Ange Postecoglou owes a lot to the world game. It brought him the tight-knit circle of friends he’s had since he coached and captained the year 7 soccer team at Prahran High School. Soccer gave him the confidence to resign from a humdrum nine-to-five banking job, and it’s also how he met his wife, Georgia, in 2000. He was coaching South Melbourne and Georgia was the club’s newly appointed marketing manager.
But the game’s influence on Ange’s life and identity doesn’t end there. Since he migrated to Melbourne from Athens as a five year old, soccer has been a glue that has held him close to his parents, particularly his father.
Soccer clubs and match days were social hubs for migrants craving a taste of the homeland they’d left behind. It was no different for Ange’s father, Jim. After a hard week working as a carpenter and cabinetmaker, Jim went to South Melbourne Hellas, where he met new friends and could pretend, for a moment, he was back in Greece. Sharing those moments, Ange revelled in his father’s company.
“Dad introduced me to soccer and I wanted to be close to him. It was the only time I saw him relax,” Ange says. “I started to play footy and got into cricket, but my father wanted to make sure his son didn’t lose the values of the past. We were in an unknown country and he didn’t want me to go into an unknown sport that he didn’t understand. So I became obsessed with football because it gave me a connection to my father.”
That connection is still a major driver for Ange as he has progressed from high school coach to playing senior soccer and then to coaching at national and international level.
“We always talk about migrants coming here for a better life but I’m sure my parents did not have a better life. Things would have been hard for them in Greece but at least they would have been surrounded by family and friends. They came here to give my sister and me the opportunity of a better life,” he says.
“That’s a torch I still carry. I want to make sure I achieve what mum and dad fought for, so hopefully they get some satisfaction out of that. Dad is old school. He didn’t hug me and tell me he loved me every night and he’s still a hard taskmaster today.”
Ange laughs when he recalls returning home to Melbourne from Sydney after leading the Socceroos to victory in the 2015 Asian Cup. The final was a hard-fought contest between South Korea and Australia with the home side winning its first Asian Cup in extra time.
“I came home and showed dad the medal and cup and he said, ‘Well done son – but if you’d made a substitution you would have done it in full time’. It annoys the sh-t out of me,” Ange says.
“Mind you, mum says when I’m not around he watches tapes of my games and says how proud he is, but I’ve always felt I was never good enough. That drives me – to have dad one day say, ‘You’ve done OK’. But I almost think I don’t want him to say it so I can maintain that drive to prove myself to him.”
Ange’s playing career ran to 193 senior games for South Melbourne between 1984 and 1993. But it is as a coach that he is most comfortable and confident.
“Playing was always a bit of a struggle. I was aware of my limitations and that allows fear to creep in on the field. I was captain at quite a young age, and I was confident talking about the game, but I had a nervousness about my ability. I never really believed I was a top-class player,” he says frankly.
“I’ve never had that lack of confidence as a coach – it’s not arrogance but just a natural belief in what I do, plus you see progress in certain areas and understand you’ve put the pillars in place to get there and that gives you self-belief. The players and staff know I really believe in the way I coach and lead teams. They understand I am not going to walk away and that gives them the courage to go down that road with me.”
The strategic thinking that is an essential part of the game has fascinated Ange since he was a young kid waiting outside the local newsagency for the latest delivery of British soccer magazines such as Shoot. He’d spend months poring over the pages and he still has those yellowing magazines at home.
From the start, he has been an unflinching coach ready to speak his mind. He describes himself as someone who likes to shake things up, rather than coach with an eye on holding on to his job.
“It’s liberating when you can do your job without worrying if it will end tomorrow. I’ve never worried about contracts or if my job was in jeopardy,” he says. “Probably the one time in my career where I veered away from that is the only time I’ve left feeling unsatisfied and unsuccessful.”
Ange is referring to his departure from coaching the national youth team in 2007. He won the role in 2000 after moving from his position as South Melbourne coach. But he was replaced after Australia failed to qualify for the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup. It still irks him.
“I started doing what I thought people wanted me to do and trying to fit in with the overall agenda. That doesn’t mean I would have been any more successful but I probably wouldn’t have left with the regrets I did,” he says ruefully.
Ange then worked with Fox Sports as a commentator and with Football Federation Victoria before spending most of 2008 in Greece coaching then-third division club Panachaiki. The following year he returned to Australia to coach Brisbane Roar, where he became the first coach to win back-to-back A-League championships. His stint included a 36-match unbeaten run, which remains a record across all codes of football in Australia. In April 2012, he returned home to Melbourne to coach Melbourne Victory.
On October 23, 2013, he was given the country’s most high-profile football role when he became head coach of the Socceroos. Ange was quick to get stuck into the job, taking the team to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the 2015 Asian Cup and now working through the process of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
“My own ambitions are beyond just qualifying – that’s not satisfying enough. I want us to go to a World Cup and make an impact,” he says. “I’ve stated my ambition is to win a World Cup. It’s a challenge but when you say that is your goal I think you are more likely to be appreciated for your efforts.”
Ange is also determined to raise the profile of soccer in a country steeped in Australian football, cricket and rugby. “Without sounding arrogant, we are good at the game, we’ve matured as a nation, we are great at every other sport and there is no reason why we can’t be great at this one. We just need to state that ambition and not hide in the shadows,” he says.
“To say you love this game in this country is not always the easiest thing to do and maybe that’s contributed to the steeliness in my character. You’re almost preparing yourself for a fight,” he says laughing.
But he says a bottleneck in the game means Australia is losing the potential talent fostered at grassroots clubs across the country. “We’re giving kids the opportunity to play and we’re selling dreams about becoming a professional footballer but we only have 10 professional teams in our competition. If you grow up in Europe or South America, there are multiple avenues to get to the top. Here those avenues are very narrow and some great kids are walking away from the sport.”
Ange’s commitment to the game that helped him ease into life beyond Athens is clear and he’s made plenty of sacrifices. Time away from Georgia and his three sons, James, 17, Max, two, and seven-month-old Alexi, are the biggest personal wrench.
“My wife and I love going to the movies for our switch-off time and we love travelling back to Greece when we can. I also enjoy watching a game without being a coach. I can watch Liverpool play a game on TV and get as frustrated as any other supporter.
“I missed a huge chunk of James’ growing up and I’m missing chunks of the two young ones growing up – I think that’s harder for me than for the boys. My father was working all the time and there weren’t many hugs and I overcompensate that with my kids. I worry that I am bringing them up too soft,” he says with a smile.
James has taken up the game but Ange is careful to keep a low profile when his son plays – he usually hides in a remote corner of the field.
“I’ve taken James into the dressing rooms at games when I am working and he understands what I do. He sees it’s a great job, but he sees the pressures.”
Ange copes with those pressures and making the hard decisions that come with the national head coach role by keeping players at a respectful distance. While he’s empathetic, he maintains a professional remoteness.
“People know that’s my personality so at any time if I say, ‘Let’s go for a coffee’ to a player or staff member they say ‘What’s going on, Ange?’. But I make tough decisions on a daily basis, so I need that barrier,” he says.
That barrier means he’s not the greatest travel companion. He’s hears the stories of his players and staff trying to switch boarding passes when they realise they’ve drawn the seat next to the head coach. “Nobody wants to sit next to me because I don’t speak. A couple of times I’ve chuckled when young players are oblivious to how I am and start chatting to me and I shut that down pretty quickly. Eventually they realise it’s not personal.
But I’m not that serious at home. I’m softer when I’m relaxed, like my father. When he was with his friends and family, he was the life of the party, and that’s me. I enjoy being around people who are close to me, telling the stories and cracking the jokes. If the players saw me then, they’d do a double take.”
The focus now is on Russia and the 2018 World Cup, but what does the game hold for Ange beyond that? He’s never been one to plan too far ahead but says his next role will be overseas.
“I want to coach abroad as an Australian. If I can go to Europe and have some success then people will say, ‘Well, hold on, maybe the Aussies do know something about the game’. That’s the next step for me.”