The OzSoccer Articles

The Duke of St Albans

The following article was published in the Sunday Times and eventually made its way to the Australian Soccer mailing list. My apologies for not crediting the author.... several forwards of the mail seem to have cut this detail out.

THEY like to tell stories about Mark Viduka, tales that speak of his laid-back and generous nature. How he signs autographs until his hand aches, how sometimes he will meet an Australian with a Leeds jersey and they will start talking about home, and before you know it, Viduka has stood the man a drink. Tell the folks back home - you met a regular Aussie. At Leeds they remember the day last season when Liverpool came to Elland Road and Viduka went to town. Four goals and each one a tribute to precious talent. Afterwards, Viduka had to do all the interviews - the press and six different television pieces - before attending the sponsors' banquet as the man of the match.

He graciously accepted his award, and then there was pandemonium. All 300 people at the banquet wanted his autograph and back in the players' bar, his girlfriend, Ivanna, and the lads were waiting for him to show. What to do? He sat himself down, asked the folks to form a queue and told them he would not leave until everybody had what they wanted. When Viduka's God made time, he made plenty of it. "Mark knows what I think of him as a footballer and I've got the height of respect for him as a person," said David O'Leary, the Leeds manager. "Stopping and talking to people is almost gone out of life - everyone is rushing these days - but not Mark. He likes giving people time, enjoys their company." Sometimes Viduka leaves himself short. During his first season at Leeds, he was more than once late for training. They remember the morning of his late arrival for a short stretching session on the Sunday after a Saturday match. By the time Viduka's silver Mercedes pulled into the players' car park at Thorp Arch, his mates were already on the pitch.

Cool as the breeze, he hopped out of the car, over the fence and joined in. He wore jeans, T-shirt and loafers. As he stretched this way and that, car keys jangled in his pocket, but he hardly heard. "His time-keeping drives me mad," said O'Leary, "because I'm a stickler for it. I've had a big word with him about it and so far this season he has been excellent. I tell him that when he's late, it shows a lack of respect for the rest of the people here. But if this is all I have to complain about, things are not so bad." It is Thursday afternoon at Thorp Arch and possibly as part of the new regime, Viduka shows up on time for the interview. He is going to the Ashes Test at Headingley later in the afternoon, but don't worry, mate, there's plenty of time. He leans back in his chair and agrees with the first question.

"Yeah," he says, "I've had an interesting life." THE story could begin in Melbourne's Vlados restaurant six years ago. On one side of the table is the 19-year-old Viduka, on the other side, the president of Croatia, Franjo Tudjman. Also present are the young man's parents, Joseph and Anna Rose. The presidential summons had been a bolt from the blue and now the president is explaining himself.

As everyone at the table knew, Croatia had just achieved independence. It would stand on its own feet, but it was a small country and not many knew of its existence. People still associated it with Yugoslavia. The president wanted to make the name of Croatia separate and said this could be done through sport.

Croatia Zagreb, the president's team, would play in the Champions League and by doing so would promote Croatia's name around the world. But it needed better players. The president had been told how good Mark Viduka was, he knew of his Croatian background and he wanted him to come home to help realise this dream. "You will be a symbol to all Croatians," he said, "one of our own people returning to rebuild our country."

What could the teenager have said? Although raised in St Albans, just outside Melbourne, Croatia was in Viduka's blood. Joseph and Anna Rose had fled from communist Yugoslavia in the early 1960s before meeting and marrying in Australia, but Croatia was their homeland. The boy's first language was Croatian because that was what his parents spoke in their home, and Anna Rose cooked only Croatian food.

Each evening the young boy would wait for his Dad to return from work, and it didn't matter if Joseph was tired or hungry, or not in the mood, he played football with his son. The boy was shy and didn't say much, but he listened. Dad told him bits and pieces about his past: Croatia was a beautiful country, with a proud people who did not want to be part of Yugoslavia and who would not be free until they were separate. There was also a sadness in the story. Joseph left home because he hated communism and as long as the communists stayed in power, he could not return. His own dad, Marko, after whom the boy was named, had died in 1978, but Joseph could not return for the funeral. Mark thought Australia was the greatest country in the world but part of him would always be Croatian. When he was captain of the Australia Under-20 team, his armband was the red, white and blue of Croatia. So here, in Vlados, President Tudjman asks him to be part of Croatia's history and the 19- year-old feels like The Chosen One. He goes home, packs his idealism into one suitcase, his naivety into another, and prepares for a remarkable journey.

HIS first impression of Zagreb was of the beauty of the city and beyond, the beauty of the country. For more than two seasons, it was enriching. Viduka relearnt the language of his childhood, got to know his parents' country and played good football. But somehow it wasn't the place his Dad had told him about.

"The people had been downtrodden, 50 years of communism had left its mark," he said. "You can't just shrug that off overnight. There was a lot of pessimism and as a people, they are given to unbelievable extremes. Everything is fine or rotten, no in-between."

Viduka's popularity at Zagreb rose and fell with the president's. Acclaim turned to scorn for Tudjman and his party. The public's loathing of the president was reflected in disdain for the young footballer he had brought from Australia. "I enjoyed my time in Zagreb, but in the end it turned nasty," Viduka said. "I remember one game where I played as well as I've ever played. It was an away match and for 90 minutes our travelling fans shouted that I was a poofter and things like that. Then I scored a beautiful header and they hammered me even more. The home fans picked up on the whole thing and they hammered me, too. I was seen as the president's man; it wasn't football, it was politics. I thought, 'What am I doing here? I didn't come from Australia to cop shit off these people'."

And so, to get away from the madness that Croatia Zagreb had become, Viduka agreed to join the Glasgow Celtic of Fergus McCann, Kenny Dalglish and Josef Venglos. The time in Zagreb had sapped his idealism but, alas, not his naivety.

It was an ill-fated voyage from the beginning. Emotionally drained after months of persecution from the Croatian terraces, Viduka told Celtic he needed a break before he could begin again and McCann thought he was entitled to a discount on the 3m Celtic had agreed to pay Croatia Zagreb. In the midst of the wrangle, Viduka went home to Melbourne. "Everybody was saying I was mentally ill," he said. "It was said I had attended a mental institution in Glasgow. The Scottish press can get dirty." He returned after a month, and in his one full season at Celtic he played what he regards as the best football of his life. Leading scorer in the Scottish Premier League, he was also Scotland's player of the year. But, before that season ended, the romance was over.

"It wasn't the right time to be at Celtic. They didn't know how to treat their players. The whole thing was a shambles. The Caledonian Thistle game, how could we be 3-0 down at half-time to those guys? I was really pissed off and then the assistant coach [Eric Black] had a go at me. 'Don't you fancy it?' he said. 'I'm not like that. Look mate, if I'm not good enough, put somebody else on'," I answered.

Viduka would have stayed at Celtic but for the club reneging on an agreement to improve his contract: "I am not a money-hungry person but if someone gives me their word, I expect it to be honoured. They agreed a new contract at Christmas but three months later there was nothing. 'What contract?' they said when I asked. 'That's it,' I thought, 'it's over.' If people treat me well, I will treat them better. If they double-cross me, they're finished. "I look at Celtic now, under Martin O'Neill, and they have the very thing that our Celtic team didn't have: spirit. My future is at Leeds, but I will always love Celtic. They are a huge club with fans that are among the best in the world. Already this season I have been to Scotland to see them play Hearts. I love going up there."

THEY said he would use Leeds as a stepping stone to Spain or Italy. By now the naivety had gone the same way as the idealism; all that was left was football talent and the laid-back decency that never made it into newspaper headlines. He has been one year at Leeds and as well as scoring 22 goals, Viduka has played excellently for his new club. Without his precious back-heel in Rome and his all-round excellence in Brussels, there would have been no Champions League semi-final. The offers came - Barcelona were interested, Inter Milan were interested. Leeds could have got 20m. "Where would I have gone to replace him?" asked O'Leary. But what did Viduka want? Last month club chairman Peter Ridsdale and two directors, David Walker and Stephen Harrison, flew to Dubrovnik in Croatia, where Viduka was holidaying with his girlfriend.

Viduka invited the Leeds directors to spend the day on his boat, where they talked about his new contract for 20 minutes and spent hours listening to this Australian-Croat telling about the splendour of the old city of Dubrovnik and the beauty of the Adriatic coast. Before they left, he gave them each little presents and his word that he would stay. Since then, Viduka has signed a new five-year contract with the club.

"I could have gone to Barcelona or Inter Milan but those clubs are slightly unstable at the moment," he said. "Why would I want to go to a shitty situation again? Been there, done that. Don't need it. We've got a good set-up here, good manager, good coaches, a great group of ambitious young players. It would take something special to get me away from here." He lives minutes from Leeds's training complex at Thorp Arch. He loves the area, so does Ivanna, and his Rottweiler, Tara. And if Tara is happy, life is okay.

"Because Rottweilers are so big, people just see the aggression. But they are loving dogs, mate. When you come home in the evening, they are so happy to see you, it's just ahhhh! The thing is, whether I have a good game or a bad game, Tara is always happy, always the same towards me."