Harry Kewell’s enthusiasm is infectious. As he talks, it is easy to imagine him on the training field, cajoling and inspiring the next generation of footballing youngsters into working harder, pushing themselves to pass better, shoot more accurately. The Australian legend, voted the nation’s best footballer ever in 2012 by fans, peers and journalists, spent time reminiscing with *FIFA.com *about the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 1995. It is a tournament he credits as the spark that ignited his international career.
“I’ll put it like this: it’s like you’re a kid and you have chocolate for the first time,” Kewell said. “You just want more. It’s as simple as that.”
The former Leeds United, Liverpool and Galatasaray winger is currently U-21 coach at Watford, and set up the Harry Kewell Academy in his homeland before his retirement from the game last year. Along with his experience in Ecuador two decades ago, he is well placed to discuss Australian footballing development as the Joeys make their way to Chile for the latest U-17 finals. How did it feel for a 16-year-old Harry Kewell to fly to South America?
“It was a fantastic opportunity to be selected to play for your country, especially at a World Cup,” Kewell said. “When we went out there, we had everything done for us, the planes, the buses, the hotels. Even when you were training you had people watching, looking for the latest talent. The experience we had there just made me want to get more and more involved in football and become a better player and one day play on the biggest stage, the World Cup, which I did.”
Kewell has indeed played a big part in Australia’s ‘golden generation’, beginning with qualification for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ and bookended by the recent AFC Asian Cup success, which he watched from the stands after hanging up his boots.
“We’re heading in the right direction,” Kewell said. “To seek progression, we need to see Australia winning. We played [at the 2014 World Cup] in Brazil, and everyone said, ‘We were unlucky, we had a hard group’. Rubbish. You’re playing in the World Cup, you’re not going to play easy teams. We did well but the players wanted more. What Ange [Postecoglou] did, is that he took that, learned from it and applied it to the Asian Cup.”
As Kewell notes, continued success at senior level requires lessons to be learned throughout the set-up. With Chile 2015 on the horizon, the former Socceroo was keen to pass on his South American experience from 20 years ago to the latest batch of fresh-faced youngsters.
“What they’ll find is a different culture, a different way of playing,” Kewell said. “They’ll see that football is actually life in South America. As much as Australians appreciate the game, in South America they live and breathe it. South Americans have the flair, Europeans have that technical ability – but Australians have raw talent. They must go out there, play to a structure, but the coach must allow them to be natural and express themselves. If they can do that, then anything can happen.”
Former 'Roo star leads Joeys
That coach is Tony Vidmar, one of Australia’s most-capped players and a man that Kewell knows well. Both played vital parts during qualification for the 2006 World Cup.
“I think it’s a good sign that Viddy is in there,” Kewell said. “From what I understand I think he will be very organised, playing the right kind of football. Maybe not taking too many risks and just doing the simple things. Hopefully he does have a few ‘off the cuff’ players that he can give the licence to and showcase their ability.”
Kewell’s fondness for flair players, something a little out of the ordinary, will be something that fans of his former clubs will remember of him from his playing career. It’s a progression of his general footballing philosophy, from his own youth career, when now veteran coach David Lee spotted him and nurtured his natural footballing ability.
“David Lee had 14 players [in Kewell’s cohort],” Kewell remembers. “Out of those 14, two made it to the highest level and then three or four made it at a lower level – that’s not a bad group! The reason I wanted to start my own academy in Australia was to bring back the stuff I did when I was younger. I think a lot of people make football difficult. They don’t actually work on certain skills. My idea, especially in my academy, is to bring players in and teach them how to strike a ball. To have the confidence in taking people on. Going back to the basic stuff. When they get to a higher level, they will have the equipment and make use of it.”
The former Socceroo is so wrapped up in the future of his academy graduates, and the fortunes of the current Watford U-21 team, that he has not given a second thought to what the future may hold for himself.
“I don’t know. That’s the honest truth,” Kewell responded when asked about his next step. “It’s always great to be at the highest level possible. Embarking on my new adventure, I’m like the Cheshire Cat [at Watford] - my smile is from ear-to-ear. I’m in the best league in the world and I’m learning every single day. I can’t ask for a better start to my career, I’ve just got to make sure I grab it with both hands.”
Kewell certainly learned from his Ecuadorian opportunity. The question now: which Joey will take their Chilean chance this month?