Do you come from a land down under? Errr Yes I Do!

“England’s moment of strewth against Australia was hard to swallow, but there were some positives to be had amid the rubble of the Upton Park shambles.  Plaudits for the performances of Jermaine Jenas, Wayne Rooney and Francis Jeffers in England’s 3-1 defeat at the hands of Australia could arguably be heard over the rustling backdrop of straws being clutched.” Stuart Roach – BBC

Wed 13th February 2003 – Upton Park – England 1 Australia 3
The lowpoint of English football from the past decade.  Sven Goran Eriksson fielded a different team in each half to not only devalue the English national team but to leave us with our heads hung in embarrassment.  A full house at Upton Park saw Australia race to a 2-0 lead thanks to first half goals from Popovic and Kewell.  Wayne Rooney came on at half time to be the youngest ever England international at 17 years and 111 days but it was too little too late.  Franny Jeffers got one back in the second half but Brett Emerton made the final score 3-1.  And what sort of players did out illustrious leader chose for that Valentine’s treat? Danny Mills, Paul Konchesky, Danny Murphy and James Beattie anyone?

Well, we still haven’t forgotten that night, and I can be that our guest today hasn’t either.  Australia are on their way to their second successive World Cup after an impressive campaign that saw them qualify way back when we had some sunshine in this country.  Their main supporters organisation is the Green and Gold Army, and we are honoured have been joined by Mark van Aken from the GGA.

Thanks for taking the time out to speak with us Mark.  Let’s start with the Green and Gold Army then. When was it formed?
Back in 2001 in the lead up to Australia’s two-pronged World Cup qualifiers against Uruguay. A small nucleus attended the 1-0 win at the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground for us Poms),  but the real spur for the group was the subsequent 3-0 loss in Montevideo that cost us a place in Japan/South Korea. That was the line in the sand.

How many members do you have?
The group offers a free membership which now numbers 12,500 in 60 countries with the lions share in Australia (well duh!).

I know one of the issues at Wembley when England play at home is that the stadium is so huge that it is difficult for the more vocal fans to be able to sit together and create much of a home atmosphere.  How do you organise yourself for home games?
It’s been a fluctuating ride in this regard. For many years the FFA designated a dedicated Green and Gold Army area but now it’s termed the more generic Australian Home End which, most of the time, serves the same purpose. The group’s site – ggarmy.com – is the virtual meeting place for fans to coordinate pre-game functions, choreos and the like.

How many of the 12,500 members attend home games?
You can bank on the home end being filled for most home matches which usually equates to 500 to a thousand punters behind the goals for any given game. Aussie support has quickly made up ground on its counterparts in Europe and South America at club level, but it’s still a push to get more than a few hundred die hards singing loud and proud for the Socceroos. While you’ll see Spurs and Gooners singing together for England, it seems hard to get Sydney and Melbourne folk to get along!

And what about away following?  This is one area that us England Fans are suitably proud of.
Given the girth of Asia, away travel can be a logistical and financial challenge. The Green and Gold Army has had as few as 50 hardy souls traveling to places like Tashkent and Doha through to a few hundred in Kunming, China. The biggest away crowd was in Yokohama when nearly 2,000 Aussies packed the stands for the Socceroos showdown with the Blue Samurai in February last year.

Apart from our rousing rendition of God Save the Queen, England Fans are short on songs.  Any rituals or specific songs?
No rituals apart from the obligatory pre-match pub. Not that it really gets sung during the game, but The Land Down Under is a post-match favourite. As for chants, we tend to lend them from other countries, including England. There is the tired old, Aussie-Aussie-Ausie-Oi-Oi-Oi, but that is fairly derided by football fans. It’s usually met with a reciprocal chant – It’s not the F%&king Cricket, It’s not the F%&king Cricket. The number one tune is simply AUS-TRA-LIA, LA, LA, LA, LA, LA, LA to the chorus of Crocodile Rock… I guess there’s some symmetry there.

After missing out for so long on a World Cup place because of the Oceania Play Off situation, did you support the decision to move to the Asian federation and thus a harder route to the World Cup?
Absolutely. And it’s the most important thing that’s ever happened in Aussie football. It gives us a future and some direction. And you could argue that it’s a far lengthier path but not necessarily a harder one. What’s hard is having a national team essentially dormant for four years then being dusted off and expected to beat a South American team that’s gone through 18 tough matches together. Now Australia, like Italy, like Holland, like Argentina, are judged on the strength of their whole campaign, not a two-legged lottery.

Did you expect to qualify for this World Cup when the draw was made, and then again when you got drawn in a tough 2nd round group?
We certainly hoped so, but with Asia being somewhat of an unknown, it was very much a ‘suck it and see’ type deal. There were some hairy moments along the way, but it’s the journey of getting there this time that we hadn’t had in the past that gives you some sense of real accomplishment. And a match-hardened team will hopefully bare fruit in South Africa.

Any stand out memories as fans from the qualifiers?
For me personally it was the Japan trip. That was the only one that I caught on the road, although the game itself was a text book nil-nil, it was the result that essentially put us in qualification cruise control. I think most foreigners can’t appreciate what a challenge it is to follow the team, especially Europeans. An away trip to Turkey or Russia is probably as far as an England fan can be asked to travel (You’d be surprised – England took nearly a thousand to Trinidad and Tobago for a friendly in May 2008, and nearly double that for the qualifier in Kazakhstan). For us that’s a domestic trip to Perth in terms of cost and distance. I know others loved far flung places like Uzbekistan.

How many Australian fans you expect to travel to South Africa?
We have an official tour which will take nearly 500 fans, then we’d expect a few thousand more GGArmy folk to make up the 10,000-plus landing on the veldt. It’s amazing, considering the relatively small population and that football is growing but still well behind cricket, Rugby League and Aussie Rules, that Aussies have requested the third-most tickets for the Cup from FIFA. More than Brazil! More than the USA! More than Italy! C’mon.

Do you have organised tours in place for the tournament?  I wonder if they are as expensive as our ones with Thomsons!
We do. We’ve managed to commandeer the entire Hotel Nicol in Bedfordview in Johannesburg for the Cup, which is great because the Socceroos are based close by and it’s a central point for getting to and from all the games. There are still some spots left – ggarmyontour.com and it offers the best of both worlds – the camaraderie of traveling with your comrades while experiencing life the Jozi locals.

Your World Cup group is the traditional “group of death”…confident of qualifying?
Yeah well I don’t know about a group of death. I mean every group means death for two teams, but it’s a challenge. Germany first up is tough, you’d definitely like the strongest team last up in the hope they’ve already made the second round and take their foot off the gas. Ghana are beatable. Serbia are beatable. It’ll be tough but we’re good enough.

And a potential 2nd round game v England beckons for the runners up (England have the group of boredom) – how much will the fans look forward to that?  Will it be payback for the Ashes?
It’ll be the biggest thing ever won’t it? The Aussie media will go into overdrive. Everyone will bring up the 3-1 at Upton Park. Revenge for the Ashes? We’ll get that next summer in Oz, but this is way more important than that.

Which players should we look out for in the Summer?
The thing with the Aussie team is that it’s very similar to the one we had in Germany. So we’re banking on the old grey mare having the familiarity of four years together to win the day.  Dario Vidosic is a youngster at Nurnberg in Germany who might spring up to add some pace to the midfield. Mark Bresciano has been around a long time but is in career best form with Palermo in the Serie A and will be important, especially since our attack is pretty impotent.

As a West Ham fan I was glad to see the back of  Lucas Neill in the summer.  He seemed to lack pace and tactical awareness in the Premier League, yet then re-surfaced at Everton.  Is he still seen as a hero by the Australia fans?
By many yes. I think his good looks and charm (Not his wide girth then?) really made him a star after the last World Cup. And he was very good in Germany, save for the part where his sliding tackle got us eliminated that is! He’s definitely up there with Harry Kewell and Timmy Cahill as the stars of Aussie football. Whether his club form and latest bizarre transfer warrant the hype is another thing.

How much influence has the growing importance of the A-League had on the national team?
Not much really. The national coach, Pim Verbeek, has publicly expressed his preference for players playing in better leagues abroad. He famously put it that players would be better off training in the Bundesliga than playing in the A-League. And by and large any young and up and coming players pressing for World Cup spots will come from a foreign league.

Why do you think that friendlies in London have been so poorly supported in the past (2,000 v SA in 2007, 4,000 v Nigeria) when there are so many Aussies in the city?
I wasn’t aware the numbers were that low. I think you’ll find that demographically football support in Australia comes from very different parts of society than cricket or rugby. The nation enjoyed a massive post WWII population boom from immigration and it changed the country forever. All of a sudden recently arrived Greeks, Italians and those from the former Yugoslavia (for example) were here and they were football people. The game was around before them, but it was these vents that kick started it all into a slow ride to prominence.

So even today football is a game supported very strongly – but not exclusively – by first and second generation Aussies. That’s not to say that Anglo-Saxons and Celts aren’t also on board, but it is a different mix to the very stereotypical crowd at the cricket. Aussies in London, broadly, probably come from a background that would be more likely to watch the Wallabies than the Socceroos.

Who are your greatest rivals in terms of opposition and fans?
Definitely Japan. For a start there’s the history. England have Ze Germans, we have Nippon. Now, in a very short time, we’ve built a great football rivalry with them. There was our knock-out punch in Kaiserslautern, our move to Asia that has knocked them off their perch as Asia’s best team, their elimination of us from the Asian Cup and then us topping the group on the way to South Africa. There’s a friendly rivalry yes, but it’s got a little bit bubbling away under the surface.

What will the Australian fans deem as success from the World Cup?
There are two camps in Australia. Football fans and non-football fans, and you can appreciate there are more of the latter than the former. People who know football understand that we can play well and still not advance. But I think a Round of 16 appearance would be the pass mark and the quarters would be great. The football haters out there will pounce if the Socceroos don’t get out of the group and, as long as they haven’t lost all three games and been spanked, that is just naivety about what a real World Cup is all about.

Finally, it is deemed the “greatest league in the world”, but we recently disproved that here on the blog to some extend.  As an outsider looking in, what is your view of English football in general?
Well the EPL is great. Great football. Great teams. Great promotion. The EPL receives probably as much publicity as the A-League here. It is funny to see ‘English’ teams which are really only English in geography these days. It probably isn’t seen this way in the UK as it’s hard to see the forest from the trees, but these clubs are now owned by Americans and Saudis. The players are from all over the world and there are less and less Englishman in the EPL.

I get that there is such a strong emotional connection between the fans and the clubs but guess what? They aren’t even yours anymore and the blokes on the pitch aren’t locals. You basically watch the Championship and think, ‘well this is actually England’s league. These clubs are fan-based and the players are actually English’.

The EPL has filled this vacuum where it is literally a global product for global consumption, not entirely different from the Indian IPL Twenty20. I know this is like nails on the blackboard for English fans but it’s reality. That’s why the 39th step will happen eventually because there are 3-billion in Asia that feel on some level that the league is there’s too, and they’re (our) money is as good as anyone else’s.

As for England’s national team? Read the above. One World Cup, 44 years ago won at home in dubious circumstances. It ‘aint much to hang your hat on is it? But, for now, it’s more than we’ve got. See you in the Round of 16!!

Many thanks to Mark for the interview.  Us English love to get one over on the Aussie’s but deep down I am sure we are all just a little bit jealous of their passion for sport, and winning.  If we had 10% of that fire in our bellies all the time then we would not be constantly talking about “xx years of hurt”.

Let’s hope we do meet in the 2nd round and gain revenge for Sven’s nightmare at Upton Park back in February 2003.

Thanks as well to my mate Jon down under for the use of some of his snaps – Yes I know you still love me Jon!

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