The case study of Ange Postecoglou is a testament to the amplifying power of culture on football success. 

By John Didulica, PFA Chief Executive

In my mind, the story of Ferenc Puskas is the greatest story in the history of football.

In Europe post-World War II, there was no greater team than the Mighty Magyars – the Hungarian National Team – and their greatest player was Ferenc Puskas, the Galloping Major.

Weaving a tapestry of tactical and technical genius on the football fields of Europe, their dominance would coalesce in an Olympic Gold Medal in 1952 and in the Match of the Century in 1953, when they travelled to Wembley to face England, a team that had heretofore refused to compete at the World Cup.

In a performance that shifted the axis of football forevermore, Hungary demolished England 6-3 in front of 105,012 disbelieving English. In a pique of impulsive hubris, the English demanded a rematch. They were promptly humbled 7-1 in Budapest, with Puskas at the double.

A limping Puskas would inexplicably lose the 1954 World Cup after having hobbled throughout the tournament and the (iron) curtain would ultimately be drawn on his career as a Hungarian footballer in mid-1950s by the Hungarian Revolution and subsequent invasion by the Soviet Union.

Refusing to return to Hungary, Puskas was – as a footballer – clubless and stateless; yet FIFA refused to sanction a move elsewhere. At the age of 29, it appeared that world football would never again see his famous and fearsome left foot.

After two years of inactivity, and now into his thirties, Puskas was by all popular assessment a force no more when he was finally allowed to return to football with Real Madrid in 1958.

Five European Cup trophies later, including a seminal performance in the most famous Europe Cup final in history, the 7-3 defeat of Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park in 1960, would cement Puskas as an eternal figure in the history of world football.

He was the central figure in teams that would build the mythology and cannon of world football and he takes his place alongside Pele, Cruyff and Maradona on football’s Mount Rushmore.

Thirty years ago as a journeyman coach, a little tubby around the waist, he came to Australia to coach South Melbourne in the National Soccer League, where he would coach for three years and win four trophies.

In his South Melbourne team, among many others who would go on to become luminaries within Australian football, was Ange Postecoglou. In speaking to Joe Gorman at The Guardian, Postecoglou himself spoke about the influence of Puskas:

“I was only a young player but I ended up being captain of the club,” explains Postecoglou. 

“When Puskas came he didn’t speak a lot of English but his Greek was OK, so he’d go through me a lot of the time as an intermediary with a lot of the boys.

“I’d often pick him up from his house and drive him to the ground. I spent a lot of time chatting about football with him – people talk a lot about me being an attacking coach and I think that was where the seed was sown. I loved it. He was so much more open than the previous coaches who were so regimented and structured.

“He was so humble that you’d quickly forget that he was once one of the world’s best players. He had no tickets on himself at all. The biggest lessons I learned in life were from those days.”

Puskas may or may not have been a coach of any repute, but that is broadly irrelevant. The richness in his story provides a depth and texture that cannot help but cultivate an emotion connection to football and its power, particularly among a cadre of impressionable young Aussies.

In the PFA’s recently released study on the Golden Generation, “Culture Amplifies Talent”, the singular observation was that those players who reached the summit of world football had built an emotional connection to our game. 

At points along their journey, there had been moments of deep inspiration that anchored their life-long commitment to succeeding in football; much like Postecoglou’s training ground trips with Puskas and the bond he had built with his father through football.

Ange Postecoglou’s triumph in Japan is, rightly, seen as a moment of great celebration for Australian football. 

A product of Australia has followed in the footsteps of some of the world’s most successful coaches – Wenger, Scolari, Rexach – and won Asia’s preeminent competition.

Introspection, however, is the more appropriate reaction. 

Our greatest coach – unarguably – rejected Australian football. Only Ange has the right to articulate why he made this decision but that such rejection existed is clear. His vision for the game in this country was too uncomfortable for too many. 

The irony being that Ange’s vision of fearlessness is so aligned with our (historic) self-perception as Aussies.

The deckchairs within FFA’s governance and management can continue to change; but the game will not produce consistently more Ange Postecolgou’s or another Golden Generation – Aussies who can conquer the world – until the game starts building an immersive, positive and consistent football culture.

Through Puskas, Postecoglou had a portal to a football iconoclast. He was able to shape and evolve his own vision for what football means and how it needs to be played built on the shoulders of one of the game’s immortals. 

Instead of bottling this vision and playing the long game of building a culture anchored in football legitimacy, we defaulted to short-termism. We, again, became focussed on the impact on the next transaction. And so, he left.

Postecoglou’s triumph is his own. He is a product of the football universe he built for himself. And he used it to conquer Asia, again. Imagine what we could do if the entire sport started building one together.