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Jun 10, 2008

Anthony's away game

Hollywood actor Anthony LaPaglia once famously gave up his Australian accent so he could get film and television roles in America but he never abandoned his love of Aussie football.

LaPaglia, award-winning star of the TV series, Without a Trace, as well as several notable films, is co-owner of Sydney FC and a high profile supporter of the A-League as it approaches its fourth season.

His commitment is such that he regularly takes the 14-hour flight from Los Angeles to Australia, between acting commitments, to watch his beloved Sydney FC.

And, closer to his Santa Monica base, the 49-year-old still gets out onto the park to prolong a playing career that began as a kid growing up in Adelaide.

LaPaglia is a sometime goalkeeper for the celebrity team, Hollywood United, which also includes ex-Chelsea and France World Cup star Frank LeBoeuf and Wimbledon hard man turned actor, Vinnie Jones. He also makes a point of combining his love of football with an active interest in helping assorted charities.

That's despite having his left hip replaced in 2004 after playing with a degenerative condition for six years.

The son of an Italian immigrant father, LaPaglia's career began as a schoolboy representative for his home state of South Australia in the 1970s. He would go on to play for Adelaide City and West Adelaide in the old National Soccer League (NSL) before heading to the United States to pursue an acting career two decades ago.

'All I thought about was playing football,' he says. 'I never actually thought of being an actor until I retired my football career at age 21.'

But once the A-League - Australia's first full-time professional football championship - began in 2005, LaPaglia didn't hesitate to get involved, throwing in his own cash to grab a stake in Sydney FC. And the glamour club, captained by former Manchester United striker Dwight Yorke, brought him instant rewards by winning the A-League's inaugural Grand Final in February 2006.

Since then, Sydney FC have struggled for success, amid turbulent times behind the scenes that have seen numerous changes in management and coaches.

John Kosmina, who, like LaPaglia, hails from Adelaide and played for South Australia's NSL clubs, is Sydney FC's fourth head coach in just three years, taking over from Branko Cullina nine games into last season.

At the time, LaPaglia offered to walk away from the club after not being consulted in the decision to sack Cullina, who'd replaced the unpopular Terry Butcher just eight months earlier.

But LaPaglia decided stay and two months later came out in public support for the volatile 'Kossie', saying that a big city club like Sydney FC needed a big personality like the former Socceroo captain.

Kosmina's arrival made an immediate impact as Sydney FC strung together some good results to lift themselves up to the table for a spot in the 2007-2008 Finals.

And after the signings of international players John Aloisi, Mark Bridge and Simon Colosimo for the upcoming season, Sydney FC will be among the hot favourites to go all the way.

Which means that LaPaglia is planning many more of those 12,000k trips from California to New South Wales, putting new meaning into the term, 'away game'.

Incidentally, LaPaglia was narrator and executive producer of a critically-acclaimed 2006 TV documentary, entitled The Away Game, which profiles Europe-based Australian footballers, including Tim Cahill, Lucas Neill and Harry Kewell.

In the documentary, LaPaglia speaks in his original Australian dialect, a far cry from the accents used in some of his more memorable roles: a frightening criminal opposite Tom Cruise in The Firm, Daphne's brother in Frasier, and, most notably, FBI agent, Jack Malone, in Without A Trace.

For years, film and TV executives thought that LaPaglia hailed from the New York borough of Brooklyn and not the sunburnt land Down Under.

Last month, LaPaglia's connection to his birth nation was given an extra dimension when he was named by Football Federation Australia as one of 14 celebrity ambassadors given the mandate of helping promote the game as part of the 2018 World Cup bid.

In an interview with ESPNSoccernet, the Golden Globe and Emmy award-winning actor - a proud Australian - explains his life-long obsession with football and a long distance love affair with Sydney FC.

Q: Anthony, you once compared your love of football to an addiction to drugs. How do you explain your lifetime passion for the beautiful game?

A: I think it's the most democratic process in the world. It doesn't matter how rich you are, what level of education you've received or anything like that. It comes down to talent. I bring my boots and my gloves and I jump into the game, wherever I am. And from that, you make friends. Some of them last a lifetime.

Q: Did you ever seriously consider trying to become a professional footballer instead of actor?

A: I never actually thought of being an actor until I retired my football career at age 21. All I thought about was playing football. In Italy, I was going to try out for a Serie A or Serie B. I was offered a trial with Oldham Athletic around 1975-76, but they required parental consent, and I didn't have it.

Q: How much are you playing these days for Hollywood United and how do you enjoy it? Is your body still holding up after the hip replacement operation?

A: I usually play three times a week. Playing regularly is incredibly important to me because it takes me out of show business. It's a great release. It's hard to get it out of your system. My hip's been brilliant. Surgery's held up 100%. Unfortunately, the other one's going now, so we'll see.

Q: A very important season is ahead for Sydney FC in the A-League, both on and off the field. Are you convinced that the right pieces are now in place and how do you explain the drop in crowd figures?

A: I think the drop in crowd figures is a multi-pronged problem. In the first year, the numbers were up because Australia made it to the World Cup for the first time since '74, so people's awareness was very high for a new A-League team. They could have capitalized even more off the Australian's team success but they made short-sighted decisions.

We had a coach (Pierre Littbarski) who was accomplishing the impossible, qualifying for championships etc and, yet, at the end of the season, they fired him for financial reasons. Same thing with Dwight Yorke as our marquee player. It wound up costing more in the end.

There's still a question of perspective. John Aloisi is fantastic but no cheaper than some of the players they let go. Terry Butcher didn't understand the Australian system of football - meant to be fast and entertaining - and it showed.

Q: How do you juggle your acting career in Hollywood and your role with Sydney FC? Has it been worth all the long distance travelling and phone calls?

A: Yes. It's been very difficult and very worthwhile. Sydney is a tough town. There's a popular saying: 'People don't come to football games to balance books.' They want action. But people are learning from their mistakes. They've made some very positive moves.

Sydney FC now have a chairman who gets things done. A head coach - John Kosmina - with more international appearances than anyone. Players really respect him; and you can't lose your players in the locker room, or you'll lose them on the field.

Q: In your estimation, how is the A-League doing as it goes into its fourth season and would you welcome the introduction of a western Sydney team?

A: I would welcome it. It's too early to tell how the fourth season will play out. And I can only speak for Sydney, but we're in a major rebuilding year. We've got nine new players. It's a much younger team.

Most important is we've got to reach out to youth organisations and get kids interested, show them there's a future in the game. [We] have to make Sydney FC the city's team.

Q: Have you ever compared notes or swapped stories with some of the other actors involved with sports teams - Russell Crowe, with Rugby League's South Sydney and even Tom Cruise with his friendship with the LA Galaxy's David Beckham?

A: I've had several discussions with Russell Crowe. There are similarities and differences. He has larger controlling interests in his team than I do. I'm on a consortium of owners, which makes decision-making a bit more difficult.

Q: And finally, would you be willing to play the part of the goalkeeper if ever there was a remake of "Escape to Victory"? I think you would be more convincing than Sylvester Stallone was...

A: Yes, I wouldn't think twice about it. But the chances of a remake are about the same as raising the Titanic. It's a really fun movie to watch because of the people who are in it. And you can't fault Sly… he'd never played soccer before!

* Sydney-born Jason Dasey ( www.jasondasey.com ) is a host for Soccernet SportsCenter and SportsCenter. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.


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