Josip Skoko, who left Australia as a teenage midfielder with stars in his eyes, revealed the obstacles he had to overcome before he could forge a career in the cut-throat world of European football.
Skoko, who is now 40, won 51 Socceroos caps and played with distinction for Hajduk Split in Croatia, Genk in Belgium, Genclerbirligi in Turkey, Wigan Athletic and Stoke City in England and Melbourne Heart in Australia.
It is a CV many players would be proud of but it did not come easy.
“You are not really looked after in Europe … you’re a foreigner and you have to work twice as hard and be twice as good as the locals, wherever you go, just to get into the team,” he said.
“So you either sink or swim. Some young Aussies would come back home but if others can handle it and put in the hard yards then later on they would excel because of this (tough initiation).
“Places like Croatia and Turkey are different to mainstream western Europe and present more challenges.
“Football mirrors life in general and in such places if you lose a game you do not go out for a week because people will heckle you and abuse you.
“If you win you’re on top of the world and everybody will be shouting your drinks. You’re the king of the town.
“Whereas in Belgium or England you’re always on a normal level. You win they pat you on the back and you lose they’ll say ‘no worries we’ll get them next week’.
“In Croatia I witnessed some really big ups and downs. That’s the sort of mentality you’re dealing with from the start. It really affects your life but you have to learn to deal with it.
“You also are up against it to just get into the team. Agents push their own players and it is not a fair world. If you’re not twice as good as somebody else who is less deserving he will get the jersey.
“He’ll play not because he’s better than you but due to his agent’s relationship with the coach.
“And we’re not even talking about late payments. Sometimes you can go six months without getting paid. They give you a bit of money to live off but then you’d see nothing for three months so you have to make ends meet.
“Some boys might say ‘I haven’t been paid for a month so I’m breaking the contract’ but that’s not the way (parts of) Europe works and the quicker you get used to things like that the better.
“These things could have razzled me - and for a while they did - but once I got my head around them it made me street smart for the challenges ahead.
“You’d get your money eventually so all you could do is be positive and have an attitude of ‘work hard and things will come good’.
“That's why several Australians who go to similar countries find it difficult to adapt.”
Skoko ended his career in the A-League when he played one season for Heart, now Melbourne City.
He spoke at length to TWG about his career and the game in Australia.
So what are you doing these days?
“I’m doing quite a few different things. I’ve been coaching the kids at North Geelong Warriors.
“I’m also assisting the under-12s team as well as helping out at the club as football operations manager. I’m enjoying it and it’s good to be out on the pitch once or twice a week. Once a footballer always a footballer.
“I’m also a coffee distributor in Australia for Austrian brand Julius Meinl, which I came across via a few coffee shops I set up in Croatia.”
You left Australia at a young age. Did you see this as a gamble, an adventure or just a leap into the dark?
“It was a bit of everything. There was no way you could be ready for a move to Europe, especially in the world of football and when you are from Australia.
“As much as anyone thinks he is or I thought I was, it is definitely a journey into the unknown.
“Even my semi-professional background at the Australian Institute of Sport certainly did not prepare me for Europe. And if I were playing today in the A-League nothing would have prepared me for what was to come.”
What advice would you give today’s players: wait for the right time or go for it if an opportunity arises?
“Every situation is different and it all depends on what you want. These days the boys have a solid A-League that is a good stepping stone.
“If the boys can break into the league and establish themselves, then going abroad is the way to go.
“Other kids might not get a chance in the A-League and would choose to go straight overseas. There is nothing wrong with that because the development side of things would be a lot different. The learning curve would be quicker than it is here.
“Of course, the earlier you go overseas the quicker you can adapt and become a local and part of the club. I was there when I was 19 and it was a lot easier for me to adapt then than if I had gone at 25.
“When you’re young you have that youthful enthusiasm and you do not worry about too many things. So I recommend to anyone who has the ability to give at a go when in the early 20s.”
If you were playing in today’s more professional set-up would you have left so early and so easily?
“That’s a difficult question. If I were playing today with Melbourne City and was doing well week in week out I probably would have hung around for three or four years and once I established myself the normal next step would be to look for an overseas club.
"You’d jump at a chance but there is no perfect way to do it.”
Was it hard to establish yourself in Belgium, which has a tough league?
“There had been a few Aussies before me who had led the way like Frank Farina, Graham Arnold, John Aloisi and others. Of course, it was hard. The coach who signed me was sacked on the day I arrived there before I even had my first training session.
“The new coach wanted to get rid of me immediately because I was not part of his plans. But I had spent four very challenging years with Hajduk before that so I was ready for anything by then.
“I would not say Belgium was easy but I had seen a lot of things in Croatia, particularly off the field, that I would never see in Belgium or the United Kingdom and I knew that I had to quality to establish myself in Belgium with Genk.
“Six months after I arrived we won the cup and things changed very quickly.”
You were part of a massive turnaround in Australian football at club and national level. How do you see the game placed at the moment?
“Pretty much since we won the 2015 Asian Cup here, Australian football is in a good place, where it should be.
“The Socceroos should be qualifying for each World Cup and be in the final four of the Asian Cup every time and we have done that consistently since joining the Asian Football Confederation.
“Perhaps we could be getting some more players overseas. This area has dried up a little bit but that could be because the A-League is getting stronger, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“With Ange Postecoglou at the Socceroos’ helm, things have come together results wise.
“Getting over the next hurdle and perhaps reaching the World Cup quarter-finals is a goal to work towards.
“I think overall we have got the base right and if we keep qualifying regularly for World Cups, reaching the last four of the Asian Cup and having a strong A-League these are the core three factors to keep our game stable.”
You played 51 times for Australia. Which was your most memorable moment in green and gold? I hope this is not a silly question.
“No, it’s not at all. It has to be the win over Uruguay in 2005. Perhaps not so much from a personal perspective, but for every Australian and anyone who has ever played the game that was a very special moment.
“I had been part of two failed qualifying campaigns. I was in Montevideo four years before when we got kicked out and I was on the bench when we played Iran in Melbourne in 1997.
“A lot of players had been part of several qualifying campaigns so if we’re talking about a single happiest moment then Uruguay in Sydney would have to be it. Nothing comes anywhere near that.
“Personally there were many games I had played well and scored in but that qualifier will always be No 1.”
Do I need to ask you which was the biggest personal disappointment of your career?
“If you have the World Cup in Germany in mind, there was nothing I could do about not playing.
“It was, however, a limited disappointment because it was not something I could really change. Of course I would have loved to play but that’s football.
“The manager picks what he thinks is best for him or the team at the time but in saying that I was just happy to be there with the boys. It was an amazing experience.”
Which of your Socceroos teammates became close friends?
“The boys of 2006 stay in touch quite a bit, especially those who are based in Australia.
“I am very close with Mark Viduka. Our wives and children are really good friends and I will be catching up with him in Croatia later this year.”
You retired from international football at a relatively young age of 31. Why?
“There are a few reasons I retired in 2007. My club career had suffered a lot in the previous two years due to Socceroos commitments.
“When I went to Wigan in 2005, I was away from my club a lot due to national camps and the qualification campaign for Germany.
“This put me out of the team and I found it hard to get back in because Wigan were winning without me, so the first season at Wigan was a write-off for me.
“Then I went on loan to Stoke to get more games but I was away many times and my club game suffered.
“I had given 10 years to the national team, travelling a lot, and I felt I should devote more time to my family.
“So I told Graham Arnold, who had briefly taken over the Socceroos team after the 2006 World Cup, that that was it for me but I would be available to help out the new generation if needed.
“I got to have my farewell match against Argentina in my home town Melbourne.”
Who has been your best coach?
“I had some good influential coaches at Hajduk such as Zoran Vulic, who really pushed me at the start of my career.
“At Genk I learned a lot from Sef Vergossen. If ever I wanted to become a coach I would like to be like him and use his methods.”
And who were the best players you played with and against?
“I played a few times against really great players like my idol Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
“From the national team Harry Kewell and Viduka were amazing and at club level it’s hard to single out individuals but I played with Aljosa Asanovic, a magnificent midfielder at Hajduk and one I looked up to.”
Who is the player you admire most at home and abroad?
“In Australia it would have to be Aaron Mooy, just because I can see things that he does I saw as well myself as a midfielder. I can relate to the way he plays.
“There are so many great players overseas but you cannot go past Ronaldo and Messi, who keep repeating things and playing well week in week out. People take them for granted but it is so difficult to keep delivering every week and I take my hat off to guys like them.”
When you played for Australia the team’s formation was usually 4-4-2 but today it’s 4-3-3. What are the pros and cons of both systems?
“In a 4-4-2 formation if your wide men are too attack-minded the remaining two midfielders can become too isolated and the team becomes stretched and will have to work really hard.
“These days with a 4-3-3, our wide players are up higher and you are left with three midfielders, which could be two sitters and one in front or just one sitter and two in front so you’re closer to an extra player and it easier to run the midfield.
“I like the 4-4-2 system because it gives you an extra striker but you need to have the right balance, no matter what system you use.
“Four in the middle worked for us in 2005 and 2006 but these days the boys know the 4-3-3 system very well through the curriculum, so maybe 4-4-2 won’t work in Australia anymore.
“Having said that, I’m all for flexibility and I’d like our kids to learn different roles rather than systems.”
You played in the A-League in the last season of your career. How did you find the standard from a physical, tactical and technical perspective?
“I think physically, Australia has been up there for quite a while so there are no issues there. Okay, in Europe the tempo is quicker but over here there are problems such as travel, different climates and so on.
“Tactically, it’s come a long way, even since I last played. There are better coaches and the boys have been professionals for longer. A decade is a generation.
“Where Australia falls down a bit is in general street smartness. Like the first touch, for example. In Europe these things are taken for granted and inbred in players.
"But the level of the A-League certainly has surpassed that in some European countries, that’s for sure.”
Are there too many foreigners in the A-League? Will this affect the national team?
“Of course. Every foreigner who plays here is taking up the spot of a local.
“The A-League should be a platform for local kids to get a chance but it’s not happening.
“Some of the kids who cannot find a club because we have too few teams have to look overseas.
“On the other hand the foreigners bring extra quality but we need a balance. It’s a numbers’ game and the foreigners have to be limited to three for every club and we also have to make sure they are of good quality.”
The Socceroos are doing well under Postecoglou. How far can they go?
“I think the Socceroos can go a long way but how far, who knows? The basis of a good team is already there but they have to keep pushing the boundaries.
“With a lot of home-based players Ange can keep the squad together at times, a lot more than previously when most players were scattered around the world.
“The Socceroos have many good games these days and the next phase of qualifying for the World Cup is the perfect setting for new players coming through to establish themselves.
“The system is good and it’s working well.”
JOSIP SKOKO FACTFILE
1995 - 2000: Hajduk Split
2000 (Feb) - 2003: Genk
2003 - 2005: Genclerbirligi
2005 - 2008: Wigan Athletic (loan spell with Stoke City in 2006)
2008 - 2010: Hajduk Split
2010 - 2011: Melbourne Heart
1997 - 2007: Australia 51 matches
Genk: Belgian championship 2001-2002, Belgian cup 1999-2000
Hajduk Split: Croatian cup 2010