Every country will have it's young talents. Some will fade, others will lead successful, though not exceptional, careers and a select few will reach the pinnacle of World Soccer. To suggest anything Australian will feature prominently at the top of World soccer may seem laughable but there are a few points to consider.
Firstly we are, as we speak, seeing the emergence of Africa as a soccer power and posing a threat to the Europe/South America domination of the game. In the lead up to this African emergence we saw increasing numbers of African players play in, and star, in European leagues. Also outstanding performances in the FIFA sponsored youth competitions by African nations have earmarked a lot of their youngsters for future international careers. Australia currently has over 90 players in overseas (mainly European) competition of which an increasing number play in the first division of their respective leagues, and command regular places.
Consider the presence of Robbie Slater at Blackburn in England, Ned Zelic at Borussia Dortmund in Germany and Aurelio Vidmar at Standard Liege in Belgium. All teams challenging for league championship. In addition Australia has come fourth in the past two under 20 world championships and also achieved fourth place at the Barcelona Olympics and reached the Quarterfinals of the 1988 games. Increasingly, European clubs are looking to Australia for skilled young players both for their skill and the relatively cheap transfer prices. While this affects the standard of play in the local leagues it does expose Australian players to world class competition on a regular basis. Which bodes well for Australian representative sides.
One young Australian talent in particular has earnt the admiration and consequent expectation of becoming Australia's greatest export yet. Mark Viduka first came into international prominence at an invitational tournament in Venezuela in November 1993. Mark was top scorer at this tournament and took the Australian U17's to the final where they lost to Flamengo of Brazil. On the strength of this performance Australia has subsequently been invited back.
Mark had proven to be a sensation in the youth team of the Melbourne Knights with 37 goals in 18 games. The then coach of the Knights, Branko Culina now with Sydney United, gave the youngster the oppertunity to prove his skills in the senior side. Despite his limited number of games he became the leagues top scorer for that season with 16 goals. Not only that but Mark became the U21 Player of the year as well as the Players Player of the year. An honour which underlined his potential and the respect his fellow players had accorded him, marking him for a fruitful overseas career.
Born on the 9th of October, 1975 in Footscray Victoria it took only 6 years for Mark to begin playing the game and he quickly progressed to various representative sides and he won a place in the Australian Institute of Sport, a centre of excellence for Australian athletes. Mark, who lists his favourite player as Zvonimir Boban and favourite club as Hajduk Split, has a Croatian heritage of which is is proud and this link led him to join up with the Melbourne Knights, a club formed by a Croatian Community keen to maintain a love for the main sport of their homeland.
Ever since the 93kg, 190cm frame of Mark Viduka has been terrorising opposition defences and again Mark has topped the goalscoring charts for the 1994-95 season with 18 goals after all 26 rounds. He added another 3 in the playoffs and played in only two of those games due to his commitments with the Australian U20's side who contested the World Youth Championship in Qatar. His exploits have certainly earnt him special attention by his markers but still Mark is proving that he is a cut above the rest and has added the crowning glory to his Australian career by bringing the League championship to the Melbourne Knights, a title the Knights have failed to win 3 times in the past 4 years despite getting to the championship game. This is in addition to the Cup the Knights won in the preseason.
Mark has represented Australia at all four international levels (U17, U20, U23 (Olympic) and the Socceroos) the crowning glory being his appearance for the Socceroos in the two games against South Africa on June 8 and 12 in 1994. This frequent national representative duty makes Mark very proud but did not sit well with the Melbourne Knights.
A case in point is the tour undertaken by the Australian U20 squad, of which Mark is captain, in early 1994. This was a significant tour as it is envisaged that the 1995 U20 team will form the bulk of the 1996 Olympic team, which in turn will provide young talent for Australia's campaign to participate in the 1998 World Cup. Unfortunately this tour was arranged for the time during which the Knights were still playing mid-week catch-up games after postponing games during the World Cup 1994 campaign against Argentina for both the Knights and Adelaide City. In short they didn't want to let Mark Viduka go, and it was Mark who caught in a tug-of-war between the Australian Soccer Federation and the Knights.
At the time the Knights president Angie Cimera had this to say..
"They want Viduka gallavanting around Europe for four weeks at the most crtical stage of the season, well I can tell you it isn't going to happen... ...We won't be releasing our players for training or friendlies until our season is over. They can try any ban they like but if they do I'll kick up a stink."
The ban he speaks of is the ASF's threat to suspend players who, if called, do not attend national training squads.
Youth coach Les Scheinflug in defence of the timing of the tour explained that it was neccessary to go now in order to face European competition. Any earlier and the conditions would be unfavourable (frozen pitches, matches cancelled due to rain ...etc). If they went later it would clash with the playoff series in Australia and if it was later still then the Europeans themselves would either be too busy in the final stages of their season, or be on their post season break.
In the end the ASF won out and games against Ajax Amsterdam, PSV Eindhoven, Vitesse Arnhem, FC Twente, Go Ahead Eagles and Borussia Dortmund took place. Sadly a Mark Viduka was diagnosed with a Calcium growth in his left thigh, which left him missing out on some of the games.
However half a year later Mark was back to help Australia qualify for the on again off again, back on again World Youth Championships which were held in Qatar during April. The results were :
Played Sept/Beg. Oct 94 All games are played on a bumpy pitch in Lautoka. Group A ~~~~~~~ Australia 5 - Tahiti 0 (Mark Viduka 15, 20) (Paul Bilokapic 33) (Josip Skoko 36) (Robert Middleby 57) Australia 5 - Solomon Islands 0 (Nick Lazarevski 19) (Robert Middleby 76, 89) (Mark Viduka 78) (Mark Rudan 85) Australia 7 - Fiji 0 (Robert Middleby 1, 40) (Andrew Vlahos 11) (John Carter 58, 68) (Dino Menillo 63) (Mark Rudan 84pk) Semi-Final ~~~~~~~~~~ Australia 11 - Vanuatu 0 (Ufuk Talay 2) (Robert Middleby x3) (Josip Skoko x1) (Mark Viduka x4 [2 pks]) (Robert Enes 69) (Joe Vrkic x1) Final ~~~~~ Australia 1 - New Zealand 0 (Mark Rudan 39)
Clearly Australia were getting used to the easy life before meeting up with New Zealand. However they qualified but failed to meet the expectation of a medal by falling to eventual bronze medallists, and two time winners, Portugal in sudden death extra time.
All this admiration has not gone unnoticed and Mark has reputedly knocked back million dollar contracts from European clubs already, Borussia Dortmund, current home of Socceroo Ned Zelic, among them. Furthermore closer to home Malaysian club Selangor has also made an offer but Mark has made it clear that he sees his future in Europe, diplomatically avoiding the obvious. That the playing standard in Malaysia, though improving, is not even equal to that of the NSL and hardly a league in which to hone your skills for international duty.
Mark is keen to assist Australia to Olympic glory in 1996. By then he will be barely 22 and given Australia can emulate, or better it's 1992 performance it is likely he will be able to command a far higher price with virtually any club in Europe. Mark knows this and has stated in an interview "I would love to represent Australia at the Olympics....It would be anyone's dream and it would be great for my career."
Quarter finalists in 1988 and Semi Finalists in 1992 Australia can reasonably expect to do well in Atlanta, and considering that almost all the Olympic team of 1992 now plays overseas, among their ranks were Mark Bosnich (Aston Villa) and the aforementioned Ned Zelic, it seems inconceivable that Mark will fail to be scoring regularly in Europe in the 1996/97 season, perhaps earlier.
Of course greater exposure will also lead to greater attention. In January 1995 when Australia hosted a 4 nation Olympic tournament involving Japan, Denmark and South Korea the opening game against the Danes saw Viduka marked out by three defenders. Coach Eddie Thomsons mind had been read by his counterpart Jan Poulsen and the lone striker role which Thomson favours does not do Mark any favours. However Mark has shown a remarkable ability to learn and it seems more than likely that he will soon be outwitting the best of defences.
Mark "V-Bomber" Viduka has also seized promotional oppertunities and the ASF uses his appeal to stage training camps and advertising the game to the masses. Mark has also garnered a weekly column in the Australian edition of Shoot magazine where he speaks about his game and the fortunes of the Knights. Australia will inevitably lose Mark Viduka overseas but if he fulfils his promise in Europe he may well inspire many more youngsters in Australia to follow in his footsteps and, perhaps, it will not be quite so unusual to see an Australian heralded as a leading light in the world of soccer.
Footnote : Mark Viduka eventually did go overseas, to Croatia Zagreb, where he has impressed the locals and won awards as well as scoring many goals. This part of his career will no doubt get much attention in the future.