Simon Tyers tells the story of one of this summer's more unique characters
Next June Australia will, more than likely, be officially anointed as 2006’s equivalent of the 1998 Jamaica side, the qualifiers full of unlikely UK-based players that will do in the Republic of Ireland’s absence. All five penalty takers against Uruguay have played in England, as has (and does) keeper Mark Schwarzer. The Boro man’s understudy, Zeljko Kalac, has played here, too, but is a rather more unlikely World Cup player, from the point of view of many in Leicester.
His first public appearance was at the World Under-17 Championship in 1989, where he was still Schwarzer’s deputy but was photographed with Pelé for World Soccer. Spider – a reference to his 6ft 7in height and early favouring of an all-black kit – won the first of his 52 full caps to date while at Sydney United in 1992. Come 1995, he convinced Leicester manager Mark McGhee, then forming a decent ball-playing side from the previous season’s relegated scrap metal, to pay an Australian record $1.7 million. An official photo shows Kalac, clearly unaware of photocall humour etiquette to judge from his expression, putting a club cap on the head of a new team-mate who is standing on a chair.
Work-permit problems held up his debut, though, and eventually he was cleared in time for a November 5 debut at The Hawthorns in a game shown live on ITV Central. He had little to do initially as Leicester put on one of their best away displays to lead 3-0 by half-time. Being Leicester, they promptly sat back in the second half – almost too far back, it turned out, as Kalac dropped more or less the first two crosses that came his way on to the feet of waiting strikers.
Still, City had held on to 3-2 and maybe it was just beginner’s nerves. Kalac therefore retained his place for a home debut in the League Cup against Bolton three days later. The Bolton Evening News’s report started: “Wanderers’ season could turn on a goalkeeper who went from the record book to the joke book in 90 calamitous minutes.” Kalac missed Bolton’s first corner completely, parried a long-range shot into the ground and up over his body and, after a second equaliser, finished his work by waving at a catchable corner, especially so for him. Two games, five goals, all his fault.
That was the last many thought they’d see of Kalac as McGhee left for Wolves, Martin O’Neill arrived and the much shorter Kevin Poole put in some sterling performances, culminating in a series of spectacular saves in the play-off semi-final against Stoke. Unlikely as it seemed, though, O’Neill had come up with a way back for Kalac in the Wembley final against Crystal Palace. If the game was going to penalties, he reasoned, surely the big lad could at least get his gloves to something? And so, with the score at 1-1 and about ten seconds left, probably ironic cheers broke out when a free-kick was given just inside the Palace half. Kalac took his place, Garry Parker launched it to the edge of the box, a defender got a head to it and Steve Claridge, in his own words, shinned it into the top corner. Kalac never touched the ball.
Thus began Leicester’s run of four top-half finishes and two League Cup wins as well as the formation of O’Neill’s reputation, having wisely brought in Kasey Keller during the close season. McGhee, meanwhile, demonstrating the leaps of logic prevalent through most of his managerial career, attempted to sign Kalac for Wolves. Again it broke down through work-permit problems, only this time not only did he decide it wasn’t worth the effort after all but Leicester put in a damages claim hinging on the clubs having come to a conditional agreement over the transfer. A Football League commission agreed and ordered Wolves to pay £250,000 damages, while Kalac went back to Sydney.
In 1998 he moved to Holland, where he spent four seasons as first choice at Roda JC before joining the strays at Perugia in 2002. Less than a month into the season chairman Luciano Gaucci bought Milan’s imperial-phase keeper Sebastiano Rossi, explaining: “We can’t risk relegation by waiting for him [Kalac] to settle in.” Déjà vu was averted, naturally, as he regained his place and stayed there for three seasons.
Then it all went stellar. With Bosnich gone and Schwarzer out injured, Kalac briefly became Australia’s first choice at the start of the World Cup qualifying campaign, followed last August by a move to become Dida’s understudy at Milan. How Gaucci must have chortled. Now Kalac is almost certainly off to Germany, a course of events that even in their club’s current state of underachievement couldn’t bemuse Leicester fans any more.
From WSC 227 January 2006. What was happening this month