It was June 2006, and Australia was football mad as the Socceroos took their place at the World Cup in Germany – AND STRUCK A BLOW!
Few of us will ever forget that sense of excitement and how, in the 84th and 89th minute of the Socceroos opening match against Japan, Tim Cahill sparked a wild party – and infected us with a long-lasting dose of ‘football fever’ - along with John Aloisi’s injury time goal, his two brilliant goals secured Australia’s first victory at a World Cup tournament.
The Socceroos had us in the palms of their hands during a few brilliant weeks, and in the process they inspired millions of young kids to dream of one day becoming a Socceroo.
Cricket bats and oval balls were neglected as the kids learned to dribble and nail the ball like Cahill or Kewell.
We were stunned.
Apart from defeating Japan, Australia also drew 2-2 with powerhouse Croatia in front of 52,000 people in Stuttgart Stadium as tens of millions watched their heroics on television screens around the world.
You might remember that was the game Harry Kewell levelled in the 79th minute.
It was an epic moment because the Socceroos were on the cusp of qualifying for the World Cup’s final 16.
It set up a game against the tournament’s eventual champions, Italy.
Post game the Stadium’s speakers were pumping out Men at Work’s, Land Down Under and the level of pride and excitement the entire country felt . . . through football . . . was something I will never forget.
After that game I received a text message sent from the Australian team’s dressing room.
It was from Mile Sterjovski #21 – who was having a terrific tournament – and the message read:
“There were inches everywhere tonight!”
Mile Sterjovski is one of the great stories of Australian Football.
I had the pleasure of working with him during the early stages of his professional career, and I knew intimately what he’d been through to make this team; a team that would change Australian football forever.
However, his text showed the calibre of person he is.
In the midst of what I imagine would’ve been a great celebration it showed appreciation and respect.
Mile knew I’d love his “inches” message because it shared what he knew was something I valued and always emphasised in training. That ‘every split second counts.’
On this particular night Mile and his teammates fought for every split second on offer and they fought for every inch.
The reality is Mile had fought for every inch to reach his heights as a professional player.
Some of those ‘inches’ started with his parents making the same sacrifices many other parents do for their kids to pursue their dreams.
Some of those inches came from backyard football with his brothers; from junior coaches; the mentors he had along the way; the team mates who pushed him; the many sacrifices he made; a wife who supported him.
Some came from those times he spent visualising that one day he’d be a World Cup player.
Those inches that were won on this night were so well deserved.
Another great moment from that World Cup was seeing him in the tunnel and lining up ready to face Brazil.
He told me after the game that moment was extremely special because he was lined up against them with good friend and teammate, Jason Culina.
Mile revealed when the two of them were 17-years-old they played in a team that trained three nights per week, on the other days Mile and Jason would go to a park for extra training together.
What pushed them was the dream of playing in a World Cup and playing against Brazil, something they would often visualise and talk about in practise.
While their careers took them in different directions – and to different clubs around the world – destiny ensured they were together again, lining up about to walk out to a packed stadium at a World Cup to play Brazil, a team stacked with the likes of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Roberto Carlos.
Seconds before they made their way from the tunnel and into the light Jason tapped Mile on the shoulder and said “Remember what we used to say to each other in the park as kids.”
Mile was such a professional in everything he did.
His work ethic was second to none; his ability to aim high and believe in himself was a belief that was forged from years of hard work.
I could write volumes about the qualities Mile possessed to reach the heights he did, but my aim is to write a column that is a must read for any junior footballer, any coach or trainer of junior footballers and any parent of junior footballers.
To achieve that I’ve decided to chat with Mile himself, to tell the story of a junior footballer who aimed high and dreamed big.
He is now coaching and developing junior footballers at his academy and he does it with genuine care.
I kicked off by asking Mile to name the team of the best players he’s played against.
The point of this is to remind us of the work and sacrifice that allowed him to share the pitch with the world’s best.
Can you name the best 11 you have ever played against plus four players on the bench and also name a coach for us?
1. Gianluigi Buffon
2. Javier Zanetti
3. Fabio Cannavaro
4. Gabriel Heinze
5. Patrice Evra
6. Marcel Desailly
7. Cristiano Ronaldo
8. Paul Scholes
11. Carlos Tevez
12. Roberto Carlos
13. Pablo Aimar
14. Juan Roman Riquelme
15. George Weah
COACH - Sir Alex Ferguson
You dreamed very big in your late teens. Can you remember at what age you decided to commit to becoming a top class player?
I think I was always committed to becoming a top class player.
I was doing sessions very early in the morning before school when I was 13 and 14 but I think making the AIS team when I was 16 gave me the boost to push forward with my commitment.
When do you feel you started really practising at an elite level that was crucial in shaping your career?
Definitely at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). The AIS gave me the platform to improve my game.
Everything I needed from coaching to nutritional advice to physiotherapy and massage was provided.
Also beneficial was being able to learn to live on my own away from family.
What are your best memories from this age?
Being able to train every single day and living with my team mates.
What are your best memories of the junior coaches who guided you?
Larry Gaffney (Wollongong Wolves Youth Team coach) was one of my favourites. He really believed in me and helped me get to the AIS. We would do extra one on one session away from the team to improve my game and weaknesses.
As a professional what do you feel your best asset was to your teams you played with?
My speed; my ability to score goals and linking up with players.
Later on in my career it was mentoring the younger players in the team.
You’ve given us a list of the best players you have played against, can you give us just a few of who you rate as the best Australian players you played with?
Mark Viduka, Josip Skoko, Harry Kewell, Brett Emerton, Mark Schwarzer, Tim Cahill, Mark Bresciano, Stan Lazaridis.
Is there any player who had the most influence on you as a mentor?
Two players that helped me settle into the Socceroos were Josip Skoko and Stan Lazaridis. They mentored me in my early days with the Socceroos and to this day I still contact them for advice on anything.
As a coach now developing young talent what are the best parts of this job?
Seeing kids improve and doing something I have taught them!
What type of players do you enjoy working with the most?
The ones who are enthusiastic and good listeners!
How often do you feel kids need to practise at different age groups?
I think kids should practise at least five times a week - three organised sessions (with a coach or team/academy) and two sessions on their own, kicking the ball around/shooting or dribbling at home (nothing specific just fun).
What is the most important thing in training for kids?
For kids under-12 it is to work on developing good football habits and skills but most of all do it in a fun environment.
Kids 12-16- learning game play while continuing to work on skill etc.
16 + should start working on strength to be able to compete with older players including men..
As a parent how are you guiding your own children who no doubt have it in their blood to follow in your footsteps?
I do not put any pressure on them to become footballers . . . I want them to enjoy what they do. However, I do want them to put in 100% in whatever they do and have a great attitude in whatever they do because I believe that’s an important attribute to have for anything they take part in in the future.
Are there lessons you have learned throughout your junior career that you will be aware of to avoid for your own kids?
One thing that comes to mind is training when injured (or not 100%) is not beneficial. I would rather a player have a couple of weeks out than train when injured. Bad habits start to creep into their game and if you can’t train at your best then I believe you can’t play at your best.
What opportunities are you looking to provide and what environment will you try to provide for the youngsters you coach to allow their game to grow?
At MSFC I teach good football habits that are essential in games and I also try to mentor the kids and teach them about having a good attitude because I am a big believer that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard!
What advice do you have for parents?
Teach your kids respect in every aspect of the word.
Respect themselves - prepare well for training games, eat correctly.
Respect their parents - Be appreciative that your parents are your taxi driver, your chef, your mentor.
Respect their coach - be enthusiastic, a good listener, coachable.
Respect their team mates - encourage, help communicate with them and be supportive.
Respect their sport.
What I have learnt is if you give respect you will - in return - receive respect tenfold.
- Hayden Knowles & Mile Sterjovski, exclusively for Sportsta.