Former Socceroos forward and PFA Life Member David Zdrilic goes 1v1 with the PFA to discuss his career abroad and at home, why his time on the PFA Executive meant so much to him and why the players’ association must continue to drive the game’s progress.

Q. In 1993 you made your debut for Sydney United in the old NSL. What was it like to be a young player in the NSL?  

DZ: Back then it was dominated by ethnic ties, and that was the culture and history of football and a lot of the players were from regions such as Croatia, Italy, Greece and other parts of Europe. There are a lot of differences between the A-League and NSL, football has advanced a lot tactically since then and the fitness levels have increased a lot. Back in the NSL you had some great talents from all over the world and it was a very strong league and it was great to play in.


Q. 1993, the year you made your debut was also the year the PFA was founded what was your first involvement with the PFA?

DZ: The contact with the players back then was limited because there wasn’t the access to all the different avenues to get in touch like the players have now. Obviously it was just the beginning then for the PFA and you still had to deal with a lot of issues yourself.


Q. How difficult was it for players to deal with issues that came up without the PFA being at the level it is now?

DZ: It was a nightmare, I had many issues when I was overseas. These varied from contract disputes to agent disputes, which were really tough. It can be very difficult for a player on your own, I had some tough times at Unterhaching, the coach was killing me, he wouldn’t play me and he wouldn’t let me leave. I have been through the tough times and to have been able to call the PFA and get them to sort out the problems would have made life much easier.


Q. In 1997 you earned your first Socceroos cap, how much did this mean for you?

DZ: I was studying law and I didn’t really think I was going to have any sort of career in football. My Dad pushed me through school and that was my priority but I always wanted to be a footballer. When I started playing at Sydney United, things just got better and better year after year and that fourth year was when I was the leading goal scorer and I got called up by Terry Venables. That was quite incredible as six months earlier I hadn’t even been selected for the Olyroos.


Q. In that same year the Socceroos players made a stand that played a key role in securing the first Socceroos Collective Bargaining Agreement. You weren’t part of that particular squad but had you been involved in the discussions leading up to that?

DZ: At one game in Melbourne early on I was involved in a couple of meetings with the PFA, prior to the players taking the stand later in the year. There was talk of not playing then and it wasn’t easy, I was a young guy and a fringe player and I was worried I might be discarded but the bigger cause was fighting for the group. We had some very strong characters and we knew we had to stay together and it just showed the strength and mentality of the playing group.


Q. How important do you think that moment was in the history of the Australian football?

DZ: I don’t think people quite understand how important that moment was for the game. I just told you a personal account but every player had an individual story. They were going to a major tournament and were prepared not to play in it to better the rights of the current group but more for the future of the game. None of what the players have now would have been possible without that and many other interventions. That stand set the precedent that players would not accept excuses anymore. Many of those players are Life Members of the PFA and I hope the current generation understand what it took to get to this point.


Q. 1997 also saw you move to Europe after joining Swiss side FC Aarau , was this a dream come true?

DZ: As I said earlier I was studying law and I was planning for a career in that and then I had a trial out of the blue at Sydney United and I was surprised they even let me trial. It went really well and year after year things just kept improving. It all happened really quickly and I hadn’t prepared to be a footballer. You look at my generation and the likes of Mark Viduka, Tony Popovic and Zeljko Kalac and they were breed to be footballers and I was studying law, my whole life changed in four years.

Going overseas it was probably better that it all happened very quickly and I never had a chance to think about things too much. It was very different back then, Australian players were not very highly regarded or respected so it was very hard, where now doors are open. I went to a small town in Switzerland and that made it a bit tougher as I wasn’t in a big city and it was a very different lifestyle.


Q. It would mark the start of over 10 years abroad, what were some of the highlights and difficult periods?  

DZ: When I went to Switzerland it was really tough. The first two months was like a holiday as we were in camp all the time and then the reality set in. I was on my own, trying to learn a new language and doing all the cooking and cleaning. English was not their second language, where I was they spoke German and not many people spoke English. After that I went to Germany and things went really well with Ulm. We got promoted for the first time ever and there were incredible scenes.

I scored six goals in 13 games in my second season with the club in the Bundesliga and I got a move to Unterhaching and that was really tough from day one. The coach made life very difficult, I could honestly write a book about my time at the club it was a disaster and the only thing that kept me sane was being called up for the National Team. A real highlight was going to Hampden Park and Dukes (Mark Viduka) was injured so I started and I scored and it was such a great feeling of validation as the coach kept trying to stop me from being called for the Socceroos.


Q. In 2005 you made the decision to return to Australia and joined Sydney FC for the inaugural season of the A-League. Was this a tough decision to make?

DZ: There was some caution as we had heard it all before. At the time I was in Germany and I wasn’t really enjoying it and I thought it was a great opportunity to come back and I had faith in what I was being told. The first six months in building the club was awesome, obviously on the pitch my time at the club was not what I had hoped for, but we had so many great experiences. I have very fond memories of my time at the club.


Q. In 2009 you were awarded PFA Life Membership by the players. Did this mean a lot to you?

DZ: Because of what had happened to me overseas it really struck home to me the importance of the PFA. I was involved on the PFA Executive Committee for many years and I just knew how important it was to be involved and to be hands on. By being on the board with Brendan Schwab at the head, who was absolutely brilliant, it was a fantastic experience. It was really nice to have that recognised, when I was given Life Membership, it was not something you ever expect you are just doing it for the game.


Q. How much did you enjoy being on the PFA Executive Committee?

DZ: Hugely, there was a time when I finished playing when I thought I may have had a long term role in the PFA. I was Player Relations Officer for a time and that could have been an even greater role with me moving down to Melbourne. I loved the chance to be involved in shaping the game, that was important and is still really important to me.


Q. Finally, there was has been a lot of discussion regarding the future of the game here, what role do you see for the PFA in ensuring a bright future for the game?

DZ: I think the PFA plays a major role in shaping the future of our game. A lot of the vision and plans that have got us to now have been brought up by the PFA. The PFA is not just about the players it is about the whole of the game and making sure we keep advancing. You can see what is happening all around the world and we have an amazing opportunity you can just see how much the A-League has grown, the performances of both National Teams and I think there is a long way to go before we realise the game’s potential. There is so much more to do.


Each week the PFA will go 1v1 with a current or former player to gain an insight into the lives of footballers on and off the pitch.