulfilled potential and there is a potent mix of chemicals that have had this country’s media spellbound for quite some time.
On the even of his much-anticipated return to national team action – he’s only played two minutes of club football in 2010 – the suggestion appears to be that Kewell’s performance in a decisive group stage clash with Ghana will be key to reigniting Australia’s hopes of getting out of their group. The calls for Kewell to ‘Stand up and be counted’ have been widespread.
Unfortunately for those hoping for an Australian resurrection, Kewell’s performance will have a minimal impact on the result of the match. The problems plaguing Pim Verbeek have less to do with Kewell and more to do with a back-line that is begging to be attacked and a midfield that is well past its use-by date (we’ll ignore the rumours swirling around about disharmony within the camp, seeing as how the tactical and football deficiencies are so conspicuous).
Given the manner in which Craig Moore and Lucas Neill were exposed as slow and immobile at the heart of Australia’s defence, or indeed how Vince Grella and Jason Culina – formerly the fulcrum at the base of Australia’s midfield – were so easily bypassed, how can one justify the importance being placed on Kewell’s upcoming performance?
To be perfectly honest, the overall performance of the side probably wouldn’t be affected greatly regardless of whether Kewell plays or not, particularly if the same approach and personal are taken from the Germany game into the one against Ghana. If Australia’s defensive problems continue and if Verbeek again plays without a recognised striker, is anyone really expecting Kewell to see enough of the ball for him to make an impact? Or will he join his teammates in being camped in his final third trying to track Ghanaian runners off the ball?
Contrary to popular belief, the simple inclusion of Kewell in the starting line-up won’t affect any meaningful change in Australia’s fortunes against Ghana. There are fundamental problems with the team and its players on the pitch that extend beyond the hype surrounded the Galatsaray player and in order to address them, a notoriously conservative Verbeek will need to make wholesale changes.
Whether he decides to drop the likes of Moore, Grella, Culina and even Lucas Neill – yes, Lucas Neill – and finally present the upcoming generation of Australian players – Beauchamp, Milligan, Rukavytsya and Vidosic – with an opportunity on the biggest stage, then we might be seeing the continuation of the current World Cup disaster on Saturday.
In his current state Kewell is a player who will feed off the movement and energy of the players around him; the types of positions they take up off the ball and the areas that Australia predominantly have possession in on the pitch will be integral to the effect he has against Ghana. The likes of Moore and Grella showed in the match against Germany that they no longer provide such support.
Verbeek is partly to blame for the current situation he has found himself in, given his failure to reinvigorate the class of Germany ’06 with young, fresh talent able to produce on the world stage. Too often did he ignore the chance to gamble with new personnel and his no-risk approach has ironically forced him into a situation at the end of his reign that requires him to take one of the biggest gambles of his career – and it will involve a whole lot more than simply starting Kewell.