The Kosmina Files

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When you think about Australia’s greatest football players, names like Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka and Tim Cahill spring to mind, and for obvious reasons.  However, many of our best played in a generation long forgotten by many, some cynics may say with good reason.  I am not of this view.

Many well-intentioned and proud Australians represented their country with honour and gave service to the green and gold for nothing more than the value of the shirt, which they would say was priceless.  Of the many football figures of the past, perhaps no one symbolises the Aussie spirit more than John Kosmina.  Born on 17 August 1956, in Adelaide, his actual given name is Alexander but chooses to go by his middle name.

Kosmina nowadays is somewhat of a polarising figure.  I have been well-documented as stating my belief that he is not the right Coach for Sydney FC, but leaving that aside, there is no disputing his place in the pages of Australian football’s history books.

The 21st century Kosmina may be considered arrogant, brash, combative and a bully.  Examples of this behaviour are not far from people’s minds.  The Kevin Muscat choking incident; his touchline ban for hurling abuse at A-League referee, Matthew Breeze; countless bust-ups with the media, calling people like myself and others who use the internet to debate the game, “lunatics out of the asylum”; regular taunting of opposition coaches most notably ex-team-mate, Frank Farina; the Danny Allsopp encounter; and the list goes on.

But he was no different as a player.  Kosmina was the Socceroos’ talisman, an impressive striker and a true battler.  His presence amongst a group of fighters in the early-mid 80s ensured we had a chance of competing in every match we played.  He was a team-regular under coaches, Jimmy Shoulder, Rudi Gutendorf and Les Scheinflug but undoubtedly reached his peak under the stewardship of Frank Arok.

Perhaps best described by author, Robert Lusetich in the book, Frank Arok: My Beloved Socceroos:

“Arok loved the way Kosmina fought and played hard-ball with ‘wanna-be-tough-guy’ defenders.  Kosmina would not tolerate covertly dirty tactics from defenders and would retaliate, albeit slyly, until they were tired of elbows in their faces.  His thick skin, however, could not detract from his considerable talent as a goal scorer.”

Kosmina started his career with South Australian Division 1 side Adelaide Polonia in 1976; his Polish lineage obviously helped him at that time.  The birth of the National Soccer League (NSL) in 1977 saw a move to West Adelaide for Kosmina, making 23 appearances and scoring 12 goals in the inaugural season, topped-off by winning the Under-21 Player of the Year award.

After a brief stint at Adelaide City and almost forgettable move to English Club, Arsenal, where he made one appearance as a late substitute, Kosmina returned to West Adelaide and in 44 appearances scored a dozen goals.  But, it just wasn’t the same.

In 1981, Kosmina signed with Sydney City.  During this time he enjoyed his greatest success for both Club and country.  For owner, Frank Lowy, Kosmina was seen as the perfect player for one of the league’s founding Clubs.  In his first season, Sydney City won the NSL Championship and backed it up in 1982.  In that year, Kosmina was top scorer with 23 goals.

A three-match friendly series with England in June 1983 saw Kosmina matched-up with the likes of defender, Terry Butcher and goalkeeper, Peter Shilton.  England won one match with draws either side.  In the last match held at Olympic Park in Melbourne, Kosmina, displaying his usual brutish physicality, gave away a penalty for pushing in the box.  At 1-1 his reputation was tested, luckily for him the spot kick which had been slotted-away by Trevor Francis, had to be retaken, Francis skied it over the bar.  A draw was a fair result in the end, but Kosmina could’ve turned into a villain.

When it came to big games, he was battled-hardened.  For the Socceroos, he’s played against some of the best Club teams in the world: Manchester United, Glasgow Rangers and the star-studded Juventus to name but a few.  In the first match of three against the Bianconeri, Kosmina foolishly got into a fight with Antonio Cabrini after he took exception to his harsh challenge on Marshall Soper.

However, for all his ability and the team’s determination, a World Cup qualification birth eluded him.  Kosmina was unable to lead the Socceroos to the Finals after three separate attempts.

His biggest chance came against Scotland in 1985.  An in-form and eager Kosmina, who wore his heart on his sleeve, wanted victory more than ever.  He was a relative newcomer when losses to Iran and Kuwait dumped the Socceroos out of qualification for the 1978 World Cup.  A Trans-Tasman failure against New Zealand in Sydney ended any hopes for him to reach Spain in 1982.

Flying-high on the back of numerous outstanding and symbolic moments in Australian football under Arok, Kosmina wanted a ticket to join the party in Mexico in 1986 and captain the Socceroos in what would’ve been only Australia’s second Finals appearance.

A young Alex Ferguson was in-charge of Scotland.  Two of the best Scottish players ever, Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness were a major threat to the Socceroos on the park.  Souness had played a number of guest matches with West Adelaide in the late 70s and had given Kosmina a glowing reference during his move to Arsenal, but once that whistle blew, friendships ceased.

A 2-0 loss at Hampden Park was too much of a deficit for Kosmina and his team to overturn.  A 0-0 draw in the 2nd leg at Olympic Park would turnout to be Kosmina’s last go at qualifying for the game’s Holy Grail.  He was bitterly disappointed that he couldn’t repay Arok’s faith.  If only he’d scored what looked to be a certain goal in the 76th minute – a header saved at pointblank range by Scotland goalkeeper, Jim Leighton – it might have been different.

Nevertheless, Sydney City could always offer him a home.  In 1986, he lifted his last trophy with the Club, the NSL Cup.  Rather inexplicably, the team that had performed well on the park could not conjure-up enough support.  Author of One Fantastic Goal, Trevor Thompson, sums-up Sydney City:

“Sydney City, supported by the Hakoah Club, had been the best team in the ten years of the league but it had still not attracted a crowd.  They changed their name, pursued a broader football market, found new and better grounds, and above all pursued the highest standards on the park.  But they never captured the imagination of the public.”

The 1987-88 season, marked a significant turning-point in Kosmina’s career.  After scoring 89 goals in 150 appearances for Sydney City, Kosmina moved to Sydney Olympic.  He made 44 appearances and scored 13 goals in what became a one-season stay.

By 1988 Kosmina’s international career was all but over, the armband had been passed to Charlie Yankos and he was left to ponder a playing career full of highs and lows.  Anything other than a rollercoaster ride wouldn’t have seemed fitting for Kosmina.

He participated in the Bicentennial Gold Cup.  Reigning world champions, Argentina; three-time World Cup winners, Brazil; Asian champions, Saudi Arabia; and then Oceania champions, Australia, all took part.  Kosmina only played in one match against Brazil at Olympic Park, which the Socceroos lost.  Young team-mate Paul Wade describes the scene in his book with Kyle Patterson, Captain Socceroo: The Paul Wade Story:

“We played really well that night, but were beaten by the toe of their outstanding young striker, Romario.  He just stuck out a toe and it was in the back of the net, 1-0 Brazil.  The ground was soaking wet, but the Socceroos were very proud of ourselves.”

Kosmina didn’t play in the now historic 4-1 victory over Argentina.  I bet he wishes he did.

On 22 September 1988, Kosmina scored a 76th minute goal against Nigeria during the Seoul Olympics to put Australia through to the Quarter-Finals, where we lost to eventual winners, the Soviet Union.  After 100 appearances and an amazing record of 42 goals, Kosmina left with his head held high, perhaps unfulfilled, but never unappreciated.

The Socceroos’ first World Cup Coach, Rale Rasic was at the helm during a generation of far more ruthless times.  Interestingly, in his book titled, The Rale Rasic Story, he includes only three player’s outside of his 1974 side, in his Best XI of all-time, one of them is Kosmina.  He says:

“Kosmina had a fabulous competitive attitude.  He hated losing – a trait built into him during his days with the all-conquering Sydney City in the National Soccer League.  He was strong and extremely aggressive and it is something he has carried off the field.  John is never afraid to speak his mind.  Just like his playing days, he never takes a step backwards.  He is your typical Aussie bastard.  He fears no one.”

He goes on to say: “As a long-time Socceroos captain, he led by example though I believe that, as a player, he never reached his full potential.”

Kosmina hung-up his scoring boots for the last time in 1990.  A season at APIA Leichhardt the year before, where he made 24 appearances and scored just 6 goals was his last hurrah at the highest level.  He spent his final days in the NSW State League with the Sutherland Sharks, perhaps best forgotten.

Kosmina’s NSL top scoring record of 133 goals from 1977-89 was held until 1998, when Brisbane Strikers’ forward, Rod Brown, beat it by 3 goals.  However, NSL-legend Damian Mori would later smash Brown’s record by 30, starting his career just as Kosmina finished.

Towards the end of his playing career, Kosmina had called for a players’ union.  He was one of the pioneers in advocating players’ rights at a time when conditions were nothing short of appalling.  In April 1993, it finally happened with the formation of the Australian Soccer Players’ Association.  In part, every player today owes some gratitude to Kosmina for having the balls to standup for what he believed in, during a time of corruption and self-interest throughout many Clubs.

It’s the question so many great players ask themselves when they retire: Should I become a Coach?  Many try and fail, too many.  Kosmina decided in favour of that question.  He started his new challenge in-charge of North Sydney’s Super League side, Warringah Dolphins during 1994-95, and then joined NSL side, Newcastle Breakers the next season.

Arok used to say “bulldust” when someone dared to say he couldn’t achieve something.  Kosmina’s ethos was (and still is) no different; his dogged will to win still drives him.  Having said that, his stint as Coach of Newcastle was largely unsuccessful, and he was fired in 1998.

As one of the greats of Australian football, Kosmina was inducted into the code’s Hall of Champions in 1999.  This mark of appreciation was a fitting reward for always putting his country first.

In the same year, Kosmina took-up the coaching post at Brisbane.  He lasted until 2003 when again he was let go for underachieving and a run of mixed results.

The NSL was undergoing major surgery in 2003; in fact its life-support was about to be turned-off as reform was on its way.  Lowy, Kosmina’s former employer and long-time friend had made a comeback to his beloved game in an attempt to implement a rescue plan starting with the restructure of the national league competition.  Kosmina had returned home to join Adelaide United, a Club seen as one of only a few in the NSL that would survive to play in the new revolution.

During 2005, the new-look national competition we all now know as the Hyundai A-League featured Kosmina as the Coach of Adelaide; a somewhat already familiar team took Season 1 by storm.  Kosmina, just like in his playing days at Sydney City, got his hands on the trophy for first-past-the-post, lifting the 2006 Premiers Plate.  However, Adelaide fell to Sydney in the Semi-Finals; Kosmina was visibly shattered but ready to fight-on.

In the off-season of 2006, Australia was a nation gripped with football fever.  A successful inaugural A-League season and the Socceroos about to embark on their first World Cup since 1974 made for a very exciting life as a football fan.

Kosmina had waited many long years for this moment.  He’d given his own blood, sweat and maybe a few unseen tears along the way.  The passion for the game in this country was at an all-time high.  That historic night in November 2005, when the whole nation watched-on as John Aloisi’s penalty kick in the shootout with Uruguay, sent us all to Germany, all of us.

SBS broadcaster and confessed football tragic, Les Murray, remembers Kosmina’s reaction and mentions it clearly in his memoirs, By the Balls, Murray writes:

“Kosmina, as tough and macho as the trunk of an oak tree and not known for his sentimentality, was collected and reserved.  But I heard from a witness that, after Aloisi’s kick went in, tears had streamed down his face.  Football is a strange thing, and it does strange things to the strongest of men.”

We all know how the 2006 World Cup ended, but its significance for the game’s growth back home was unquantifiable.

Back to business in Season 2 and Kosmina was still enjoying a run of good fortune.  Statistically, he was by far and away the league’s best Coach.  In creeps the old cliché, history repeats itself.  Kosmina and Adelaide choked in the Grand Final.  He had abused the referee after his side’s penalty shootout win over the unlucky Newcastle Jets in the Preliminary Final and copped a five-match touchline ban.

His Adelaide team was then humiliated 6-0 by Melbourne Victory in the Grand Final, striker Archie Thompson scored an unprecedented 5 goals.  To add further insult to the heavy capitulation, Captain Ross Aloisi was sent-off in disgrace.  Kosmina’s behaviour had become tiresome for the board at Adelaide and they eventually gave him the boot.  His efforts did however, ensure Adelaide’s qualification to the Asian Champions League; establish a base for future growth; and mentor his assistant, Aurelio Vidmar, who of course has been a revelation.

Unemployed and admittedly annoying his Mrs, Kosmina was quietly hoping his old ally, Mr Lowy, would be on the blower to give him the job at Sydney.  After a tumultuous nine matches to start the 2007-08 season; Sydney’s third Coach in three years, Branko Culina, was sacked paving the way for Kosmina to unashamedly reunite with the old Sydney City boys.

On 24 October 2007, Kosmina was officially unveiled as Sydney’s new Coach.  Some may have considered his status in the game and track-record with Adelaide to be a positive, and perhaps, correct move for the embattled Sydney Club.  In reality, it was just old soccer.  The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the saying goes.

There is no doubt that he reinvigorated the team with his hardnosed tactics.  Sydney played some decent football on their march to the Finals, but fell embarrassingly short to an up-and-coming Queensland Roar last season.  To be fair, it wasn’t his team.  The expectations were, however, that in the off-season he would buy new players and “lead” the Club back to the top.

Kosmina thrives on pressure; he enjoys the challenge and the spotlight.  He confirmed the signings of star trio, Aloisi, Mark Bridge and Simon Colosimo.  Sydney dished-out an amazing $1.4 million to sign Aloisi – their new marquee – the promises kept-on mounting.  Lifting the silver toilet seat was surely a guarantee this season.  All that was left was to play some football.  The fans couldn’t wait.

Alas, all great stories end in tragedy.  Kosmina’s demons just won’t leave him alone, maybe his barefaced arrogance can not and will not ever detract the bad karma that seems to follow him.  What went wrong for him this season?  Injuries to key players, a frail defence, a lack of width in attack, a war with Aloisi over his indifferent form, and of course, his relationship with the fickle Sydney fan-base, all conspired against him.  Just don’t question his coaching ability.

Meanwhile, Lowy sold out of Sydney, handing the wheel to Russian businessman, David Traktovenko and Paul Ramsay.  Lowy’s chief crony and incumbent Sydney Chairman, Andrew Kemeny, who has been with him since his Sydney City days, has also quit the Sky Blues.  Kosmina has now lost two important lifelines; he’s got one left, barely: performance on the park.

The question is will the new owners give him another go?  Sydney’s place on the ladder this season tells the story.  An impressive showing on Sunday against a juvenile Newcastle, perhaps the only team to have underachieved more than Sydney, may have eased the tension out at Moore Park.  But, let’s be honest, winning was never going to be difficult.

Last week, Kosmina extraordinarily admitted he’d made mistakes this season.  A little more humility wouldn’t hurt in the future, if he still has one.  Speaking to Sydney fans, their major gripe with Kosmina this season was his amusement at his team’s predicament, he appeared smug.  In numerous post-match interviews, Kosmina used every excuse in the book, and sadly blamed his players on far too many occasions.  If not for a few adrenalin-charged performances from National Youth League players and State League recruits, Sydney might have been in the running for the wooden spoon.

It appears Sydney’s culture is about to change, it has to, this season has been a complete disaster.  The Club’s off-field dramas have been almost impossible to hide, Sydney are not united.  But, does Sydney still have a place for Kosmina?  The team has been far from cohesive since his arrival, he’d tell you otherwise.

However, the man is a media-gift, an outspoken and controversial character, who just so happens to be a dead-ringer for Gordon Shumway aka ALF, everybody’s favourite furry alien.  Find him a stray cat to chase, please.

Lighthearted insults aside, whether it is in-charge of Sydney, working in the media or as a celebrity superstar, Kosmina is ready to go the distance.  He was born ready!  Love him or hate him, he’ll fight anyone to the death.  The more he fails, the more pumped he is to prove everyone wrong.  One thing’s for certain, there’s more to come from one of Australian sport’s biggest larrikins.  Kosmina often quotes German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche: “What does not kill me, makes me stronger.”  Words he lives by.

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