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Aug 20, 2008

Corica enjoying end of 20-year journey

He first came onto the Australian sporting radar when Bob Hawke was Prime Minister, Frank Arok was national coach and the Fine Young Cannibals were at the top of the pop music charts.

The year was 1989 and a teenage striker by the name of Steve Corica was making an impression at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Scotland, scoring against a Brazilian side that included future superstars like Roberto Carlos.

Now an elder statesman of the code, Corica has begun the new campaign with Sydney FC, knowing that the fourth A-League season will mark the 20th anniversary of his initial foray onto football's big stages.

And, he's delighted to admit that football in Australia today bears little resemblance to the struggling sport that first captured his imagination in the far north Queensland town of Innisfail and saw him join Marconi in the old National Soccer League (NSL) in the early 1990s.

'It's like night and day really,' he said. 'The awareness is a lot better. You walk around the streets...people are recognising you now, so you know, it's changed a lot over the years.'

Despite his veteran status, Corica remains a vital cog in the Sydney FC machine, with an ability to fill a variety of roles: playing wide left of a 4-4-2 formation, in his preferred attacking midfield role when he gets forward to support the attack or sitting a touch deeper and playmaking.

A foundation player, he's perhaps best remembered for scoring the only goal of the 2005-2006 Grand Final that gave Sydney FC a 1-0 victory over Central Coast in the inaugural A-League championship.

But as marquee and guest players including Dwight Yorke, Benito Carbone and Juninho have come and gone, Corica has added much needed stability - with a touch of class - during a turbulent introduction for the big city club. He remains one of their most consistent and popular performers, who's highly valued by coach John Kosmina and wore the captain's armband in the absence of Tony Popovic in Sydney's 2008-2009 season opener against Melbourne on August 16th.

Corica was already a seasoned campaigner - with five years at Marconi under his belt - when he ventured overseas for the first time in 1995, joining Leicester City. He also had spells at Walsall and Japan's Sanfrecce Hiroshima but made the biggest impression at Wolverhampton Wanderers in England's second tier.

Over four and a half seasons, he made exactly 100 appearances for the Molineux club, under Mark McGhee and Colin Lee, as Wolves made the semi-finals of the FA Cup and narrowly missed out on promotion to the Premier League.

But Corica is most respected for what he's achieved while wearing the colours of his country, starting at the 1989 FIFA Under 17 World Cup at which Tony Popovic, Mark Schwarzer and Zeljko Kalac were among his teammates. He went on to play in the side that made the semi-finals of the 1991 World Youth Championships in Portugal and represented Australia at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics as well as the 2001 Confederations Cup.

He was part of the so-called 'Golden Generation' that also included Mark Bosnich and former national captain, Paul Okon, whose family took in Corica for 18 months in the Sydney suburb of Bossley Park when he'd travelled south from north Queensland to join Marconi as a teenager.

A YouTube clip shows a 1991 SBS-TV report of Corica and Okon training together ahead of the World Youth Championships under the watchful eye of coaches Les Scheinflug and Raul Blanco. Compared to today's neatly-cropped salt-and-pepper hairstyle, Corica had an impressive dark brown bouffant, reminiscent of the popular New Romantic artists of the early 1980s.

In the early days at Marconi, Corica's youthful agility and slight stature earned him the long-standing nickname of Bimbi: a twist on Bambi, the small and delicate baby deer of Walt Disney fame.

He made 31 full appearances with the Socceroos between 1993 and 2001, some under the captaincy of close friend, Okon.

'Steve was always one of the most technically gifted players around,' Okon said. 'But in the same way as Nick Carle in today's Socceroo squads, some national coaches didn't know how to fit him into their teams when they were going after results at international level.' Even so, Corica did play in the Australian side that pulled off famous victories over France and Brazil at the 2001 Confederations Cup.

After five years in the international wilderness, Corica earned his 32nd and most recent cap when he was one of eight Sydney FC players called up for the 2006 Asian Cup qualifier against Kuwait with many first-string Socceroos unavailable.

Although he was in Pim Verbeek's expanded training squad for February's World Cup qualifier at home to Qatar, Corica doesn't hold out much hope of any future Socceroo appearances.

'I've probably played my last game for Australia,' he admits. Corica tells ESPN Soccernet that he hopes to have another two seasons with Sydney FC and lists the best footballers that he's faced during a 20 year career.

Q: Steve, you're now a sprightly 35 years old but you're showing no signs of easing up. How do you rate yourself as a footballer today compared to the one who left for Europe over a dozen years ago?

A: Obviously a lot more experienced. You know, I left when I was 22 to go overseas, young and naive, but I think I've come back a better footballer. Obviously the older you get, you get a little bit slower but also a lot more experienced and I think that makes up for a lot of things.

Q: How does the awareness of football within the community in Sydney and around Australia compare to when you first started your career?

A: It's like night and day really. You know, when I started at Marconi we were getting crowds of 1000 or 2000 people probably. Now you're playing in front of 18,000 at home sometimes and down in Melbourne, 50,000. The crowds are definitely coming. The awareness in the street is a lot better as well. You walk around the streets and people are recognising you now so you know it's changed a lot over the years.

Q: How does scoring the winning goal in the inaugural A-League Grand Final rate amongst the highlights of your football career?

A: It's right up there. Along with representing my country, it's one of the highlights of my career. Scoring the winning goal in the first A-League Grand Final is either number one or two.

Q: What should Sydney FC's expectations be for this season, given your strong finish last campaign and the new players you've recruited?

A: With Sydney we expect to win. The Grand Final's obviously something we're expected to win, especially with the players we've signed this year. We've got four or five good new players so, the expectation hasn't changed: it's to win the Grand Final.

Q: What were your proudest moments wearing a Socceroo shirt?

A: My first game for Australia, obviously you remember that, your last game as well. I've probably played my last game for Australia. Playing in the Confederations Cup (were proud moments) as well, when we beat France and Brazil in that tournament. France were world champions at the time so that was a big thing for me.

Q: Who were the best players you've faced and played with during your career at home and abroad?

A: There's a lot really, David Beckham, obviously, would be one of them. I've played against him, Patrick Vieira, Zidane, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo...Raul as well. I played against him in the Olympics, so there've been a few.

Q: How much longer do you see your career lasting and what are your remaining football ambitions?

A: Obviously I want to win, so that's a priority this year. Whether I play one or two more seasons, that would depend how my body feels after this season.

I've got a two year contract so I'd like to play another two years, and obviously I want to have another couple of medals.

•  Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an anchor for Soccernet SportsCenter and two editions of SportsCenter. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.


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