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Aloisi's A-League adventure

The image of a deliriously happy John Aloisi running bare-chested around Sydney's Telstra Stadium and swinging his jersey is burnt in the memory of every sports fan who saw it and represents the split second when the Australian game changed.

Years of stinging disappointment and 'what ifs' had been instantly converted into almost uncontrollable euphoria for players, fans and national media. Sad soccer had become fantastic football.

It was the evening of November 16, 2005. The Adelaide-born striker converted the decisive penalty against Uruguay that sent the Socceroos into their first World Cup finals since 1974, slotting his team's fifth spot kick past Fabian Carini for a 4-2 victory on penalties.

Two years after Aloisi turned from distant footballing journeyman into national hero, he finds himself back in Australia and starting a club career on home soil.

After leaving Alaves in the Spanish Segunda Division in June, the 31-year-old was linked with European clubs like FC Nuremberg and Middlesbrough before choosing the Central Coast Mariners from a handful of A-League offers.

He's earning a reported A$500,000 (around £225,000) for the rest of the A-League season and is captained by former Socceroo teammate Tony Vidmar, the ex-Rangers and Middlesbrough defender.

Despite not having played a competitive match for several months, Aloisi made his A-League debut in round-10 against Sydney FC, completing all 90 minutes and showing some good touches.

He scored his first goals - a brace, including a penalty he earned - in the 2-0 home victory over Adelaide United in round 12. The Mariners have garnered 9 points from a possible 12 since Aloisi's arrival to sit four points clear at the top of the table with eight regular season games remaining.

It's a remarkable journey for the Socceroos' second top scorer who made just one brief appearance as a teenage substitute for hometown club Adelaide City in the old National Soccer League before heading to Europe.

Aloisi represented seven different clubs in Belgium, England, Italy and Spain and is the only Australian to have appeared in the three top European championships - the Premier League, Serie A and the Primera Liga.

His English stint came in his early to mid 20's when he moved from first division Portsmouth to Coventry City in the Premier League, scoring 42 goals in 115 matches.

Spain was his home for more than six years - four of them with Osasuna where 128 games yielded 28 goals and attracted the attention of Barcelona whiz, Ronaldinho.

Before Australia's World Cup game against Brazil in Munich last June, Ronaldinho confessed that Aloisi was the only member of the Socceroo squad - which included Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka - whom he recognised.

For years, Aloisi was better known in Europe than he was in his homeland, but that all changed on a mild November night in 2005 when he was a central figure in what was voted by the Sport Australia Hall of Fame as one of three greatest moments in the country's entire sporting history.

He went on to have an excellent World Cup, even although the presence up-front of captain Mark Viduka meant that all his appearances came off the bench. Even so, Aloisi scored one of Australia's five goals at Germany 2006 and was credited with two assists.

He also had what seemed to be a perfectly good goal disallowed in the 2-2 draw with Croatia in Stuttgart when referee Graham Poll blew fulltime as Aloisi's shot crossed the line - on the same night the Englishman gave three yellow cards to Australian-born Croatia defender Josip Simunic. It didn't stop the Socceroos advancing to the second round.

Whenever Aloisi puts on the number-15 shirt for Australia, he seems to find the back of the net, no matter where in the world. He collected four goals - a brace against both Germany and Argentina - during the 2005 Confederations Cup in Germany and scored three times playing as an overage player at the 2004 Athens Olympics. He even gave the Socceroos the lead in the 2007 Asian Cup quarter-finals before they lost on penalties to Japan in Hanoi.

His 27 goals in 54 international appearances make him second to Damien Mori on the all-time Australian list. And with Aloisi stating his intention to play on until the 2010 World Cup, it seems just a matter of time before he sets a new national scoring record.

Linking up with Central Coast ahead of next year's World Cup qualifiers through Asia will only help Aloisi add to his international resume, with home-based players likely to be more regularly called upon, with many games falling on non-FIFA dates.

And the fans - including his father Rocky - are curious to see how the Socceroo hero will adapt to Australia's fast and physical A-League.

After his World Cup play-off heroics, Aloisi was named 2006 South Australian of the year, but both he and elder brother Ross are playing for faraway clubs.

Ross, the former Adelaide United captain, joined the Wellington Phoenix at the start of the season, while John, with a wife and three children, adapts to an idyllic life near the coastal town of Gosford, an hour's drive north of Sydney.

Frequently stopped for autographs and questions whenever he walks along the Pacific Ocean Esplanade, Aloisi has discovered that he's now as instantly recognisable in his homeland as any Rugby or AFL star. His image also appears on the cover of the Australian version of the computer game, Pro Evolution Soccer 6.

Q: John, it's been quite a journey for you to return to domestic action in Australia . What does it feel like to be playing in the A-League after your experiences in Spain, England and Italy and how would you characterise the style of the league?
It's great to be home because I've never played in Australia, except as a 15-year-old for 15 minutes. It's a big thrill to be playing in the local league to try and help it progress a bit and also in front of family and friends. Of course it's not the same as playing in England, Italy or Spain but it's a good league and each year it's improving. The boys are coming back earlier from overseas and the youngsters are improving. The style of play is a little bit different but that's due to the heat and also the pitches which are a lot slower than Europe because they're drier.

Q: How do you end up at Central Coast ? What were you options after parting ways with Alaves? Did you want to stay in Europe?
I had a few options to stay in Europe but I've got a young family and I was looking to come back home so the kids can grow up in Australia. I think it's the best place in the world to grow up and the A-League was a good option. About four or five years ago I wouldn't have even thought of coming home this early in my career. But because the league has improved - it's professional now - and the crowds are getting bigger and bigger, it was a good option for me to come back.

Q: How did it feel to score your first A-League goals against Adelaide United - the club from your old hometown?
It felt good to score my first A-League goals. It doesn't matter who it's against... it's just important to score and also to win the game and keep the Mariners on top of the table. As a striker you love scoring goals and you hope you can score every week but the most important thing is that your team wins.

Q: What will it be like to play against older brother Ross when the Mariners face the Wellington Phoenix?
It's going to be strange because I've never played against him before. But I think it's going to be a good experience. Hopefully we'll already be in the top four - the playoffs - but it will be an important game, nonetheless, because we'll be facing each other.

Q: Now that you're based in Australia, playing in the A-League, how does that impact on your Socceroo ambitions? Will you continue to put your hand up for national selection?
Yes, I will continue to put my hand up. It depends on the coach, of course... if he wants players from the A-League or if he wants to go with something different or the younger players. I think quite a lot of A-League players will have to get used, especially early on in the qualification because a lot of the games are based here in Australia, midweek, and not on international dates, so it's going to be important for the A-League players to be part of that. I think we've got a strong selection of players here now due to players coming back from overseas and younger boys in the Olympic side who've got experience playing in Asian qualification.

Q: You and Mark Viduka have been Australia's premier strikers but you are now in your early 30s. Do you think it's time for the new breed to come through ahead of the 2010 World Cup?
A few young strikers are already getting the chance, like Scott McDonald in the friendly against Nigeria. Of course, you've got to bring through young players… it just depends if they want to add experience as well. I think a mixture of both is good. I don't think that I'm so old to consider retiring right now. You don't know what's around the corner. I'll try and do the best I can for my club and if it's good enough for the national team, then great.

Q: Along with Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell, you've scored in both the World Cup and the Asian Cup for the Socceroos but what's your favourite international goal?
My favourite is scoring in the World Cup because it was a dream of mine - and for most kids growing up - to score at a World Cup. That dream came true against Japan. But every goal for Australia is important and significant in a certain way.

Q: And finally, the penalty you converted against Uruguay to help the Socceroos qualify for the 2006 World Cup... is that your greatest footballing moment and how do you remember it now, two years on? Do A-League fans still ask you about it?
Yes, the A-League fans still ask me about it. It's still talked about quite a bit, especially now that I'm back for good. Before I'd only come home for a couple of weeks at a time so you really don't get to see normal people on the street so much. But since I've been back, the first question I get is: 'How did it feel to score that goal?' Two years that's gone by now but quite a few people still see it on television and we're reminded of it. It's one of those things that I'll never forget.

• Sydney-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an international broadcaster and corporate host.


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