Derided in England, worshipped in Belgium, the much travelled injury-prone sweeper has a novel approach to being axed by Australia, as Matthew Hall writes
In late August, Paul Okon was telephoned by Australia coach Frank Farina and told he would not be called into a training camp the next month. Nor would he be in a 25-man squad for the 2005 Confederations Cup play-offs against the Solomon Islands in October.
Okon was in the Belgian coastal town of Ostend when he took Farina’s call. But the former Middlesbrough and Leeds midfielder was not on a day trip from Dover, nor a Belgian pub crawl. Okon is captain and central defender for KV Oostende, the team he helped steer to promotion last season and which, at time of writing, props up Belgium’s Jupiler League, yet to win. It would be fair to say, for a player once heralded as Australia’s best ever, it was never meant to be like this.
Forget Harry Kewell, Okon left Australia for Belgium in the early 1990s tagged as the next big thing. A sweeper in the Beckenbauer mould, he read the play effortlessly and pinged cross-field passes that delighted fans of Club Brugge. He won the league, was voted the country’s best player and acquired a beauty-queen girlfriend.
Europe’s big guns took note. Dino Zoff flew to Bruges to personally sign the Australian for Lazio, adding a contract clause that he would play sweeper for the Romans. A knee operation before the move was not considered problematic, but when Roberto Di Matteo left Lazio for Chelsea, the midfield hole left by his departure was. Contract or not, Okon was switched to midfield. Then early in his first season, after impressing enough to be the team’s top-rated player on several occasions, his knee caved in again.
Unable to diagnose the cause, doctors suggested his career was over. But Australian physio Kaye MacPherson, aunt of supermodel Elle, suggested a childhood car crash had knocked Okon’s pelvis out of line. She was right. Okon was back – even if he did have to wear a corrective brace. Sven-Göran Eriksson rated Okon enough for his comeback to be a late 1999 title decider against Juventus (Lazio lost), but a transfer to Fiorentina should have been a second chance to live up to the earlier billing. Instead, he has not played a full season since.
When a move to Middlesbrough was announced in 2000, Australians thought he was mad. Cultured Okon, the fancy-pants passer in hoof-and-crunch England? Pride (and a big pay cheque) made him want to prove he could make it in England but – what do you know? – he soon injured a foot and it wasn’t until Terry Venables launched his rescue mission that Okon played in every game of Boro’s 2001 relegation battle.
Despite showing a knack for a scrap, when Steve McClaren took over at Boro, he had other ideas for Okon. The new boss’s only words to him over the next season were “get your coat”. A year earlier he had attracted interest from Valencia, but left Middlesbrough in 2002 on loan to Watford. When Venables took over at Leeds that summer, Okon was quick to agree a deal.
Life in Yorkshire was no better. Venables was moved on and Okon was not one of Peter Reid’s favourites. The weekend before the Australia captain led his country to a 3-1 win over England in February 2003, he was booed by Leeds fans for passing sideways. For Okon, that summed up England.
Last season, he signed for Vicenza in Serie B. Frank Farina had demanded his squad be involved in first-team football or not be considered for the Socceroos. Six months later, Okon had left Vicenza after the coach refused to field him (bizarrely, Vicenza apparently could not afford to pay his win bonuses).
Oostende had called. Okon answered. His return led the back pages of newspapers, but this was no glorious homecoming. Oostende were battlers playing in front of few fans. It was a long way from Rome’s Stadio Olimpico and not that much of a leap from the league he had left in Australia more than ten years earlier.
Privately, Okon was devastated when Farina swung the axe. His dream had been to lead Australia to the 2006 World Cup. The reality was, with no room for a sweeper, Okon had been surpassed by the young Parma duo of Mark Bresciano and Vince Grella in Australia’s midfield. Irony: both play in Serie A, a path pioneered for Aussies by Okon.
The question has to be asked: is Okon crap? Some Leeds and Middlesbrough supporters would shout yes. McClaren and Reid would agree. Venables and Eriksson would not. Football is a game of opinions and Okon, who according to doctors should not have even got this far, definitely warrants that. Despite Farina’s big hint, Okon refuses to retire from international football. The Socceroos coach said he hoped the captain’s axing would not damage their relationship. Some know otherwise. Okon is already thinking ahead. His new aim is to coach Australia, soon.
From WSC 213 November 2004. What was happening this month