Socceroos Greats - Where are they now: Jason Culina

The World Game's monthly feature pays tribute to Australia's heroes of yesteryear who left their mark on football Down Under. Midfielder Jason Culina talks about his career in the Netherlands, the Socceroos and his first clubs in the National Soccer League.


Jason Culina challenges Brazil's Ronaldinho at the 2006 World Cup Source: EPA

Australia midfielder Jason Culina, who was a key member of the Socceroos team that took part in the 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cups, wants the stalwarts of the defunct National Soccer League to be given every opportunity to be part of the A-League.

Culina, who spent three seasons with Sydney United and Sydney Olympic before embarking on his European adventure in 2000, declared he owed his former clubs big time for preparing him for a rewarding career.

Culina played with distinction in the Netherlands' Eredivisie for FC Twente and PSV.

He left Australia at the age of 18 and said he could not be thankful enough for the grounding he received in the NSL that would serve him in such good stead on some of the most famous football fields of the world.

"The contribution of the NSL to the development of Australian football cannot be overstated," Culina, who is now 36, said.

"And my old clubs United and Olympic should be rewarded for what they've done for our game by giving them a spot at the main table. Hundred per cent.

"These clubs put football on the map but it's not just the clubs ... it's the people around them who offered an opportunity to young players and gave them constant support. 

"The same applies to South Melbourne and Melbourne Knights. You have to pay tribute to such clubs who have produced so many Socceroos.

"Without the old NSL Australian football would not be where it is today.

"Some players see the end result and tend to forget where they came from. I owe United and Olympic a lot."  

Culina's stellar career turned full circle in 2012 when he returned to the city where it all started for him to sign for Sydney FC after a short stint with Gold Coast United but he retired a year later.

Culina will be remembered as one of Australia's finest and most successful exports.

He spoke at length to The World Game about his decorated career and he typically pulled no punches in expressing his candid views.

So what are you doing now?

"I've got a young family and I spend a lot of time with my kids in Sydney. I really enjoy taking my boys to school, picking them up and taking them to football training. I am supporting my wife now. For many years she supported me during the tough and good times of my playing career so now it is my turn to support her.

"I also am doing some coaching with my father Branko at Fraser Park in Marrickville. This is something I have a passion for. I am in the process of doing the proper coaching courses and in the meantime I am learning a lot from my father."

You spent many years in the Netherlands when the Eredivisie was one of Europe's strongest leagues. What has Dutch football taught you?

"I learned many things but it was not Dutch football that taught me: it was about playing overseas from a young age.

"Leaving Australia and moving away from your comfort zone were important and something you needed to get used to. The Dutch culture and way of thinking were very huge for me and I was fortunate to go to a big club like PSV when Dutch football was very strong.

"I had a tough initiation at Ajax but I would not have done anything differently because I learned so much in Amsterdam.

"Ajax had many great players and competition for positions was very, very tough. Although I did not get as many opportunities as I would have liked my stay there made me a better person and a better footballer and taught me a lot about football in general. I have a lot to thank Ajax for because they prepared me for what I would later achieve."

What was the highlight of your four-year stint at PSV, which of course included several matches in the UEFA Champions League?

"Winning three championships in a row was hard to beat. Not many players get that opportunity and I was lucky enough to play in three title-winning sides. So for me that was a very special moment especially when you remember that in one of those years we made the quarter-finals of the Champions League before we went out to Liverpool.

"For me it was a particularly satisfying period because of where I had come from and also because I was representing my country at elite club and national level.

"This is probably why I have such fond memories of being at PSV."

And the low point, assuming there was one?

"Any period when you are not playing regularly is a low point. We had several coaches at PSV while I was there and sometimes it takes time to earn the favour of a new coach and I used to say to myself 'I'm not enjoying this' but I saw that as a challenge and I'm glad to say that sure enough after a difficult period I always ended up playing regularly again."

You had the privilege of working with Guus Hiddink at club and national level. We know all about his football brain. What was his man management like?

"He was one of the best man managers I've ever worked with. He knows how to deal with fringe players and regular starters and he can deal as easily with experienced players as the young ones. I often sat back and admired the way he did things for PSV and the Socceroos.

"Not least when we were trailing Japan 1-0 at the 2006 World Cup. We went in at half time very disappointed because we were not playing well and we were expecting a blast from Guus, who had a tendency to get cranky.

"Instead he remained calm and made no fuss about us being a goal down. He skilfully changed the mood of the dressing room into one of optimism. He knew we were a quality team and that we knew that too so he reinforced that belief in us.

"He had to talk to the guys and bring the best out of us. In the second half we were a different team and you all saw what happened (Australia won 3-1). But to me Guus's way was no surprise because I had seen him do that many times at PSV.

"Tactics are important in football but the mind is a very powerful thing and in this area Guus was the master."

So how good were the 2006 Socceroos?

"We were very strong because we had everything. I have been watching DVDs of all our games recently. We had a great bond between us and we created it progressively and it took a guy like Guus to come in and reconstruct - not change too much - the way we did things.

"We had strengths all over the park and we were strong because most of us played at the highest level week in week out. I think that played a major part in our success. It will take some time before we get another national team like the class of 2006.

"I'm not saying this because I was part of that team but because of the great unity and quality we had."

What about the current Socceroos? How far can they go?

"It is going to be difficult for the current side because everybody seems to be comparing them with previous generations. Which is probably unfair.

"I cannot comment on the bonding that exists today but what I think I can talk about is the team's lack of match toughness. Our players need to be playing regularly at the highest level where they are exposed to better players and stronger teams at a higher level and I feel that the current Socceroos are not improving as quickly as they should be (because of where they are playing their club football).

"Because we have qualified for the last three World Cups we automatically expect the Socceroos to reach the finals in Russia.

"But we would need to do better in 2018 because, even though there were many positives to emerge from our participation in Brazil, in reality it was a poor performance from a results point of view (three losses).

"It will be a challenge to improve on Brazil but there is no reason the Socceroos will not get better because they are playing good football at the moment."

Which is the most hostile ground you have played in?

"The Centenario in Montevideo is very intimidating and I'm sure any of the Socceroos who have played there would say the same thing. The atmosphere inside and outside the stadium was quite difficult. In Europe it's a bit different. It's not so intimidating ... just an experience you love to be part of. Like Anfield, for example, where I have played three times."

You came back to Australia to play for Gold Coast in 2009 when you were at the peak of your career. What brought you here?

"One main reason: the chance to take on a new challenge in the A-League at an age when I could make a strong contribution. I had ticked all the boxes in terms of my personal ambitions when I left Olympic in 2000.

"I looked back and saw that I had played for two top clubs, won four league championships in Europe, played in two World Cups and in the Champions League.

"Gold Coast presented me with the new challenge I was after and I believe I did my job and provided entertainment to Australian fans."

You ended your career at Sydney FC in a rather acrimonious manner. Was it a sign that you had had enough of football?

"I think so. After I got injured while playing for Gold Coast I was not sure how long my career would last. The long layoff took a big toll on me, especially mentally. When you come back from such serious injures I believe you need the right people around you.

"My family obviously was behind me, the football side helped me from the physical part of things. But did I have the full support from everybody? I would have to say 'no'. I think that probably was the turning point. I needed to prove to myself that I could come back from serious injury and I achieved that and made a difference at Sydney FC, scoring goals and making assists.

"But in terms of support crew, I think I could've had better football people around me who understood where I had come from and not made it difficult for me.

"I was asking myself if I still loved the game and the answer was 'no'. I just felt that mentally it was the right point in time for me to retire."

You worked with many coaches. Who was the greatest influence on your career?

"That's very easy: my father. He offered so much to me, from as early as having a kick-around in the back yard. My father was special because he knew about football. He was and still is a coach and he showed me everything I know today, especially the initial skills, the fundamentals of the game.

"I had some very good coaches in my career but they didn't teach me those things. That's what my father did for me."

Who are the best players you have played with and against?

"I have played with many good players. I loved playing with the whole Socceroos team of my generation. It was a pleasure every time I stepped on the field with those guys.

"At club level I learned so much from playing alongside guys like Wesley Sneijder, Rafael Van Der Vaart, Phillip Cocu, Patrick Kluivert and Jimmy Simons.

"The best I've played against were Ronaldo, Kaka, Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry and Steven Gerrard, with whom I also swapped shirts. It has been a privilege for me to be on the same pitch as these guys even though they would have had no idea who I am."

Who are the players you like most in Australia and abroad?

"I am impressed by Dan Pasquale. I saw him play for only five minutes but you could tell he's a good player. No wonder Ajax were interested in him.

"From abroad I don't think you can go past Lionel Messi. For me he is a phenomenal player and he is the reason I still watch football on television. We are very lucky to have players like him at the moment."


Club career:
1996-1998 Sydney United
1998-1999 Sydney Olympic
2000-2004 Ajax (loaned to Beerschot and De Graafschap)
2004-2005 FC Twente
2005-2009 PSV
2009-2011 Gold Coast United
2012-2013 Sydney FC

International career:
Australia 58 matches

Ajax: KNVP Cup 2002, Super Cup 2002, Eredivisie 2004; PSV: Eredivisie 2006, 2007, 2008, Super Cup 2008.

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12 min read
Published 21 December 2016 at 3:00am
By Philip Micallef
Source: SBS