At a press conference held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground to promote Liverpool's appearance in Australia later this month, a gaggle of cameramen and journalists surrounded Ian Rush, hanging on the former striker's every word. One of them asked the Welshman what he knew of Australian football. A standard question, perhaps, for visiting football royalty in the antipodes.
With a smile, Rush informed the journalist that he had, in fact, played for Sydney Olympic. That the question was even asked, and that his response took some by surprise is illustrative of a broad cultural malaise in the Australian game. Where other football cultures feed off tradition and nostalgia, Australians have scant regard for the game's domestic history.
Rush may have only played a couple of games for Sydney Olympic in 1999, scoring one goal and missing an away trip to Melbourne before promptly jetting off home but his presence is still recalled fondly by those involved. "I remember picking him up from the airport, and being in awe of the man," explains Tony Rallis, a player agent who worked with Sydney Olympic in the late 1990s. "I was so nervous that I forgot where I parked the car!"
The story begins in 1998, in Australia's now-defunct National Soccer League (NSL). Sydney Olympic, founded by Greek migrants as Pan Hellenic in the 1950s, had started a rapid process of renovation. The club was being privatised, and big business was circling. For a moment, it looked as if legendary stockbroker Rene Rivkin would take control of the club, but at the 11th hour the chairman of NRL's Sydney Roosters, Nick Politis, decided to throw his lot in with a consortium labelled the Friends of Sydney Olympic.
Describing themselves to the local press as "five filthy rich Greeks", the new owners promised big things to club members. Times were changing, and most NSL clubs realised they had to adapt or die. The introduction of the privately owned Perth Glory, Brisbane Strikers and Northern Spirit, who pioneered the broad-based, catch-all model later adopted by the A-League, had shown the way forward for Australian football. With Sydney hosting the Olympic Games in 2000, the game's governing body, Soccer Australia, was quickly trying to get its house in order.
Sydney Olympic, like many of the more traditional NSL clubs, could not have been economically and culturally further from this new model. Throughout their history, Olympic had been kept afloat by a small base of loyal fans and volunteers, while their perennial search for a new home ground had earned them the reputation as the nomads of the league.
In this context, privatisation was supposed to be the catalyst for the club to attract a broader support base, to transition to full-time professionalism for both players and administrators, and to find a place for the club to call home. There were plans to move the club to the modern, all-seater Sydney Football Stadium in the city's inner-eastern suburbs, before the decision was made to settle further west at Belmore Sports Ground.
Rallis, a lifelong Olympic fan who was involved in marketing and public relations at the time, worked closely with Politis and the new consortium. The view was taken that for the club to truly branch out beyond its Greek-Australian supporter base, what it needed most was exposure.
However, the problem lay in the fact that the mainstream media's attitude to the NSL was indifferent at best, and openly hostile at worst. Sports editors obsessed with AFL, rugby league and cricket were largely uninterested in football, which was viewed as politically and financially unstable. Paradoxically, football from abroad, particularly from the English Premier League, fared much better than the domestic game.
In this context, Australian clubs tried to leverage the rising popularity of the English Premier League to boost the profile of the NSL and the game in general. In 1996, Perth Glory chased Ian Rush's signature, while in 1998, rumours circulated that Northern Spirit were attempting to lure Eric Cantona out of retirement for a six-match guest stint. Cantona never made it to North Sydney Oval, but Crystal Palace invested a large stake in the club, while Leeds United star Harry Kewell became a poster-boy for the Spirit.
Similarly, in 1999, Melbourne Knights announced that Peter Beardsley would play three matches for the club, with the stated aim of broadening the Knights' supporter base beyond the Croatian community in Melbourne. The resuscitation of the marquee- or guest-player concept, which in many ways was pioneered in Australia, was seen as a ticket out of the proverbial ethnic ghetto.
Australian clubs have a long history of signing European stars on short-term contracts. Since the 1950s the marquee player has been seen as a way of driving revenue through new sponsorship deals and gate receipts, and most importantly, as a way of boosting the profile of domestic football.
In 1958, Sydney Prague signed Austrian playmaker Leo Baumgartner (he would later settle in Australia), while in 1977, Charlie George and Malcolm Macdonald lined up for St George Budapest and South Melbourne Hellas respectively in a five-goal thriller at Middle Park. In the 1980s Kevin Keegan played two matches for Blacktown City, while Graeme Souness, George Best, Dixie Deans, Ossie Ardiles and Eli Ohana all made cameo appearances for clubs around the country.
While many of these guest players were largely ineffectual, Sydney Olympic had a decent track record. In 1985, Rallis's father-in-law Jim Petinellis had been instrumental in bringing Celtic star Davie Provan to the club. In terms of on-field performances alone, Provan was pound-for-pound one of the most effective guest signings in the history of Australian football. In just five games he had led his team to an impressive unbeaten streak, scoring five goals in the process.
Little wonder, then, that Olympic fans like Rallis had faith in the guest player concept. In fact, Rallis had previously tried to sign Rush when he left Liverpool in 1996, but the striker instead moved to Newcastle United. However, by 1999, privatisation had brought new vision and new money to the club. This injection of funds dovetailed nicely with Rush's desire to establish his academy in Australia, and Olympic were finally able to present a realistic offer to the Welshman.
Rush's first game in the blue and white was a round eight clash against cross-city rivals Marconi. After Brett Emerton's first half goal was cancelled out by a Christian Care equaliser, Rush showed his class just before half time. Pablo Cardozo fed him with a delightful pass, and after a deft first touch, the ball was duly buried in the back of the net, leaving the home crowd in raptures.
"It's about time that Olympic had a home win," joked the match-winning guest after the match. Rush's humility and good humour had quickly endeared him to the local press and his new team-mates. "He always made time for everybody," recalls the Sydney FC midfielder Nick Carle, who was just breaking into the Sydney Olympic squad as a teenager. "His personal touch was just brilliant."
The two-match stint finished a fortnight later, as Rush played his final game at Belmore against Adelaide City. While Olympic won 2-0, in many ways the match summed up his short stay at the club. With kick off delayed because of the debris caused by pre-match fireworks, the game was ruined by a pitch that was so sandy it caused one prominent journalist to draw comparisons to Bondi Beach. Furthermore, the match wasn't televised, despite being played at prime time on a Saturday night. In the end, only the few thousand who turned up got a chance to see Rush play.
The former Sydney Olympic winger, and current Sydney FC utility player, Brett Emerton holds the unique position of having played with both Ian Rush as a young man at Olympic and Alessandro Del Piero as a senior squad member at Sydney FC. "These days you'd want to keep guest players for at least 12 months in order to give players here the opportunity to learn as much as they can," he explained.
"I find that with a guest player coming in for a few games, it's difficult," agrees Carle. "In saying that, I still thought it [Rush's involvement] was great for the game."
For Rallis, Rush's friendship changed his career immeasurably. "I rang him a couple of years later, and out of the blue he recommended that I get into player management. I now manage 15 players in Australia, and I thank him all the time for his encouragement and his faith in me."
In his biography, Rush writes fondly of his experience at Olympic. "The city itself struck me as an energetic, cosmopolitan city with a smalltown, easygoing charm, and the standard of football was decent enough ... I enjoyed my time at the club, and loved the Australian experience."
Rush's playing stint in Sydney may have been short-lived, but it's become part of Sydney Olympic folklore. Recently, a hybrid Sydney Olympic-Liverpool Ian Rush jersey was auctioned off for $3,000 at a club function. Sadly, the momentum didn't continue. Within a few seasons, the owners handed the club back to members, and as the A-League was born in 2004, Sydney Olympic were relegated to the NSW State League, where they remain today.
In the end, the structural deficiencies of the NSL meant that guest players were only ever temporary solutions for broader problems. It was akin to fitting a broken down Toyota with a shiny BMW bonnet badge. As Rallis laments: "we had no media support. We didn't have the marketability of today."
"We were paddling up shit creek... let's not kid ourselves, we were seen as wog boys playing games, and inviting Aussie boys and English boys to play with us."