A second chance for Tony Vidmar
Forget the first two decades; simply the last two years of Tony Vidmar's football career have had enough dramatic twists and turns to make a compelling movie script for Hollywood.
From World Cup play-off hero…to a suddenly-retired player with a heart condition who misses Germany 2006…to a new life with perfect health and a marquee salary in the A-League sunshine.
The former Rangers and Middlesbrough defender has ridden a rollercoaster of emotions since helping Australia qualify for its first World Cup finals in 32 years after an heroic performance in the two-legged playoff against Uruguay in November 2005.
Vidmar was amongst the Socceroos' best as they held Uruguay, conceding just a solitary goal away in Montevideo in the first leg. Four days later at Sydney's Telstra Stadium as Australia won 1-nil in the second leg, the veteran was again rock-solid at the back before stepping up to convert a crucial penalty in the shoot-out that ultimately sent Guus Hiddink's side to Germany.
He was a certainty for the World Cup squad - and was even included in the official programme listing the 32 teams - but was forced to pull out after being detected because an irregular heartbeat detected in a standard FIFA test.
His career seemed over but after the World Cup, Vidmar underwent an operation in London to correct the problem and was then cleared to start playing again.
Out of contract at Dutch club NAC Breda and with his best European years realistically behind him, Vidmar opted to return home to Australia, joining the Central Coast Mariners as their marquee player in October last year. The Central Coast is a developing area, about an hour's drive north of Sydney on Australia's eastern seaboard.
After finishing sixth last season, the Mariners are riding high at the top of the A-League under Vidmar's captaincy. They also won the pre-season Cup and have consistently out-shone more fashionable rivals, Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory.
Even so, Vidmar has had a turbulent campaign - receiving red cards against Melbourne Victory in round-4 and against Adelaide United - managed by his elder brother, Aurelio - in round-6.
I met Vidmar last year at the Socceroos' base in Munich ahead of their second group-F match against Brazil. Even though medical reasons had kept him out of the tournament, the squad made a point of embracing Vidmar, who like, elder brother Aurelio, had been a loyal servant of the national team.
Dave Mitchell, the ex-Socceroo striker who also played in four different World Cup campaigns, introduced us in the lobby of the Socceroos' Munich hotel as Guus Hiddink and Graham Arnold sat down in a faraway corner to discuss tactics ahead of that day's match at the Allianz Arena.
Mitchell and Vidmar - whose national careers overlapped - had plenty in common: well-travelled and hard-working professionals from Adelaide who shared a deep passion for wearing the Socceroo shirt, especially through the tough times.
Who could forget those images of Vidmar crying like a child on the pitch at the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo at the end of Australia's unsuccessful 2002 World Cup campaign, following on the heels of the heartbreak of being knocked out by Iran ahead of France 1998?
He also captained Australia to one of its most famous competitive victories: a 1-0 upset of Brazil at the 2001 Confederations Cup in South Korea.
In the end, fate intervened to ensure that Vidmar never played a World Cup finals match. But he handled his disappointment with admirable grace maturity. And everyone knew that without him, the Socceroos probably wouldn't have made it.
Even the normally cynical Australian press corps gave Vidmar a standing ovation when he walked in for a media conference.
So you could say that many people are happy that the 37-year-old is back on the pitch and doing well, even though he's officially brought down the curtain on his international career.
Fittingly, after his successful heart operation, he returned for one farewell match in October 2006 as Australia drew 1-1 with Paraguay in Brisbane: his 76th and final game, making him the Socceroos' third most capped player of all-time.
In our interview, Vidmar speaks about dramatically missing last year's World Cup, about his high opinion of his former club boss and likely new Socceroos coach Dick Advocaat and his favourite memories of playing alongside the likes of Paul Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup with Rangers in Scotland.
Q: Tony, welcome to Soccernet. We're at the one-year anniversary of you joining the Central Coast Mariners as their marquee player in the A-League. How would you sum up your experience so far and how is it different to what you expected?
I think I can probably say it's been up-and-down year so far, from the first day I arrived. I was definitely behind the eight-ball when it came to fitness. That was probably a result of me not having a good enough preparation for the first season, compared to what I'd expect. You definitely have to be fit at this level to compete.
Q: The Mariners are riding high this season in the A-League. It's only early days but how has the team been able to turn things round after an ultimately disappointing campaign last time out?
With the players that we had, we expected to do a lot better last year. I think last year was a disappointment. We had numerous injuries. Every week the team was chopping and changing. This year hasn't seen so many changes. We've basically got the core... the same players have been playing every week and I think the results have shown that steadiness in the team on the park. I think the pre-season, which I missed quite a bit of last year, was really good... we worked hard and I think our fitness levels are as good as any other team.
Q: Has the A-League experience been the satisfying final chapter to your career that you were hoping for and is there a chance that you may continue for another season after this one?
I don't know about (continuing). That's something I've got to decide in myself and it's not time yet to make that decision. If this is to be my last season, then the A-League has been highly competitive and the whole picture of the A-League from the players, through to television and the media, has been really positive and something that I think can kick on in years to come.
Q: How strange is it when you face the team from your former hometown, Adelaide United, coached by your elder brother, Aurelio?
Adelaide United is not my team... I've never played for them. It's just nice to go back to my home city and play in front of family and friends. Yes, Adelaide United is coached by Aurelio. But, for me, nothing really changes in the way I approach the game. I go out there, looking to get a win and give the best performance I can.
Q: Your former Rangers boss Dick Advocaat will reportedly take over as coach of the Socceroos. Would you consider this a good appointment and how his Advocaat different in style to Guus Hiddink?
I think it would be a good appointment. He's very similar to Hiddink in the way that his preparation is perfect: every fine detail is taken care of, from how the players dress, how they look and the training fields have to be top-notch. And he's very passionate...he wants everyone to work hard. He's a good motivator as well...he'll get the players up to the best of their ability.
Q: It was admirable the way that you handled the disappointment of missing out on the World Cup after doctors detected an irregular heart rhythm. Do you look back now with any regret on not being able to play at Germany 2006?
No, none whatsoever. That was something that was out of my hands. If I wasn't selected on form or something like that, I would have been disappointed with myself. But you deal with what you've been dealt. I was dealt a bad hand. But life goes on. There's no looking back. I'm just looking forward at the moment. That's a part of sport. You're going to have your highs and your lows. Unfortunately that was a low for me. But I look back on my career and realise how fortunate I've been. I've been lucky but also I've worked hard enough to get into the situation that I'm in. I'm 37 now and I'm still playing and I can't complain. I look back on everything I've done and say, yes, it's panned out the way I wanted.
Q: Even so, you helped Australia qualify for Germany 2006 with your outstanding performances in the two-legged play-off against Uruguay, including converting a clutch penalty in the deciding shoot-out in Sydney . Was that your international career highlight?
I think so, especially after three failed attempts previously and being with the national team for 15 or 16 years. That's what it's all about, qualifying for the World Cup. We couldn't qualify for so many years. To qualify for the World Cup was probably the highlight of my career. I'd say my best four games were the four Uruguay games (in the 2001 and 2005 playoffs). The last two were the icing on the cake.
Q: After an operation to repair your heart problem, you farewelled international football in October 2006 in the friendly against Paraguay . Will the fact that many of your contemporaries are also saying goodbye mean that Australia may struggle to qualify for the next World Cup?
I think we're in a phase now where a number of players have retired and in any sport and in any team whenever you have so many players retiring or stopping in some form, the standard or quality is not going to be there in the beginning. But over time, hopefully the players who have come in have got used to international football and what is to be expected. It's a learning experience - not only for those players but for the senior players as well. Hopefully once February comes around - with a new coach - the boys are ready to fire and qualify for the World Cup.
Q: Looking back, are you happy with the way that your European club career panned out? Would you have done anything differently, maybe tried to spend longer in the English Premier League?
No, no regrets. Looking back, when I went to Europe to make it over there, I set goals of where I wanted to play at a good level, at the highest standard possible, and to win championships, to win cups and to play Champions League football. I achieved all that. When I signed for Rangers, I was there for four years and I extended my contract halfway through because I was enjoying my football. I don't think it made me a worse player. I was fortunate that I was under Advocaat at that time and it made me an even better player. I think I was successful in Europe and that was something that I always wanted to achieve.
Q: What was your favourite experience in Europe? And can you now speak Dutch after playing a few seasons in the Netherlands in two different spells with NAC Breda?
That's a hard one. I had so many experiences over there. I think I was just fortunate to play with some of the best players in the world: Paul Gascogine, Brian Laudrup, Ronald De Boer, Arthur Numan... they're just four of many I played with. For me, it was fun just going to training every day and learning from these great players... it was a favourite part of my journey. And....I speak very little Dutch. But I do understand more than I can speak.
Q: Your former Socceroo and Rangers team-mate Craig Moore, now with Queensland Roar, says the best thing about being home again is hearing the birds chirping in the morning. What's the best thing for you and how do you like living on the Central Coast?
It's definitely not the birds chirping in the morning ... they wake me up! They're early birds here. They must be late chirpers there in Queensland. For me, I think it's the weather. In Europe, you have very long winters. Here, your winters can be wet, but you have good summers. So far in the year that I've been here the weather has been exceptional. That's something that I've enjoyed since I've been back. And the beach. I hadn't seen the beach for over 11 years so it's good to come back and smell the salt in the air.
• Sydney-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an anchor for Soccernet SportsCenter and SportsCenter on ESPN.