Veteran Neill still learning in the UAE
It's amazing what you can find on the internet. Lucas Neill was searching for news of the fortunes of fellow overseas Aussies a couple of Sunday afternoons ago when he saw a headline that he was on the five-man shortlist for the 2012 Asian Player of the Year. What did he do? "I clicked the link", he says. "I was shocked but a little bit proud to be nominated."
He was also a little shocked four days later when the Asian Football Confederation rather pointlessly reduced that five to the final three. He had not made the cut but still, it was another achievement in a lengthy career that started with a professional debut for Millwall in 1996 and is still going strong today in the rather different surroundings of Dubai and present club Al Wasl.
Fourteen years in England, eight of which were in the Premier League with Blackburn Rovers, West Ham and Everton, followed by a spell in Turkey with Galatasaray and now the Middle East, Neill has seen a lot. Throw in a couple of World Cups, including a controversial penalty incident with Fabio Grosso at the 2006 tournament, title battles, European campaigns, promotion tussles and relegation fights and you have a veritable veteran, not that you would know it by looking at him. He still looked fresh as he captained the Socceroos to a recent friendly win in South Korea, 16 years after making his international debut.
He still follows the English Premier League 'intensely' but he is now all about Asia. It wasn't always that way however. Ahead of Australia's first ever Asian Cup campaign in 2007, Neill infamously predicted that the Socceroos would take the trophy without tasting defeat. A group stage loss at the hands of Iraq and then quarter-final elimination by Japan put paid to that idea, uniting an easily divided continent in mirth. The conversion is more Dubai than Damascus but after playing in the United Arab Emirates and travelling to all corners of the continent with the national team, his eyes have been opened.
"Now Australia knows that any team will give us a hard game," he told ESPN. "There is such a small gap now between the teams. Many countries use sports these days to help develop a nation and as a way to turn something bad into something good and inspire people and there are other teams that are always trying to challenge. It is a strong continent now and there is going to be more talent as the infrastructure and grassroots are improving."
Neill, who joined Millwall, then in England's third tier, as a teenager, remembers the old days of Oceania for Australia and the reason for joining Asia. Contrary to what some still think, it was not about World Cup qualification, not short-term at least, but a desire for competition at all levels of the game - club, youth, women and senior.
Apart from getting in the Guinness Book of Records for the biggest international win, beating American Samoa 31-0 was no good for anybody. Asia offers a very different path. In the past, beating the best of Oceania was routine but having one massive play-off match every four years was anything but. Suddenly, switching on against an Asian,European or South American team that had just finished a competitive qualification campaign was not easy. Asia not only forgives the odd slip but offers the chance to fashion and hone a team against tough opposition in tougher environments.
That has been evident in the final round of qualification. After two points from the first three games, the knives weren't exactly out for coach Holger Osieck but kitchen drawers were being checked. A win over Iraq in October eased tensions though the criticism was unwarranted according to Neill.
"We have played one game at home against Japan and the others have all been away from home," he says. "Jordan had 40,000 fans in the ground and they made a great atmosphere. We had the chances to win every game but we could just not take them and the teams we played against are no mugs. Oman was hard and it was 40 degrees. Iraq was a hard game and we found ourselves one down with ten minutes left and as Australia always do, we dug deep and pulled off an amazing win."
Australia currently occupy the second automatic qualification spot behind runaway leaders Japan but it is close. Oman and Iraq are level with five points while bottom team Jordan are only a point behind. The signs, however, are good with a game in hand and home matches to come. "Japan may look like they are winning easily but they have had most of their games at home and we've been away," he says. "Our World Cup fate is in our hands and we have three home games against Iraq, Jordan and Oman and our away game is in Japan when they will already have qualified. I am confident we will be at the World Cup."
But, if it happens, it will be with an aging side. Neill will be 36 by the time Brazil 2014 rolls around and a number of his team-mates will not be too far behind. He dismisses concerns that the team will struggle to match the class of 2006 that made the second round and even perhaps of 2010 that came close to doing so.
"You have to forget the four years ago and the one before that," he said. "For any team that gets to the World Cup, that is a successful achievement. There are now 50 or 60 teams that feel they can get there and every campaign you see big nations not making the World Cup. It is about getting there and trying to get the four, five or six points to get to the next round. That's it."
Despite the advancing years, playing in the UAE is certainly means a little less wear and tear than most European leagues. Neill signed for Abu Dhabi team Al Jazira in 2011, and helped them to the second round of the 2012 Asian Champions League. After being released by the club, he is now in Dubai with Al Wasl. If it is a little easier on the body, it is not as easy as some may think.
"If you play in this league then you realise just how tough it is," he concludes. "With Al Jazira, we went to Iran, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan in the Asian Champions League and played against some of the best of the best in Asia. We lost but we felt that we could have gone on to the final.
"In UAE, the challenge is amazing and there are seven or eight teams that can win the league. Al Ain have the depth of squad and the consistency but the 12 teams can beat anyone and that shows that the league is strong. Players aren't coming here to chill out, you are getting good European players coming at a younger age. The level of local performances is getting much better. The UAE Olympic team beat Australia and performed well at the Olympics and when you have that talent going back into the league, it is good for everyone."