LUCAS Neill on why this ‘Golden Generation’ of Socceroos would beat any Aussie team before it, avenging Grosso’s dive, his role as captain and the “ecstasy” of leading the team out in South Africa
Only 32 men in the world stand a chance of lifting the World Cup in South Africa - Lucas Neill is one of them. It's a moment he has clearly considered as we discuss the Socceroos' fortunes heading in the showpiece, as without prompting, he starts discussing the feeling of getting his hands on the world's most prized lump of gold.
In reality, making it out of a very tough group would be considered a good World Cup for Australia, but can you blame him for such thoughts of grandeur? Considering every football fan has dreamt of that moment themselves, you can't argue with a captain actually going to a tournament envisaging the moment.
However, with our feet firmly back on the ground, we chatted to the man set to lead our boys out in South Africa about why this is the greatest Socceroos team ever, giving young players a "kick up the bum" as captain and avenging the unfair exit he was at the centre of four years ago.
The World Cup is nearly upon us! Has it taken forever to get here or seemed to jump up out of nowhere?
It feels like we've been waiting for this ever since we got knocked out by Italy [in 2006]. The World Cup couldn't come round quick enough - four years is a long, painful time. Because we qualified quite early for this World Cup, unlike last time where we were the last team to qualify, it has felt like a long time to get here.
You are in South Africa some 18 days ahead of the first match against Germany, how will that lead time help?
We're going to spend half of that time at altitude, that is very important as at least one of our games will be at an acute altitude level. We're going to need to have as much altitude preparation as possible. We also want to get away from the distraction of being at home in Australia or in Europe. We want to focus on the World Cup and the World Cup only. It is the right amount of time in South Africa, as it's not too much that we're going to get sick of each other either!
You are touted as the ‘Golden Generation' of Socceroos. Is that a fair tag?
Without disrespecting any previous squad, this is certainly the most prepared and experienced side in terms of guys playing at good European clubs. This is also a side who have experience of playing with each other and everybody knows their jobs. Previously you had a squad with a core of six or seven players who would always be there and the rest would be guys who were not quite so regular. Ultimately, the team we have now would beat any other team Australia has put on the park in previous years.
Surely South Africa is the best chance of validating that tag?
Yeah! Not just to the people of Australia, but to ourselves. There is no better place to secure our status and ranking than to do it at the biggest tournament in the world. That's what every footballer wants - to take on the best in the world and prove just how good they are. We are proud people and are going to go in and give it everything we've got.
For most of that ‘Golden Generation' this is probably your last chance too.
Football is strange like that - some people have had enough at 32, others wants to keep playing until they are 36. It is all about the individual. None of us are getting any younger and a lot of us are as close to our peak as you're going to get. This is the perfect opportunity to maximise what we have and hopefully create more progression and history at a World Cup tournament.
But it is going to be difficult to replicate this squad in future generations though?
No, I don't think it is going to be difficult. There are young players coming through all the time. Mainly because of Pim these players have been given much more exposure in the national team earlier than the would previously. We've used between 30 and 40 players in this qualification campaign and it is nice to give those guys a taste of the set-up and give them something to try and achieve in the future. Just because you haven't heard of a lot of the names coming through, it doesn't mean they're not good players. You always need to keep a blend of the enthusiasm of youth and the experience to guide them. Australia's future is bright and it won't be long now before the next unknown name becomes a known name.
How do you define the importance of the captain's role leading a team into a World Cup?
There are two ways of looking at it: I have the easiest and the hardest job in the world. I'm the first guy that everyone turns to and I love, value and cherish that responsibility. But I'm also quite lucky as I have several senior players around me who are leaders themselves and make my job as team leader a lot easier as they can step up too. I'm lucky that some of them lead through actions and some are more verbal. It was already a dream to go to the World Cup and to go now as the captain is truly the greatest honour you can receive as a player. If we wanted to get really carried away, I would be the guy that lifted the World Cup trophy if we were lucky enough to do that. Realistically, I'm going to be the guy who takes Australia through the group stages and let's see where that takes us.
So the thought of lifting the trophy has crossed your mind then?
Of course! Everyone is at the World Cup to win it. We have to keep our feet on the ground and know that we'll be lucky to get out of our group though.
What sort of captain are you?
I'm trying to be the complete captain. I've tried to learn off past captains who have been both verbal and inspiring through their actions. I'm professional when it comes to training and following the rules, so without saying anything I show good leadership. I also like to train the way I'm going to play and give 90 to 100 per cent to encourage people around me to push themselves. Then there is being vocal and making sure the manager's game plan is getting through. Then there is the side no-one sees, like working with the manager to come up with something fun for the afternoon and take the boys out for dinner - something completely different to keep a balance between football and trying to be normal. I love it and really feel I'm the father figure of a very big, but close, family.
You've got a lot of experienced players around you in the Socceroos. Is your role less to do with those guys and more to do with taking the younger guys under your wing?
No, no, it is very much about dealing with the whole team. With the younger guys it is more about encouragement and telling them it is alright to make mistakes as it is more about how they react. Then teaching them about how it works in the Socceroos and how we want to play football. If any of them take the foot off the peddle there are times to kick up the bum and there are also times to encourage. Equally, the great thing about this side is the senior guys always pushing each other and making sure we're always on top of our game. We've been lucky with the characters we have in this team.
Over a long tournament, the Socceroos will have to call upon their younger players at some point. How much of a challenge will that be and what can you tell them about your experiences?
It's not a challenge, it is an unbelievable opportunity. By the time anybody gets the chance to go on that pitch they would have been with the team for three or four weeks and will be comfortable as part
of the team. Once they get that chance they just have to go out and express themselves. Four years ago nobody knew anything about us and we went out and created our own reputation and style. We took the world by storm by playing with no fear. It is important that these new players coming through believe in themselves and what they're doing. With that kind of attitude, we're going out ready to take on the world. These guys can become overnight heroes.
You're leading the team out onto the pitch against Germany in Durban. As you come out, what will you be feeling?
Just pure ecstasy. An unbelievable feeling of emotion. I think I know what I'm going to expect, but I know I'm going to be very proud. I'll have my head held high and be very proud. I have to set the standard for the tournament and hope I can lead the team to victory.
Do you still get nervous? Will you be nervous at that first World Cup game?
I don't get nervous, I'm excited about hearing that first whistle. I've not felt nerves for quite some time - I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not - but I do get
a nice kick of adrenalin and a desire to play. There are not many players in the Australian team who do get nerves - we're a special bunch.
How much do the circumstances of the exit four years ago with Fabio Grosso's dive from your tackle sending Italy through, drive you on this year?
Everyone talks about that as a controversial moment, but as a player things like that happen in games. The thing that frustrates the team, and me in particular, is that we didn't have the time to get the ball back up the other end and get the ball in the box one last time. For four years all we have wanted to do is react to that incident. For four years we have wanted to get back to the World Cup and give ourselves a chance to get another campaign going, to see if we can compete against the best in the world again. We thought we had two or three more games in us at 2006 and we were building momentum. If we had beaten Italy, we would have had Ukraine and with the confidence we would have had we could have won that. We've all been waiting for four years to react to that whole knock-out situation.
We had such a solid defence throughout qualification, how important will that backline be in South Africa?
Games are going to be won or lost on one goal and cleansheets. 1-0 will win a lot of games, so we have to make sure we stay in games for the whole 90 minutes. Especially when you take on very good teams, where you might get only one chance. I'm confident that we can score at least one goal and if we keep cleansheets too then we'll be through the group. You need to make sure you're hard to beat before anything else.
Have you got in mind who you need to take points off in the group stages to progress? Will progression hinge on the Ghana or Serbia game?
We're going to focus all our energy on the Germany game in the hope we can cause an upset, with either a win or draw. We have to believe that because if we do take anything from that game it will be a bonus. Then our attention will quickly turn to the next game, where we're up against it again. In 2006 we got through the group with four points and we have to keep believing that we can do that again, but six points has to be the target.
Have you got an expectation of how far we'll go this time?
We as a nation should just be proud that Australia has got back into another World Cup. The fact we did it without a penalty shoot-out and all that excitement doesn't take away that we qualified and only 32 teams did. Now that we're there, we have to put 2006 behind us. We realise that was an amazing tournament with some great times and one very sour memory. This year is a whole new beginning and we have to treat it like that.
This article appeared in the July issue of FourFourTwo magazine. To buy back copies of this issue call 03-8317-8121 with a credit card to hand.