Many people talk about 2005 as the turning point for Australian football. That year was without doubt a landmark for the game in Australia with the beginning of the A-league and more significantly making it back to the big dance, the World Cup. The year 1999, is not one that immediately springs to mind when one looks at pivotal moments for football in Australia though it should be.
It saw an end of an era and the last significant contribution on the national stage of the man known simply to his players as, The Boss. Les Scheinflug had become synonymous with the Australian youth teams, achieving some remarkable results against much more fancied and and well-funded opposition.
Under the tutelage of Scheinflug, young Aussie players had a belief that they could match it with the best in the world. Football Central caught up with John Maisano who was a promising number 10 at the time, possessing the type of technique and “individual brilliance” that would make Ned Zelic proud.
“Back in the day all the youth tournaments us young Aussies played in we had this belief that we could win,” said Maisano.
“Nigeria ’99 was no different. We had a group of players that believed they were the best. This group of players in later years were labelled as the Golden Generation and I am proud that I was a part of it at that time.”
With names such as Brett Emerton, Jason Culina, Vince Grella, Mark Bresciano and Mile Sterjovski to name but a few it could be argued that this was the strongest youth team we had ever sent away. Harry Kewell would’ve also been in the mix if he wasn’t already a bonafide Premier League and Socceroo star.
The calibre of the team is what makes finishing 20th overall the more disappointing. At the very least, we were expected to get out of Group C which consisted of Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Ireland. According to Maisano, the team was probably a victim of individual player success who in addition to their obvious talent were riding a wave of enthusiasm by international scouts and clubs looking for the next Kewell.
“The camaraderie in the squad could have been better I think from my point of you that is. Don’t get me wrong, the boys were great and we were all mates,” explained the former Atalanta junior.
“At the time I was playing overseas in Belgium (for Westerlo) and every time I was called back to play for Australia I jumped at the chance mainly so I could be with my mates as I was very homesick.
“But from my point of view I was so focused on myself and making a career for myself I forgot about the team. And this was proved in our results.
“Probably the best Australian Under twenty team on paper yet we didn’t make it past the group stages. A big part of this group would later go on and qualify Australia for the World Cup, go figure.
“Most of players went on to achieve incredible careers. Some playing for clubs that we only dreamt about as young kids growing up. Although a lot of the boys were starting to make a name for themselves overseas, a lot of the boys were not only playing in the national league but they were dominating.”
This was the first major FIFA tournament held in Africa and would be a big test for the suitability for the football mad continent as a holder of major events. Nigeria were scheduled to hold the 1995 edition of the tournament but at the last moment Qatar stepped in due to security and infrastructure concerns.
The African nations were expected to do very well with most of the other international teams having little to no experience playing in this region. The rising talent coming out of Africa and the oppressive conditions would be tough tests even for the likes of Xavi, Forlan, Ono, Cambiasso, Ronaldinho, and Santa Cruz.
“The conditions were incredibly hot and humid. As young boys we didn’t care though. We just went about our business,” Maisano said.
“Although our medical staff monitored us very carefully weighing us before and after games. Because the conditions were so hot, It wasn’t uncommon for us to lose five to seven kilograms of fluid in one game so it was important for to replenish after games.
“That atmosphere was not great, unlike South America a few years prior, the stadiums were empty. I would be making up reasons as to why this was the case. Being in a football mad country we thought the stadiums would be packed. However our training ground was a different story, hundreds of people would turn up to watch our sessions and cheer every goal.”
Australia’s campaign would kick off against Asian representative, Saudi Arabia who finished third in the Asian qualifying tournament. The Aussies couldn’t have hoped for a better start winning the game 3-1 thanks to goals from Culina and Maisano as well as an own goal from Saudi centre back, Al Garni.
“From what I can remember of the Saudi game the squad had no doubt we would win. We went in all pumped and we knew they couldn’t match us,” recalled the 19-timed capped Australian youth international.
“From what I remember the confidence was high and as soon as we kicked off we dominated. When I look back now my goal was nothing special but I remember feeling as though it was going to win goal of the tournament.
“What was special about the goal was the build up and then the final ball from Jason Culina. World class ball from the world class player he went on to become. I was happy I was able to finish his pass.”
The Young Socceroos would quickly be brought back to earth with a heavy 1-3 loss to the Mexicans in which former Barcelona defender Rafael Marques got on the scoresheet. It could’ve been a different story if Culina had converted his penalty kick and his free kick which hit the bar was a matter of centimetres lower but that’s football. The official FIFA technical study noted that Australia lacked “the experience of playing against strong opposition week after week.”
Australia had all to do against an Irish side who had the dangerous Robbie Keane and Damian Duff leading their attack. However this would be their biggest defeat going down 0-4. By all reports, this score line was unkind to the Aussies and their play which was supported again by FIFA’s technical committee “that score line hardly reflected the course of the match and was much too harsh for the Aussies.” The late-Johnny Warren would also lament the lack of quality preparation for the team which seems to be a perennial problem for our youth teams even today.
Debate would follow about the Les Scheinflug’s tenure as youth team coach and the coach himself would go on TV to argue his case. It was all to no avail though and his assistant role at the 2000 Olympics would be his last role in the national youth teams.
“I only have the utmost respect for Les Scheinflug. He was always a great believer in me and my football. I have no comment on whether it was time for him to move on or not. Was it time for a change? Some would argue this point, a classic case of ‘The grass isn’t always greener’ but change is good in all walks of life.
“People might not like change, but it is necessary and vital to be able to evolve and grow in our society. I own businesses and it is the same concept. People don’t like change but I change things all the time to keep up and stay ahead of current trends.
“What works today might not work in 10 years time. I would imagine the same rules apply in professional sport.”
Despite the disappointing tournament the future for many of that crop of players would only see their careers go from strength to strength with many more highs than lows. For John, it was a special time in his life that he will never forget and the bonds created in those times can never be broken.
“Those days were some of the best days of my life. Very fond memories that will live with me forever.
“I’m proud to say that I was a part of a generation of players that changed the shape of football in this country and have loved watching their careers flourish and I would like to thank them for giving me the opportunity to call them my mates.
“It might not be as fond a memory to them as it is for me in comparison to Uruguay v Australia at the MCG in front of 100,000 plus people that sent the nation into celebration for years to come. Nevertheless, I look forward to catching up with some if not most of them some day. Give me a call boys, I’m in Melbourne or look me up on Facebook.”
Australian youth football, post-Scheinflug, has undertaken large scale reforms. Yet the same goals remain to produce players who not only can compete with the best players in the world at that age group but can also go on to forge professional careers in the top leagues and transition into the senior national team.
Young Socceroos Squad: