Sydney: The end of Harry Kewell’s injury-blighted career has given another reminder of the contrast between Australia’s “golden generation” and the more modest current squad as they head towards the World Cup.
The gifted Kewell, 35, made an emotional farewell on Saturday in front of 10,000 fans at Melbourne Heart’s final game of the season, ending a career which also took him to Leeds, Liverpool and Turkish side Galatasaray.
As well as a relatively low-key finish for the man acclaimed as Australia’s best ever player, it evoked memories of the not-so-distant days when Socceroos dotted the English Premier League.
Kewell, Tim Cahill, Mark Schwarzer, Mark Viduka, Lucas Neill, Brett Emerton, John Aloisi and Craig Moore are all veterans of England’s top flight, and they were also behind Australia’s best World Cup performance in 2006.
That year in Germany, ending a World Cup absence of 32 years, Guus Hiddink’s side turned heads by reaching the last 16, where they lost to eventual winners Italy on a disputed late penalty.
Now only Cahill, 34, is sure to board the plane to Brazil with Ange Postecoglou’s Socceroos drawn mainly from various European and Asian leagues, as well as Australia’s A-League.
Postecoglou, brought in after Holger Osieck was sacked in October, is putting the emphasis firmly on the future as he prepares to tackle Chile, the Netherlands and holders Spain in a seemingly inescapable Group B.
“The time has come for us to look to this World Cup and the next World Cup and try and build a new golden generation of footballers,” Postecoglou said in February.
“We need to make some hard decisions. When you look at our experienced players, there aren’t many of them who are playing at the highest level, if any,” he added.
“It makes sense to me to start looking at building a new core in the team.”
While Australia could call on several English Premier League players at both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, now Postecoglou has only one EPL regular, Crystal Palace midfielder Mile Jedinak.
Instead, the home-based contingent will be augmented by players such as Mat Ryan (Club Brugge), Mitch Langerak (Borussia Dortmund), Rhys Williams (Middlesbrough), Curtis Good (on loan at Dundee United), Jason Davidson (Heracles Almelo), Robbie Kruse (Bayer Leverkusen), Matthew Leckie (FSV Frankfurt) and Tommy Oar (FC Utrecht).
Many of the country’s hopes for a footballing regeneration centre on prodigiously talented midfielder Tommy Rogic, on loan from Glasgow Celtic to Melbourne Victory.
Cahill is playing for the New York Red Bulls, while long-time skipper Neill is on loan at English second-tier side Doncaster Rovers in a desperate bid to win a recall by Postecoglou.
But for the transitional team, the greater goal is not Brazil but next January’s Asian Cup, where hosts Australia will hope to win the tournament for the first time.
Such a feat would eclipse even the “golden generation”, who reached the 2011 Asian final but were narrowly beaten 1-0 by Japan in extra time.
“The end of the road for what was left of the Golden Generation should have been the final of the 2011 Asian Cup,” wrote Sydney Morning Herald columnist Mike Cockerill last month.
“That was when they should have ridden into the sunset, the warm glow of the praise from grateful nation comforting them in retirement.”
Kewell played the 2011 final, one of the highpoints of a career which also took the highly talented forward to two Champions League deciders with Liverpool.
But injuries curtailed his performances for Liverpool and as his career trajectory turned downwards, he left behind a nagging sense of promise unfulfilled.
“Kewell is Australia’s first pop star; reluctant at first and then, once addicted to the limelight, frustrated as the stream of acclaim dried up,” wrote the Herald’s Sebastian Hassett.