One of the great things about sport is the discussion and passionate debate it can elicit between people from every background. In particular, the discussion of “greatest” fills social media, forums, and bars on a daily if not hourly basis. Whether it is the greatest overall player, or greatest midfielder, or greatest goal scorer, everyone has an opinion and an argument to back it up.
For me when it comes to the greatest striker in Australian history, the debate doesn’t seem close, it is Mark Viduka. Australian football has seen many fantatsic talents in the domestic league and quite a few went abroad and carved out very respectable careers but there’s only one V-Bomber. Wherever he went, he scored.
However, often the stat that even creates a debate is the national team record. Viduka played 43 A internationals over 13 years for Australia but only managed 11 goals from those games. He made his debut in 1994 as an 18 year old when South Africa toured Australia for two match series. Australia won both games but the young striker did not score despite his lethal finishing in the 1993/94 NSL season when he scored 18 in 22 games.
He wouldn’t play again for Australia until 1997, despite the Socceroos playing 19 times and Viduka still scoring for fun at club level. By the time he came back into the team against Macedonia, the Socceroos had played a further three games in ’97 meaning that Viduka had sat out the last 22 international games.
This year though was his most active for Australia when he played 10 of the possible 19 games. He played in away victories over Macedonia, Hungary, Tunisia and wins in neutral territory over Mexico and Uruguay. Losses came away to Saudia Arabia and Brazil in a neutral venue when he was sent off in the 24th minute of the Confederations Cup Final. The infamous draws against Iran and the draw against Brazil also were part of his 1997 with Australia. He scored a brace against Tunisia and one against Mexico.
In 1998, Viduka played in 2 of the 9 Australian games. A big loss to Croatia away and an away draw against the United States. The Socceroos and Viduka went scoreless in these two fixtures.
There were no A internationals scheduled in 1999 but Australia did play some exhibition games against the Olyroos, Manchester United, a World XI and the Brazil Olympic team.
Viduka’s name was now starting to gain recognition after his exploits in Europe with Dinamo Zagreb and two breakout seasons with Glasgow Celtic which earnt him a move to the English Premier League with Leeds United. Australia would play 15 games in 2000 of which Viduka would play 2 away games against Hungary for a win and Czech Republic in a loss. He wouldn’t get on the scoresheet in either match but the Socceroos would score 4 goals over both games.
Another World Cup qualification was underway in 2001, Viduka had taken the Premier League by storm and Australia played a further 15 games. The Leeds striker took part in the home draw against France, the home win against Uruguay, and the away loss to Uruguay but did not score.
The following year was a quiet one for Australia, only playing 5 games in total and Viduka didn’t feature in any of them.
Only 3 games in 2003 as the game was undertaking a massive change and upheaval. Viduka played in the three away games against England (win), Ireland (loss) and Jamaica (win), grabbing a consolation goal against Ireland.
2004 saw Australia increase their workload to 12 games but Viduka only took part in two of them. Both games were at neutral venues against South Africa (win) and Norway (draw) but the Aussie didn’t find the target in either match.
Australia was in another World Cup qualifying campaign and played a further 12 games in 2005. Viduka played in 7 of the games scoring 3 goals. The games were as a late sub in the Confederation Cup loss against Argentina, the Confederation Cup loss to Tunisia where he was substituted at half time, the home and away wins against Solomon Islands, the win at a neutral venue versus Jamaica, and the unforgettable loss and win in the series against Uruguay.
Australia had qualified for their first World Cup since 1974 so in 2006, they played 13 games including the four at the World Cup. Viduka took part in 6 of the games but did not score in any of them. They included a home win against Greece, an away draw against the Netherlands and the World Cup games on neutral grounds against Japan, Brazil, Croatia, and Italy.
The following year would be Australia’s first Asian Cup in Thailand and Viduka’s final appearances for Australia before retiring from international duty at 31 years of age. In this year he would play 6 games all against Asian opposition while scoring 5 goals. Away wins against China, Singapore and Thailand, a draw on neutral territory against Oman, a loss to Iraq on a neutral ground and a loss to Japan on penalties on a neutral ground.
Viduka maybe didn’t rack up the goals for Australia that you’d imagine a player of his ability should but he was as crucial to his team as any player has been. His biggest assets were the ability to be a facilitator to his teammates whether holding the ball up, creating space, or playing guys in with his trademark flicks and backheels.
One needs to just look at the tape and see that when Viduka played for Australia, he was often double-teamed and always took the opposition’s best defender out of play opening up chances for his teammates in open play or at set pieces. He played his role to perfection for the national team which is why they only lost 13 games out of the 43 he played in.
So sporadic were his appearances though over the years that the team was never designed around him. He often came in as the luxury player yet rarely had time to build a partnership or understanding that would’ve developed if he had played in more of the 140 internationals that took place while he was an active player. His side’s were also stacked with talented individuals who could win games and goals would come from everywhere on the pitch.
He didn’t pad his stats by taking on minnows having only played twice against Oceania teams and only really playing against smaller Asian nations at the end of his career after we joined Asia. The only negative record Australia has when Viduka played was against South American opposition where we won 3 (Uruguay 3 times), drew 1 (Brazil) and lost 5 (Argentina once, Brazil twice and Uruguay twice). Against every other confederation we won more than we lost when Viduka played including wins against Mexico, England and Greece.
He played without home court advantage too. Only 6 of his appearances for Australia’s senior team in A internationals were at home. Many were at neutral venues in tournaments like the World Cup, Confederations Cup, and Asian Cup.
To judge Mark Viduka’s national team career by the goals scored column would do a huge disservice to our greatest ever striker. Viduka could do it all and he proved that with his club teams in Europe and England against the biggest teams in the world and the fiercest defenders. His role for Australia was different than at his clubs and his appearances limited but when he played for Australia, make no mistake his presence lifted the team and the hopes of the fans every time. Without doubt Mark Viduka in any era would always be the first choice striker for Australia.