Mark Viduka’s bombshell interview earlier this week was filled with more than enough drama to send football-starved fans swooning, from his revelation that he shared an icy relationship with Harry Kewell to his claim that Lucas Neill undermined his captaincy during the 2007 Asian Cup fiasco.
Viduka’s former Socceroos teammate Robbie Slater has spoken out about the fascinating ESPN interview, saying Viduka’s claims are ‘all true’, and giving his opinion on what went wrong in the disastrous 2007 campaign.
“It’s all true,” Slater told Fox Sports. “He doesn’t make up stories. He’s got no agenda, he doesn’t want anyone’s job. He doesn’t care about that.”
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Slater told Fox Sports that he supported Viduka’s claim that many of the younger Socceroos were largely motivated by money and fame – with players pushing for a significant pay rise from 2005-2007.
One of the most shocking revelations of the Viduka interview was that he shared a frosty relationship with fellow Socceroos star Harry Kewell.
The pair played together at Premier League heavyweights Leeds, forming a devastating attacking combination that saw Kewell eventually move to Liverpool, and had Manchester United and AC Milan keen on a 38 million-pound move for Viduka.
But, Viduka told ESPN, “At Leeds, it got to the point, if Harry and I were in the sheds by ourselves, we wouldn’t even look at each other,” Viduka said. “It was that bad.”
According to Viduka, his sour relationship with his former agent Bernie Mandic affected Kewell’s perception of him.
“I had a problem with [Kewell’s agent] Bernie Mandic. Bernie was my agent when he took me from Celtic to Leeds, but … I severed ties with Bernie.
“I think maybe our relationship at Leeds wasn’t that good because — and I can’t say for sure — I think that affected the way [Kewell] viewed me.”
Slater said ‘it was amazing’ the two weren’t friends, but he wasn’t surprised that Mandic came between them.
“You’re talking about your two biggest (Australian) stars at that time, playing at the same club, being all the way over there. Everyone would have thought they’d be best friends. But they didn’t talk to each other!
“People will probably find that amazing. It was amazing! Two Aussies, stars of the Socceroos, all the way on the other side of the world at Leeds. But they were never mates; it was just a professional relationship.
“It’s not like they hated each other. They didn’t. They just never spoke.”
Luckily for Leeds fans – and for the Socceroos – it never impacted their on-field combination. As Slater says: “There was never a problem on the field – they combined beautifully on the field! They were dynamite.
“It didn’t carry onto the field. They played football together and they did it very very well – but that was it.”
BEHIND THE DISASTROUS 2007 CAMPAIGN
2006 was one of Australian football’s greatest years. Mark Viduka guided the Socceroos to a best-ever result at the World Cup in Germany, before the cruel blow that was defeat at the hands of a dodgy Italy penalty.
Australia entered the 2007 Asian Cup as one of the favourites off the back of the strong showing in Germany, only to fall in the quarter-finals in a penalty shootout loss to Japan – having played poorly all tournament.
Viduka claimed selfish teammates tore the Socceroos apart and eventually led him to quit national team duties.
“I think some people came to that Asian Cup thinking more about themselves more than the national team,” Viduka told ESPN.
“Why? Because people who value themselves very highly and think more about their television rights and deals and all that than actually playing for their country. That was the main reason I stopped playing for the national team.”
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“I think Lucas Neill came to that Asian Cup at that stage not in a good state of mind because of the fact that Graham Arnold had offered him the captaincy because he wasn’t sure I was coming to the Asian Cup or not.
“Once I was at the Asian Cup, either [Arnold] wasn’t brave enough to tell me that I wasn’t captain anymore, and I felt Lucas Neill was sulking the whole Asian Cup through the preparations for it and through the Asian Cup, and it affected other players.
“I think Lucas tried to undermine me. His priority was to be captain — more because of his other activities off the pitch rather than on the pitch stuff. That’s my opinion.”
Robbie Slater told Fox Sports that Viduka was right to blast former teammates for their self-centred attitude at the tournament.
“What Viduka says is right: other players were in it for the success and fame. Getting beaten by Italy, especially by a last-minute penalty, earned them a lot of respect in Australia and around the world for what they did in the tournament. They could live off that [both financially and in popularity].
“It was all about them. At the end of their reign I called it the ‘I culture’. 2006 was the pinnacle for those players.”
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But the players had plenty of reason to be upset, Slater says.
“What people back home didn’t realise is a lot of the players didn’t want to be there. They hadn’t had a break in a year [due to the World Cup] and most of them just wanted to see their families. Rightly so!
“I think Graham Arnold even went to the FFA and suggested maybe they should leave some of the stars out and take some younger players to blood them and get them ready for the World Cup qualifiers. But the FFA told him no. They told him to go there and win it – or come as close as we could. It was stupid. The pressure he was under (was immense).”
Arnold, of course, was only meant to be a caretaker manager of the Socceroos. Having spent half a decade as an assistant, including guiding the national team through the ‘06 World Cup under Guus Hiddink’s mentorship, Arnold was pushed into the top job.
His focus at the time had been on the Olyroos – who he eventually guided to the 2008 Olympics. But at the Asian Cup in 2007, he found himself in charge of a frustrated, worn-out Socceroos side rife with internal tension.
“People didn’t understand the pressure he was under,” Slater said. “He wanted to take the Olyroos (to the Asian Cup), rest the stars.”
The FFA were focused on capitalising on the success of the World Cup, wanted Arnold to push the Socceroos hard in their first-ever appearance in the Asian confederation’s tournament.
Slater said: “I wasn’t with the team at their hotel, but I was covering the tournament for Fox Sports and travelling to every game. I saw the players a lot. You could feel the mood wasn’t great.
“Guus wasn’t there anymore. Arnie was a caretaker who was just starting his career. He’s obviously far more advanced now! I think that some players would have thought ‘Oh, it’s just a caretaker’.”
Maybe Arnold hadn’t earned the full respect of his players. Maybe they didn’t work as hard for him as they had for Hiddink. There’s undoubtedly far more to the story.
But, Slater said, “you had a player (in Lucas Neill) who was clearly not happy and sulking and causing other players to be upset – like Viduka said in his interview.
“This proves that Arnold was right. Mark Viduka has come out and confirmed it – what Arnie said in 2007, in that famous interview after the Iraq defeat.”
In that loss, falling 3-1 to the eventual tournament champions, Lucas Neill had been sent off. A fuming Arnold then publicly accused players of not wanting to be at the tournament, of not giving 100% – exactly as Viduka has now claimed. It was incendiary stuff, particularly for a new coach, and didn’t buy Arnie any favours among the. He would lose the top job in the months to come, a job he has publicly acknowledged he wasn’t ready for. Slater says Arnold’s public lambasting of the players was “a mistake” – but an understandable one given his relative inexperience.
Back in the Socceroos hot seat, the Arnold of today is a far more accomplished coach, and much more advanced in man management in particular. While Viduka’s interview shows the pain of 2007 still runs deep in Australian football, Arnold might feel some vindication after the years of blame he endured.