Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Stan chooses chaos over order while Paul sneaks in the backdoor

Following a rally cry from FFA chief John O'Neill, expect Europe to repatriate more and more current and former Socceroos in the next 12 months.

This week O'Neill reckoned up to half a dozen Australian internationals will elect to finish their distinguished careers in the blossoming A-league before season three kicks off in a year's time, among those World Cup star Craig Moore and Spanish-based striker John Aloisi. But for now, season two has been bolstered by the captures of two players with substantial international pedigree - three if you count the return from loan of Melbourne's Archie Thompson.

The Stan and Paul in question are Messrs Lazaridis and Okon. The pair have agreed deals to play for Perth Glory and the Newcastle Jets in the forthcoming A-League season which starts the final weekend in August. Both are players who started out in the now-defunct national league before seeking greater exposure in Europe. And both, you can be sure, would never have even considered a return home before the inception of the new league under O'Neill and Frank Lowy.

However, what's interesting about these similar stories is the conflicting levels of media interest arising from their signings.

The transfer battle between Perth and reigning premiers Adelaide United for Lazaridis' signature has been chewed over for months. It became common knowledge before the 33-year-old was called up for the World Cup - after news broke of his release from Birmingham City - that he would be heading to one or other destination. The only question was which.

In May, the newspapers were chock full of Lazaridis gossip. Then, the player admitted Adelaide were leading the race for his services, a move also preferable to his South Australian-born wife and a return to the city where Stan spent three seasons with West Adelaide in the early nineties. But, as the governing body gained greater control of ownerless Perth, news filtered though that a return to his hometown club had ultimately proved too enticing. Lazaridis signed a two-year contract with the Glory on July 6.

He has since become a marker for the league's progress in Australia. When players are asked about the season ahead, their responses are clinical: it will be better because a player like Lazaridis - a Socceroo of some 70 caps - has come home. He is proof to them of the league's rapid improvement, and of the bright future ahead.

But there's been no such fanfare for Okon. There was no press release when he signed a one-year contract, not even the club's website carried the story of his return home after successful stints in Serie A and the Premier League among others. Okon's competitive debut for the Jets rated barely a mention. The former Oceania player of the year, often talked about as one of Australia's greatest exports, has barely spoken to the media in the month he's been back.

Why is a mystery.

Perhaps the relative lack of interest in Okon is the truest signal of football's development here. The 34-year-old last played for the Socceroos in 2003 and is widely regarded to be past his prime. He signed for Newcastle after one season at Apoel Nicosia in Cyprus before which he played at KV Oostende in Belgium, hardly an inspiring recent record despite his resume including spells at Lazio, Fiorentina and Middlesbrough in his pomp.

On the other hand, Lazaridis, by all accounts, had a dozen or more offers tabled from England, continental Europe and the Middle East but chose the distinctly tricky prospect of carrying Perth through the second season. A brave decision, but the local scene will be richer for his gentlemanly involvement.

In any case, Lazaridis' snub might just work in Adelaide's favour. Coach John Kosmina was forced back into the transfer market for a big-name player to replace departed Chinese striker Qu Shengqing - and reports suggest the charismatic coach has convinced Qu to return to Adelaide for another season.

With all indications also pointing to the arrival of South Australian striker Aloisi in 12 months time, Adelaide fans might be tempted to ask who needs Stan Lazaridis anyway.

Copyright © Marc Fox and Soccerphile.com

Australian Soccer News

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