Australia’s U23 team (often referred to as the Olyroos, a variation of the senior team’s title “Socceroos”) has had mixed fortunes at the Olympic Games since the U23 format was introduced for the Barcelona games in 1992.
Prior to Barcelona, Australia had only fielded two teams, one in the Melbourne Games in 1956 (where the team made the quarter finals) and again in Seoul in 1988 (where Australia made the semi-finals and finished fourth). Representing the Oceania Federation, Australia were eliminated at the group stage for Atlanta (1996 – won one game), failed to win a game at all in front of home crowds at Sydney (2000) and was knocked out by Iraq in the quarter-finals at Athens (2004).
Beijing “Group of Death”
Australia is playing as part of the Asian Federation at an Olympic Games for the first time. The draw has not been kind to the Asian newcomers. The other teams in Group A are Serbia (2007 UEFA U21 runners-up), Argentina (2007 South American Youth Championships runners-up) and Cote d’Ivoire (comprehensive winners in its qualifying group at the 2008 African Federation’s qualifying tournament), all strong teams with powerful squads.
Reserve keeper for English Premier League side Reading, Federici’s chance at Olympic glory comes at the expense of Danny Vukovic who was sent off in the 2007-08 A-League Grand Final for striking a referee. A former U20 Young Socceroo, he is uncapped at senior level.
Velaphi is the reserve keeper for A-League side Perth Glory. Although he’s played for the Olyroos a handful of times he’s likely to play second-fiddle to the older and more experienced Federici. Velaphi is a handy young prospect who will only get better with age.
Zadkovich plays on the right, often as defender but also sometimes in the midfield. He recently left A-League club Sydney FC to sign with Championship side Derby (freshly relegated from the EPL). Olympics duty means that he will miss preseason training and at least the first two games. Zadkovich is something of a veteran at the U23 level with nearly 20 caps to his credit which underline his skill and experience (although a vocal minority of Sydney FC fans have been critical of his contribution during the 2007-08 A-League season).
A central defender, North is one of Australia’s 3 nominated overage players. He has played for several A-League clubs and currently plies his trade with the Newcastle United Jets. North is very experienced at the international level, moving up through the U17 and U20 squads and was part of the 2004 Olyroos team that was eliminated in the quarter finals at Athens. He became Australia’s first-ever Aboriginal captain of the Socceroos for a 2008 World Cup qualifier against Singapore.
Another central defender, Leijer signed for EPL team Fulham in 2007 (from A-League side Melbourne Victory) and he has played consistently in the reserves. A solid player with a lot of potential, a good campaign in Beijing could see him break through into the first team squad and his first real taste of Premier League action. One to watch.
Mark Milligan (c)
Milligan is the captain of the Olyroo squad. He is a controversial figure in Australian football who trialled overseas in the 2007 off-season without the permission of his club, Sydney FC. Unable to secure a contract, he returned to play the 2007-08 season. A strong central defender, he has been repeatedly linked with high profile teams Arsenal and Lens. Milligan has been capped at the U23 and senior level and was part of Australia’s 2006 World Cup team (although he didn’t play during the tournament). While Australian football fans either love him or hate him, no one can deny that he will play a crucial role in Australia’s Olympics campaign.
Another right side defender, McClenahan is currently unattached. He most recently played several seasons for newly promoted League One team Hereford United. Rumoured to be returning to Australia to play in the A-League, McClenahan will be hoping for a big tournament to raise his profile.
Spiranovic is centre back in the squad of newly relegated 2 Bundesliga team FC Nuremburg. Eligible to play for either Australia, England or Croatia due to his parents’ heritage, he eventually elected to play for Australia. Spiranovic has come up through Australia’s youth representative sides. Measuring in at well over 6 foot, Spiranovic’s height will work to Australia’s advantage in the backline.
“Top” plays for A-League side Perth Glory and was named “Most Glorious Player” for the 2007/08 season. Topor-Stanley is the only specialist left back in the squad. Another defender over 6 foot, he has also played for the Socceroos. He is an up-and-comer with a lot of potential. A good campaign in Beijing will see Topor-Stanley go places and fast.
A central midfielder who signed with Sydney FC in the off-season, Musialik has made a handful of appearances at the U20 and U23 levels for Australia.
Playing on the left, Carney is one of the three overage players in the Olyroo squad. He returned to England with Championship side Sheffield United after two seasons with Sydney FC. Capped at the U20 and senior level, his performances with Sheffield and the Socceroos have reportedly sparked interest from a range of first and second tier clubs across Europe. Another one to watch.
An attacking midfielder with Adelaide United, Sarkies is on the comeback trail after recovering from a bout of deep vein thrombosis in his arm which put him out of action for several months at the start of the year. A representative of Australia at all youth levels, he was part of the training squad for the 2006 World Cup. Sarkies is strong on set pieces and is dangerous with his free kicks near the box.
Troisi is a handy and skillful player who is a valuable asset down the left hand side. Released by EPL club Newcastle at the end of the 2007/08 season, he will be looking for a big tournament to raise his profile amongst European recruiters.
A centre midfielder with League One side Leeds United, Kilkenny has been impressive in England’s lower leagues for several seasons. Although not very experienced at international level, Kilkenny is one of Australia’s best young talents.
Celeski has been in and out of the A-League over the last few seasons and signed with Melbourne Victory in the off-season. He has international experience at the U20 level. Although unlikely to play a major role at the Olympics, it should be a good development opportunity for this central midfielder.
A home grown striker, Bridge moved from Newcastle Jets to Sydney FC in the off-season. He has represented Australia from U20 through to the Socceroos. He has not been a prolific scorer at club level and has yet to really make his mark as an U23 rep player.
Australia’s third overage player, Thompson was a surprise selection as he had only recently returned from a long-term knee injury. While Thompson has been a prolific scorer at club level for Melbourne Victory and holds the record for most goals scored in an international game (13 against minnows American Samoa in a World Cup qualifier), Thompson has not had much success internationally against high quality opposition. At 29 years of age, he is the oldest player in the squad by 4 years.
Rukavytsya moved to Australia from Ukraine when he was 14 and is a product of the local development system. Currently playing for Perth Glory, he has made a number of appearances at U23 level. He is most likely in the squad as a development opportunity with an eye to bolstering the striking stocks of the senior team in the coming years.
Goalkeeper with the Liverpool reserves squad, Bouzanis is rated by Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez as the best U19 keeper in the world. Bouzanis is in the middle of a tug-of-war between Australia and Greece as both countries try to secure his allegiance. He recently represented Greece in the European U19 tournament. However, under FIFA regulations he is not yet tied to either nation.
Many Australian football fans saw the Olympics as the perfect opportunity to select Bouzanis and demonstrate Australia’s commitment to providing him with a clear path for further career development. The fear is that his non-selection for the Olympics could see him follow the path of other expatriate Australian players now representing other countries like Josip Simunic, Ante Seric and Joey Didulica, who all play for Croatia despite being Australian-born and products of the Australian football system.
After a promising start as a teenager with A-League side Adelaide United, Burns signed with Greek Super League side AEK Athens where he will train and play alongside Brazilian great Rivaldo. Despite strong performances in the U23 squad and playing a substantial role in the Olympic qualifiers, Burns was left out of the squad because, at the age of 20, he was adjudged “too young” by Olyroos coach Graham Arnold.
Born in the United States and raised in Australia, Djite was eligible to play for four countries due to his birthplace and heritage (his father is from Cote d’Ivoire and his mother from Togo) before choosing to play for Australia. He played alongside Nathan Burns at Adelaide United and signed with Turkish Super League team Genclerbirligi. Seasoned at the U20 and U23 level for Australia, as well as being capped 4 times for the Socceroos, Djite was curiously left out of the Olympic team alongside Nathan Burns for being “too young” at 21 years of age.
Returning to form after a horror stretch of injuries during his 5 year term at Liverpool, Kewell was rumoured to be Australia’s key overage player for the tournament.
He withdrew himself from the selection process at the last minute after signing with Turkish side Galatasary, citing commitments with his new club.