30 years ago, Australia played in an epic semi-final of the Under 20 World Cup against a star-studded Portugal. Former Socceroo captain Paul Okon looks back on what he calls “the best year of my life.”
That tournament featured some of football’s biggest names in their formative years. Roberto Carlos, Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Luis Figo, and Rui Costa were just some of the prodigious talents in the competition.
The Young Socceroos were a largely NSL based squad of future household names. The team’s run to the final four would help launch players like Mark Bosnich, Zeljko Kalac, Tony Popovic, Kevin Muscat, and Steve Corica to the next level.
For Okon, it was the start of a distinguished career where he played for some of the biggest clubs across Europe and wore the Green and Gold for over a decade.
“Don’t remind me how long ago it was,” laughs Okon from his home in Rome.
“For me personally that was the year that I left Australia and moved across to Bruges in Belgium so it meant I was able to fulfill a dream of getting the opportunity to play in Europe.
“No-one expected it [Australia’s run to the semis], not only people from around the world but people at home in Australia.”
The Group Stages
Australia was given a relatively favorable draw on paper. Alongside the USSR they faced Egypt and opened their account against Trinidad and Tobago.
“They had a young Dwight Yorke upfront, which was really their only threat for us, “ recalls Okon, who scored the opener.
“We ended up winning 2-0 and then the second game, you go into with a bit of confidence.”
For the second match, Australia faced the powerhouse Soviet Union and a single goal by Brad Maloney was enough to get the 1-0 win.
“You go into a tough game and beat the USSR and then of course you’re playing to see if you finish first or second in the last game.”
Australia finished top of the group after beating Egypt 1-0 with Kris Tajanovski’s goal the difference.
They entered the last game in the unfamiliar position as favourites, but the win against the Soviets changed possibilities for the Aussies.
“We knew that we were a chance in the group. But the performances against the Soviet Union was the confirmation of many things.
“Without us really knowing that was the game [that changed the perception of the side] for all of us and for anybody watching the team.”
The Quarter Final
Syria stood between the Aussies and a meeting with Portugal or Brazil. David Seal scored his second of the tournament but the scores were locked at 1-1 and penalties loomed.
“I’d been involved in penalties as a junior but that was something different,” says Okon.
“We knew that getting through the quarters, it meant a trip to Lisbon and potentially against Portugal.
“So after the game, we had a short ride back to the hotel on the bus but I remember it. The bus was shaking we were going ‘Portugal here we come!’”
Australia kept their nerve to win the shootout 5-4 in front of 10,000 spectators. More than ten times that many would watch the semi-final against the home side.
“For us, it really didn’t matter… because whoever we were going to play were going to be favourites,” he said.
“When we found out after the game it was going to be Portugal… I think everybody’s first thoughts were, ‘it’s going to be in front of 120,000 people.’
“You can imagine what we were coming from, playing in Australia. First team football in Australia would have been in front of three to five thousand people…. You’re going from swimming with goldfish to swimming with sharks.”
The Semi Final
The famed Stadium of Light in Lisbon was the stage for Portugal vs Australia.
For the Young Socceroos there was no fear of the opposition or the hostile atmosphere.
“We were fearless,” said Okon.
“We wanted 200-300 thousand, the more the better!
“There was that pure excitement instead of thinking ‘there’s going to be so many people against us.’
“It was the first time I had the feeling you were out on your own on the field yourself because you couldn’t communicate with anyone.
“(there was) Constant whistling, constant noise so that in itself, the whole group did magnificently well.”
A miracle goal from Rui Costa won Portugal the game. The future Fiorentina and A.C Milan superstar rifled a shot from 30 yards to beat Mark Bosnich.
“We were very unlucky,” Okon said.
“It was a 1-0 world-class goal from Rui Costa right on the stroke of halftime.
“We had our chances as well and we didn’t sit back and play the underdog, we went at them.”
Australia had played one of Europe’s most promising sides in their own backyard. They had left them relieved to have won.
The Aussies narrowly missed out on a third-place finish in a rematch with the USSR. However many of them went on to have successful careers in Europe. The first real generation of Aussie players to head overseas in large numbers.
From this generation onward it has become expected of talented young Australians to try their luck overseas.
It is something that Okon (whose resume includes clubs such as Club Bruges, Lazio, Fiorentina and Leeds United) says is getting harder to accomplish.
“If I have to think of one big difference between growing up back then and now it would have to be kids have everything,” he said.
“If you look through Asia and South America at [ages] 14 to 16, already in my mind I’m going to do whatever it takes because I have to feed my family…the meaning becomes different.
“It’s a big shock. How do we create that environment and moments for kids in Australia?
“It’s tough because of where we’re located geographically whereas in Europe kids are playing international football at 15-17.
“They’re already put in that environment. They’re constantly playing because the distances are smaller.”
“Coming through Asia [as U20 Australia Coach] I saw our kids aren’t challenged enough at younger ages…In other countries, they’re developed earlier for those [pressure] moments.”
Paul Okon is a former Belgian player of the year and played with some of the legends of the game. Gabriel Batistuta, Roberto Mancini, Ronaldo, and Alessandro Nesta were just some of those he shared a field with.
“At the time you have no reason to feel overawed as to who you’re up against or play with. Now when you reflect back you think ‘wow it really happened.’,” he said.
“I always felt that, before they actually looked at your ability as a player they judged by your passport. You’re Australian.
“You’re always looked at a bit differently, but you can play football. Once you get past that you always felt really welcomed in teams.
“I look back and that gives me a good feeling as opposed to ‘oh geez I played with him’”
Paul Okon was a star for Australia as he controlled the Socceroos midfield for a generation. But in his household, his youngest son of four seems unaware of his father’s illustrious pedigree.
“My nine-year-old, he loves [Zinedine] Zidane, he watches videos of him. I have a photo of me tackling Zidane and he still thinks I’ve photoshopped myself in.”
“A pretty special moment.”
Looking back on 1991, Okon says many factors contributed to the team’s success.
“One thing that worked in our favour, a lot of us had played junior football with and against each other. There was a real group feeling to it,” he said.
“That’s one of the things with a national team that can become quite powerful is that when you have a group that has played together in younger ages.
“So many things have to come together at the same time. The group dynamic, the preparation, individual talent, luck of the draw, the location.
“I think it was just a great group, well-coached, the mix between the players and the staff was fantastic.”
With regard to his old teammates of 30 years ago, Okon is confident they would remember it as fondly as he.
“I reckon I could put my house on it. That would be pretty close to the best time of their lives. They would look back on it being a pretty special moment.”
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