Harry Kewell is soon gone and Australian football will be the poorer for it. His precocious incision single-handedly brought about many of the supreme highlights the sport has offered the Great Southern Land, and he was in 2012 voted the greatest ever Australian player.
He was his nation’s great football enigma: the most talented, technical player his land has produced, yet so different from his peers in both aspect and attitude. No other Australian has won both the UEFA Champions League and the FA Cup; in an era in which Australia’s best players all performed in top leagues, Harry Kewell at Leeds United and then Liverpool was the world’s focus point – it was he who boasted to the world that Skippies could play this game.
As Bonita Mersiades tracks excellently in The Guardian, Kewell began his career revered by the Australian common man, a true underdog story that youngster capable of bedazzling older, more cynical men. Then followed something of a symbiotic disdain between him and the nation of his birth – he felt the nation’s expectations too great, we (often unfairly) thought him something of a drama queen.
Australians had never had a player like Harry Kewell before. We’d been involved with several wonderful players – Christian Vieri, Mark Bosnich and Craig Johnston spring to mind – but never a truly elite Socceroo who could win World Cup qualifiers from his own left peg. And an Australia less familiar with the particulars of soccer didn’t exactly know what to expect from a gift completely unlike the blunt but effective objects we were used to.
Sporting a slight British twang that noticeably increased the longer he was in England, Harry played for Australia, but for so long was not truly of Australia. This verisimilitude defined Kewell as a Socceroo – an otherworldly weapon, a blade of valyrian steel available only at great cost. Even repatriated to the antipodean fold in his waning years, Kewell remained easily identifiable by virtue of his talent, temperament and attitude. He remains the best player his country has produced by some margin.
Despite spending his peak years rarely suiting up in gold (13 Australia appearances between 1998 and 2005) the Socceroos have never looked better than when boasting Kewell on the left and Brett Emerton on the right of midfield. Injury permitting – always the caveat with Harry – when the games mattered, he played. And invariably contributed.
The pairing of Kewell and Emerton is not coincidental. The duo were reared within earshot, left Australia to play in England at about the same time and were two of the first picked for any Socceroo manager for over a decade. They are mirror versions of one another – one less talented but hardworking and utterly dependable; the other more fragile yet eminently capable of ripping open any game.
This is the defining Harry Kewell paradox, and his legacy: Emerton, a technically inferior but hardworking player who embraced Australia wholeheartedly wouldn’t lose you a match, is remembered more fondly than Kewell, who would win those games for you amidst hubbub often of his own manufacture.