Former Olyroo Ruben Zadkovich marked both Messi and Aguero at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Adding to an unforgettable Games, the Aussie scored against Dusan Tadic’s Serbia.
With memories like these, little wonder Zadkovich is a big supporter of the under-age national teams such as the Olyroos, which he says are pivotal to our game’s development by going on to Socceroo level.
Zadkovich, who retired due to injury and is now a successful coach of NPL outfit Broadmeadow Magic, is at 32 one of the bright new talents outside the A-League.
Well-spoken and engaging, the former A-League championship winner, Olyroo and Socceroo is utilizing the highs and lows of an international and club career in Australia and England to help formulate his coaching beliefs and philosophy of man management.
And there’s no doubt one of his highs was Beijing 2008.
Lining up against the eventual gold medal winners Argentina, marking both their wingers; one already a Barcelona star and the other a future Manchester City and English Premier League great.
But not just that. To score at the Olympics against a powerful European nation after an epic qualification campaign across Asia.
With the latest Olyroos group set for their qualification group showdown against the Korea Republic tonight in Cambodia, we sat down with Zadkovich to reminisce on the last time the Olyroos were on the world stage and what it meant for him and the nation.
Ruben, you’re at the Olympics, you’re on the right side of Australia’s defence and you can see Messi ahead of you and Aguero on the other wing… what’s going through your mind?
I remember it wasn’t just Messi and Aguero. There was Angel Di Maria, now at PSG, Juan Riquelme, Mascherano who went on to play for Barca and Liverpool, Gabriel Heinze, they were all starting.
And the most amazing memory is that we were in it. For a long part of the game we were in it, but they scored late.
I remember the performances of Mark Milligan marking Riquelme, and just getting in the battle and the grind with him. And not giving him an inch. Then was Mascherano and Stuey Musalik fighting it out in midfield.
And Messi and Aguero were playing on both wings and I was right full back. So it was Messi then Aguero, Messi then Aguero.
I remember that feeling of being “with them”. They were a class above but just on the pure fight on effort and being in that battle with them.
It was such a good, good feeling.
How did you handle Messi and Aguero?
They were quick with the ball at feet, and close control. It sounds so silly even talking about playing against Messi as if anyone has any idea of it, but back then it was just the simple things: you know Messi is quick and left-footed, so show him onto his right and maybe funnel him into traffic inside but even still his ability to change direction and speed was phenomenal.
I was quite sharp back then and fit, probably the team’s fittest, and had a big hunger and appetite for the game and that feeling of not giving this guy an inch, and if it’s there to be won, I’ll win it. Don’t leave him on his left foot, block shots, block crosses, just the old adage don’t let him exploit space in behind.
But he just was one of those who you felt you had him, then in the next minute he was over on the right wing and now you have to handle this guy called Aguero, that you haven’t heard of.
And he’s as good if not better at the time than Messi.
Then Di Maria is floating around.
It was really surreal. Particularly so now with the context of how good those players have become.
I don’t say to people I’ve marked the best player in the world, because at the time he wasn’t but he’s gone on to become a world best talent which goes to show whilst you have dreams and odds are often stacked against you, you’re maybe not as far away as you think coming from Australia.
That’s why again, reaching those tournaments and playing against the calibre of those players. Nothing on a training pitch or here in Australia can replicate playing against a Riquelme, Messi, Mascherano, Di Maria, Aguero, Heinze.
You can’t replicate that, let alone in a do-or-die tournament with a top coach like Graham Arnold
You also played - and scored - against Dusan Tadic’s Serbia. This month, Tadic was only the ninth player to receive a 10/10 rating from L'Equipe after he helped destroy Real Madrid in the Champions League with his club Ajax Amsterdam…
I remember his face rather than his name. Back then he wasn’t a name like he is now in 2019. I remember being around him at corners but really, I remember the quality of their whole side. Serbia and Argentina were just world class.
The goal you scored against Serbia, what do you remember?
It was a typical Arnie ploy.
He picked me to play right wing against Serbia because I’d have the legs to counter and get in behind. He said, ‘this is the day you’ll score’. And I didn’t score many for the Olyroos, I did a lot of the dog work with the fight and determination and covering ground as a wingback.
But he played me up high, and he knew I could score. I remember he filled me with a lot of confidence leading up that game.
And sure enough, he even said can you ghost off the shoulder of that left full back when the ball’s on the other side and arrive at the back stick and get your rewards.
And sure enough, Carney broke through down our left, crossed it low and the ball dribbled across their goal and their defender was caught a little ball watching and I was there on his blind shoulder and there I was, ‘bang’ to tap home from an acute angle with about half a yard to aim at.
And then it was surreal. Turning around and there weren’t many Australians in the stadium and they were on the other side of the stadium, but you’re looking up to the big screen at yourself in the green and gold scoring at the Olympics.
It was an amazing feeling, especially for me who doesn’t score many.
Being an Olympian is pretty rare, as Arnie has pointed out…
Yeah, and it was literally like living your dream. As a kid, you dream of wearing the green and gold or being a professional footballer.
I look back at that time with such amazing memories. I had all my family there. Most of the players did have their families there and it was a typical Graham Arnold team, where he created a really good environment.
I’ve got such beautiful memories of that whole trip.
Being in the Australian Olympic family meant you also had Steve Waugh as a mentor?
Yes, just getting his feedback when he'd take you aside and give you advice. He'd talk about mentality and composure under pressure. We all had time with Steve, in the lead-up and in the Games Village, and he just has this air of calm about him, no matter what the situation.
I had a few individual conversations with him, they were interesting because he often talked about mentality, body language, and leadership. I wasn't a captain at the time he was always saying to me you don't have to wear the armband to be a leader.
And he said mentality and body language can be infectious around the team. Those conversations stick with me as do the quality staff we had at the time, and players. It was an outstanding group.
That was an epic qualification campaign: like the Socceroos and the 2018 World Cup, the Olyroos racked up the air miles in order to qualify in 2008…
We were the first Olyroo team to qualify through Asia. It was a two-year-long campaign.
In the end, it was around 20 games home and away. It was an epic qualification campaign, all over Asia and in some pretty extreme places like North Korea.
In fact, North Korea away to qualify in late 2007 and we needed a draw and we scored off a header across goal that was like a handball at the back stick, a deflection that went in! And we hung on till the ref blew the whistle and celebrated.
The end of two years with an unbelievable group of players and playing for a super coach.
The importance of the Olyroos to the Australian football landscape: discuss
Everyone’s got their own opinion but for me it was massive.
It’s fundamental as a country that we need our younger national teams qualifying for these major tournaments if we’re to produce high-end fully fledged Socceroos who are going to be competitive at that next stage.
I admire and agree with Graham Arnold. From a coaching point of view, you want the best young players in Australia exposed to the best level of their age.
If we’re not making it into those tournaments, then there’s your underlying issue of why it isn’t as good as it could be at the top.
We need to put resources and focus into the development stages in this country. If we don’t I wouldn’t say fall behind but maybe not progress at the rate other nations are because of the resources other nations are putting into their younger national sides.
I feel we need to stay competitive in that department.
Taking players away from the A-League for underage national teams, where do you stand on that prickly issue?
It’s dependent on where you stand. Obviously, if I was an A-League coach losing my two best players who are young, mobile then of course if they’re missing in crucial games and my job’s on the line, then I’d not be that happy.
But I think there needs to be one eye on the bigger picture.
For example, if my two best players were pulled into an A-League squad and that hindered my season as a coach, as a club and a coach we’d be honoured that we could help develop them onto the next level. Even if it was detrimental to our season.
That attitude I believe has to be adopted by everyone in Australia. Then you’re promoting the development of players that is pivotal to the success of our national team in the long run.
That’s the bigger picture. Club football comes second to playing for your national team.
The A-League has been a great base for players to kick on. If there was no A-League, there’s no Mile Jedinak. Mile was my roommate in the Socceroos, and he’s one example. For most players, the A-League was a platform for their development.
So there has to be a balance but maybe with the number of games, the A-League plays are we better suited having breaks for international windows and extending the league into a longer season calendar.
Obviously, I’m not sure how the TV rights deal works and obviously overlapping with other codes, but, I feel like there has to be a balance.
We can’t have our best young Australian talents missing key tournaments because of A-League fixtures.