Thursday, June 21, 2007
Few Australian players of the last thirty years have promised more than the elegant defender-cum-holding midfielder; in the long run, he fulfilled that promise only partially.
In one of the pile of back issues of World Soccer which I peruse from time to time, a report on the World Youth Championship of 1991 struck my eye a while ago. Australia, of course, performed very well in that event, and the report singled out Australia's sweeper, "Paul Okon-Engstler", as a real star of the tournament. (Whatever happened to the "Engstler" bit?)
He went on to excel in Belgium in the early nineties (his transfer to Club Brugge eventually becoming a bone of considerable contention), even gaining the league's "Golden Shoe" in 1995. When he moved to Italy, it seemed as if he had entered the European A-List.
Yet injuries constantly dogged him, and opportunities at international level were inevitably limited, given Australia's position in the absurd Oceania confederation.
When Frank Farina took over the national side, Okon became an ever-present. Although Farina was later heavily criticised for persisting with Okon past his supposed use-by date, his early performances in the Farina era gave reason to believe the team should indeed have been built around him.
The 2001 Confederations Cup, in which Australia gained a merited third place, represented Okon's finest hour in the green and gold. Passing intelligently and often incisively, and controlling the pace of the game from his deep midfield role, he was unquestionably one of the players of the tournament.
Sadly, most people now remember him as the captain who went missing in the fateful second leg of the 2001 playoff against Uruguay. But it should always be remembered that he was desperately short of first-team football at the time, having perhaps unwisely moved to England, where his unhurried, thoughtful style was not so highly valued.
His one-year A-League stint was only a mixed success, but we did see flashes of his undeniable quality. After an uncertain start (to put it charitably), in which he made more than his fair share of defensive howlers, he gained confidence as Newcastle began to reel in the wins, and was often to be seen striding purposefully out of defence, often providing the deadly ball through to the forwards for which he had become well-known.
It is this facet of Okon's play, above all, which will be sorely missed. In his final Socceroo appearance, against Jamaica in a friendly in 2003, he played just such a killer ball from deep to put Harry Kewell through for Australia's second goal.
It was a fitting note on which to depart the Australian side, which he had served well.
While there are many memories dating back to his days at Marconi (and how can we ever forget Portugal 91), I was glad to see him produce snippets of his A game in the second half of last season...some of his link-up play out of the back was top notch and a big reason why Newscatle produced arguably the best football in the league...for those newer to the game, it was a brief glimpse into why he was so highly regarded...