Category: Interviews



They celebrated in the streets of Gibraltar when the national team was finally admitted to UEFA. There may be only 30,000 people living on the Rock, but it felt like every one of them had descended into the narrow streets and the main square as young and old, player and fan stood side by side, almost all bedecked in the team’s red and white strip as the music blared and the confetti fell.

For all involved it marked a happy end to a prolonged, tiresome struggle for international recognition that began in 1999 when the Gibraltar Football Association (GFA) made its initial application to UEFA. 13 years of Gibraltarian frustration, UEFA backtracking, referrals to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and Spanish stubbornness followed, with Gibraltar’s neighbours threatening to pull out of international competition if UEFA welcomed the territory into Europe’s footballing fold.

There’s a huge irony in the fact that it took Gibraltar – with a football association formed in 1895, easily predating those of Spain, France and Germany, amongst others – so long to be officially recognised when they have one of Europe’s longest football histories. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Rock welcomed several Spanish clubs, the pinnacle being a famous 2-2 draw with Real Madrid in 1949.

The battle at times seemed so hopeless that some could have been forgiven for believing they would never see the day when UEFA finally relented and admitted Gibraltar. Indeed, as recently as 2007, Steve Menary, after chronicling Gibraltar’s lengthy application process in his book Outcasts! The Lands That FIFA Forgot, concluded: “Spain, it seems, has won again and Gibraltar will not be allowed in.”

Gibraltarians take to the streets to celebrate UEFA acceptance

Gibraltarians take to the streets to celebrate UEFA acceptance

 

Yet, in May 2013, after the Court of Arbitration for Sport had twice ruled in the GFA’s favour, Gibraltar’s provisional UEFA membership was ratified and they became Europe’s governing body’s 54th member. There is still understandable frustration at the ridiculous length of time it took for admission to be granted and the petty politics that complicated the process, but the overriding feeling in Gibraltar is one of elation at the chance to compete against the continent’s finest in the coming years.

Bursting onto the international scene in 2001, current captain Roy Chipolina has seen it all from up close. Announcing his arrival in the Gibraltar side with a brace on debut against the Orkney Islands at the Island Games aged 17, the defender soon established himself as a vital cog in the Rock’s team. In 2007, he was part of the side that took gold at the 2007 Island Games, and four years later he scored in the impressive 3-0 win over the Faroe Islands, themselves members of FIFA since 1988, which proved to the world that Gibraltar was capable of competing on a bigger stage. In January 2013, he even represented his homeland in the Futsal Euro qualifiers, scoring in a dramatic 7-5 defeat of San Marino. There are, therefore, few people better qualified to comment on the territory’s bitter struggle for international recognition.

Indeed, it was Chipolina who led the team out for their first UEFA-sanctioned friendly against Slovakia in November, when 500 Gibraltarians made the 250 mile trek to Faro, Portugal (Gibraltar’s Victoria Stadium deemed unfit by UEFA) to witness a superb 0-0 draw. Chipolina, partnering Danny Higginbotham in the heart of defence, was reported by Eurosport to have delivered a rousing speech after hearing Gibraltar’s national anthem played “for the first time at the highest level.”

Coach Allen Bula has wasted little time in supplementing a mainly local-based squad with talent from abroad. Gibraltar have already enlisted the help of several current or ex-professionals, including Danny Higginbotham (now retired from club football but formerly of Manchester United, Southampton and Stoke City), Preston North End full-back Scott Wiseman, Wrexham defender David Artell, and midfielder Liam Walker, who recently joined Israeli outfit Bnei Yehuda after leaving Portsmouth. Bula has left no stone unturned in his search for eligible players, with forwards Adam Priestley and Reece Styche plucked from Farsley AFC (of the Northern Premier League Division One North) and Forest Green Rovers’ reserves respectively.

Yet Chipolina maintains that some of the national team’s home-based players are equally gifted: he has previously said veteran striker Lee Casciaro and midfielders Joseph Chipolina (a distant relative) and Brian Perez are capable of playing at a professional level. For Joseph Chipolina, comfortable either at left-back or as a winger, this seems particularly plausible: last year the 26-year-old impressed in a week-long trial at Leyton Orient, as well as attracting interest from Livingston.

Roy also believes Anthony Hernandez, who scored on his international debut against the Faroes aged just 16, and has already spent time on trial at Middlesbrough, is one to watch in the future. There are parallels to be drawn with Gibraltar’s last wonderkid, defender Jason Pusey, who signed a 3-year contract with Atlético Madrid after finishing his GCSEs in 2006, yet faded into obscurity and has now returned to local football on the Rock.

The hopes are that Hernandez, unlike Pusey, will now have a chance to develop on an international stage with regular, competitive games; Menary’s depressing footnote in 2007 that “any idea that Jason Pusey may have of pursuing an international career with the place that he grew up in are dead” is thankfully no longer applicable to Hernandez.

Chipolina (far left) during celebrations in the main square

Chipolina (far left) during celebrations in the main square

Despite being drawn in a tough group for Euro 2016, including Germany, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, you get the impression that Chipolina and his team-mates fear no-one. The defender, a customs officer for the government for over a decade, will be looking to make sure Gibraltar give their opponents a thorough interrogation no matter how many star names are in their team.

I was recently fortunate enough to have the chance to put some questions to Roy, and the captain proved very accommodating – as his answers demonstrate.

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How important was it to finally be admitted to UEFA after decades of trying and how elated were the players?

For Gibraltar being admitted into UEFA was nothing more than making a dream a reality!  It was a very emotional and jubilant day.  After such a long battle which began way back in the mid-1990s Gibraltar has become the well deserved 54th member in UEFA.  For us, the players, the opportunities that come with being in UEFA are huge and we are just glad to be part of it.

 How special was it to be the first man to captain Gibraltar in an official UEFA game?

It was a great honour and the proudest moment of my football career to lead my country out into our first international match.  It was a very emotional day and one that I will cherish forever.

Is it true that you gave a rousing speech in the dressing room before the Slovakia game and if so, what did you say?

No, not really.  We are a very close bunch and with Gibraltar being so small, most of us have played alongside each other from a very young age.  We are like a family.  The senior players, most notably Al Greene, Daniel Duarte and myself, are usually going around motivating the rest of the team before a match but as you can imagine the team didn’t need much motivation for this match.  We had been waiting many years for this moment.  The whole squad knew how much this match meant not just to us but to the whole of Gibraltar!  We usually rally together just before kick off and this is what we shared before kick off.

What was the atmosphere like in the dressing room after the draw with Slovakia? The players must have been delighted with the result.

The atmosphere was electric and the team was buzzing.  It was very emotional not only for the players but the backroom staff too.  Just being able to represent your country in an official international friendly was a dream for all of us but to get a draw against such a respected footballing nation like Slovakia in our first match was surreal.  Well, let’s just say, it felt like a victory!

Roy (shirtless) shows his passion

Roy (shirtless) shows his passion

Which language is used in team talks and in the dressing room? Do most players speak both English and Spanish?

Our main language is English but most of us can speak English and Spanish fluently. Our team talks are always done in English but we tend to speak our own dialect which is actually a mixture of English and Spanish (Llanito). People are usually amazed when hearing us talk as we jump from English to Spanish within the same sentence at the blink of an eyelid.  It’s unique.

What is the team’s relationship with the community like? Do you think the bond with the public of Gibraltar is stronger because of the small population and your underdog status?

Being that our population is just 30,000 the team’s relationship with the community is a special one, and I think one which isn’t matched by any other nation. It’s as if they are part of the team. We are such a small community that you literally know everyone. Add in that football is followed religiously here in Gibraltar and you get some tremendous support. Though we are considered underdogs I can assure you that the expectations of the people in Gibraltar are very high.

You may not have drawn them for Euro 2016, but how special would it be to play against England?

Being that England is the nation I have supported and the league I have followed since I was a young boy it would be a dream to step out at Wembley and face the mighty England.  It’s every boy’s dream to play at Wembley and I am no different.

Did you agree with UEFA’s decision to keep Spain and Gibraltar apart for the Euro 2016 draw?

I will leave any political issues to the politicians.  I am just extremely happy that UEFA has finally given me the same opportunity as all the other 53 members, and that is, to be able to represent my country on the international stage.

Does having to play ‘home’ games in Portugal somewhat negate home advantage? What are the chances of being able to play home games in Gibraltar in the future?

At a press conference with manager Allen Bula

At a press conference with manager Allen Bula

I suppose it does.  The following we get in Portugal won’t be as much as if games were to be held here in Gibraltar but after our great experience in Portugal and the warm welcome we received by its people I am sure it won’t be long before we make Portugal our home from home.

There are plans to begin the construction of a new stadium at Europa Point. It’s a three-year project and I envisage that if everything goes according to plan, we should be able to use the facilities of the new stadium for the next round of World Cup qualifiers, provided we are given the awesome privilege of becoming FIFA members by then.  This indeed would be the icing on the cake! You can watch a video on YouTube called ‘Europa Point Stadium’ which gives a good insight.

How long do you plan to continue playing? Do you have any plans for post-retirement?

At the moment I would like to concentrate on playing for the Gibraltar national team for as long as possible.  I have no plans of hanging up my boots any time soon but I do hope that in the future I am able to attain my coaching badges so that I am able to carry on being a part of the building and improving football on the Rock.

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[Note: interview originally conducted in 2012]

Franziska Klingelfuss may not be a household name, even in her native Switzerland, but the experienced goalkeeper has both benefitted from, and contributed to, the women’s game in Switzerland during a distinguished 14-year playing career.

The fact that Franziska played in the male youth team of second-tier side FC Aarau – a club who count former Chelsea Champions League-winning boss Roberto Di Matteo, ex-Middlesbrough defender Emanuel Pogatetz and Oceania Footballer of the Century Wynton Rufer among their former players – until her teenage years could be counted as both an advantage and disadvantage to her career. On the one hand, often being the only girl on the pitch in a testosterone-fuelled sport highlighted the difference between Franziska and her team-mates and could have made it hard to fit in – but the confidence gained from proving herself  as good as, and better than, many of her male counterparts was surely invaluable.

Unsurprisingly, recognition from further afield followed: in 1996, she was selected for the under-16 Aargau regional team, representing the canton’s population of 600,000; two years later, Franziska progressed to the Swiss under-18  women’s national team – a huge achievement given she was plying her trade far down the Swiss league ladder at the time.

At Schlieren in 2006-07 (photo: fussball-fussball.ch)

At Schlieren in 2006-07 (photo: fussball-fussball.ch)

Although her practical inability to move to a top-flight women’s club – deemed necessary in order to progress further in the Swiss FA youth setup – unfortunately ended her national team career in 1998, Franziska went on to enjoy a successful career that began at Aarau and also took in two spells at FC Baden as well as stints at FC Schlieren, FC Domat-Ems and CB Laax.

A persistent and painful back injury has limited her playing time in recent years – the goalkeeper has been without a club since 2010, but, having looked into back treatment, Franziska refuses to throw in the towel: she is yet to officially retire, and with luck, will soon be back on the field.

Klingelfuss has taken advantage of that spell on the sidelines to further a promising coaching career that began in 2001 as the goalkeeper coach for SC Schöftland’s 8-16 year olds. Franziska has since passed on her expertise to the new generation of Swiss footballers in a number of roles, including training youngsters at the annual FC Aarau football camp, and helping local girls by coaching Aargau’s under-14 regional team.

2004 was the exception to this rule as Franziska took up a role as match reporter and commentator for third division men’s team FC Gränichen, but she has since returned to coaching by helping to nurture FC Aarau’s 5-7 year old “Brügglikids”.

Modest and thoughtful in equal measure, Franziska offers a fascinating insight into the life of a female footballer in Switzerland; although the women’s game has improved in recent years, it still has some way to go.

NAME: Franziska Klingelfuss

POSITION: Goalkeeper

COUNTRY: Switzerland

CLUBS: 1996-98 – FC Aarau; 1998-01 – FC Baden; 2001-04 – FC Aarau; 2004-05 – FC Baden; 2005-07 – FC Schlieren; 2007-09 – FC Domat-Ems; 2009-10 – CB Laax.

 

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What was the best moment of your career, either playing for a club or the Swiss under-18 team?

To play in the Swiss under-18 team was great – I was 16 and playing in the lowest women’s league in Switzerland at the time. Normally only the players from the Nationalliga A [Swiss top flight] and maybe sometimes from the Nationalliga B [second division] get a call-up, so I was very proud, although it was just for one year.

Then the coach from the Swiss under-18 team told me that I needed to move to a club in a better league to stay in the under-18 team. It was hard for me, but at this time I couldn’t change teams because of school – if I had moved to a club in a higher division, I would have had to travel for more than an hour to get to training, and that was too much. So I stayed in the lowest league for the moment.

But it was also great to play in the clubs I’ve been. For example, with Schlieren [2005-07], we played in the 1.Liga [Swiss third division]. During the championship we won all of our 16 games; we scored 75 goals and only conceded 8 goals. That was great for me as a goalkeeper! We were promoted to the next league, Nationalliga B. In this great season we also reached the semi-final of the Swiss Cup. That was extraordinary for a team from the 1.Liga.

Which team did you enjoy playing for most, and do you have any funny stories/anecdotes from your time in football?

First, to play with the boys was cool. Once I had to play with the Ea-Juniors; this was the better team that I played for and the trainer was a little bit strong. So I was very nervous – both when I went to the meeting and in the first minute of the game. But after it was great: we won the game 3-0 and the trainer was very happy and friendly to me.

Then playing for Baden was excellent, because there I had the best goalkeeper coach ever in my career. We worked very hard but we understood each other; he was there for me if I had some questions or a private problem. We worked seriously together but we could also laugh together. We stay in contact, even now.

Also, playing for Schlieren was awesome. I said earlier that in my first year there we won ever game in the championship. And in the second year at the end of the season we finished in third place even though we were in a higher league.

As an anecdote, I can say that I hated football when I was young! My father always went to watch the games at FC Aarau with my brother. And I would never ever go with them. Then in school there was a boy I knew whose father was a coach at FC Aarau. So once I went with him and from this moment I played football.

In Swiss Cup action for Schlieren in 2005 (fussball-fussball.ch)

In Swiss Cup action for Schlieren in 2005 (fussball-fussball.ch)

And I’m proud that I never received a single yellow or red card in the 19 years I played!

At what age did you first start playing football and for which team?

I started to play football at the age of 9. And I played for FC Aarau with the boys. This was for the Eb-Juniors team.

What was it like being the only girl in a boys’ team at youth level? Were the boys jealous or did they respect you for being as good as them?

For me, the boys and the trainer, it was normal that I played with the boys. They saw that I could play football [just as well as them] – sorry, I don’t want to be arrogant, but it’s true!

But the other teams that we played against always laughed when they saw that my team played with a girl in goal. They always said something like: “we will score 10 goals against you, because you have a girl in goal”. Sometimes it was hard for me, because I just wanted to play football. Luckily we won most of the games and after the game the players from the other teams said nothing at all! Most of the time the other trainers come to me to say that I had played well. That was great.

How has women’s football in Switzerland developed in recent years? How big is support for it in Switzerland – how many people watch each match?

I think at the moment it’s better than ever for the women’s  football in Switzerland. In my time we never, ever received money for playing – on the contrary, we had to pay an annual subscription so that we could play for the club!

Now it’s better. I don’t know how much [money] they get, but at some clubs – for example FC Zurich and Grasshopper Club – the players receive some money. Zurich have a couple of ex-national team players in Inka Grings and Sonja Fuss; I think they get a lot of money, because they are professional players.  I think that they are the only professionals in Switzerland, so it’s great that they are playing in the Swiss league –  they can push football in our country, and because of them Zurich always has a lot of people who watch their games: last season there were sometimes more than 500 people there, and that’s a lot in Swiss women’s football!

In my time it was impossible to be a professional footballer. We always had to go to school or to work [as well as playing]. If you had to go to the national team you had to take holidays off work so that you could go. Today it’s better, most of the players work 60% to 80% of the time. And most of the time they get time off from their employer if they had to go, for example, to the Swiss national team.

Also, a few years ago an academy was created in Huttwil for the biggest female talents in Switzerland. They can train there twice a day, going to school at special times, and they live in Huttwil with a host family. These players often stay at the academy for two years, playing for a local club at the weekend.

The Huttwil academy aims to bring through a new generation of Swiss footballers (bzbasel.ch)

The Huttwil academy aims to bring through a new generation of Swiss footballers (bzbasel.ch)

How do you think the women’s game in Switzerland compares to other countries in Europe and worldwide? Is there a reason why the Swiss women’s team have never qualified for the World Cup?

In Switzerland women’s football is not professional – there is less money. And it’s too hard for the players to work 80% of the time or go to school for the whole day and juggle that with playing football 5 or 6 times in one week.

For many years, the same group of players were being selected for the national team –  the coach liked them even they were not the best players from Switzerland.  Now we have a new coach in the Swiss national team and she has changed some players. I think it’s better now, but it will take some time for them to play how the coach would like.

With our youth national teams we’re always better [than at senior level]; at the moment our under-20 national team is at the World Cup in Tokyo.

Who is the best player you have played with and against, and the best team you have faced?

The best player I have played with was Sheila Loosli. She was a Swiss international for many years. She was 34 years old when I played with her. She has two daughters and was a member of the police. We trained 3 or 4 times each week and she was always there. It was very impressive.

The best team I have faced? Let me think… I’d say a representative team from the USA. With Baden I played in a tournament in Italy and in the final we had to play against an American team. We had no chance and we lost the game 4-0. It was so impressive to watch how they played. They were all very strong and focused.

Have you had other jobs in football to earn money, seeing as the clubs you played for didn’t pay you?

Yes, I have done the following things:

  • August 2001-June 2003: Boys’ goalkeeper coach for FC Schöftland, 8-16 year olds
  • July 2001-July 2006: Coach at annual football camp for FC Aarau
  • August 2003-June2005: Boys’ goalkeeper coach for FC Rudolfstetten, 8-12 year olds
  • August 2004-August 2006: Match reporter and commentator for FC Gränichen (Men’s 3rd division)
  • August 2006-June 2007: Goalkeeper coach for Aargau regional under-14 girls team
  • August 2012-present: Coach for FC Aarau, 5-7 year olds

 

Thanks to Franziska for her time.


[Note: this interview was conducted in June 2013 for TQM Magazine.]

As Torquay United’s season reached a crucial point in their battle against relegation, I caught up with midfielder Craig Easton, currently in his first season at the club, to discuss his career so far and plans for the future.

Craig Easton is not your stereotypical professional footballer.  While at Livingston in 2004, he confessed to the club’s matchday programme, “It sounds really boring, but I am quite into my gardening”. He’s also articulate – in 2012, he wrote a 10,000-word essay entitled The Future of Scottish Football, exploring his country’s tactics and youth coaching.

His off-field hobbies differ from those of his Torquay United team-mates, then, and so does Craig’s CV: with over 250 appearances in the Scottish Premier League (the country’s top division, commonly known as the SPL) and having captained Scotland at under-21 level, the midfielder is a pretty high-profile signing for fourth-tier Torquay.

In a way, it’s not surprising Easton has enjoyed a successful career in football: born in Bellshill, near Glasgow – the same place as footballing greats Sir Matt Busby, Ally McCoist, Billy Shankly and Jock Stein entered the world – Craig also comes from a family of footballers. His father represented Livingston United at junior level, while his brother, Stewart, has played for Airdrie and Elgin City.

Craig started his career at Dundee United, graduating from the club’s successful youth team in 1996. A league debut followed soon afterwards, and as early as July 1997 he was representing Dundee United in international competition. Craig’s first UEFA Cup game couldn’t have gone better: a 9-0 trouncing of Andorran minnows CE Principat in which he came on as a substitute.

Easton (left) scoring for Leyton Orient against Fulham

Easton (left) scoring for Leyton Orient against Fulham

Easton continued to make a name for himself at Tannadice in the following years, and was a regular in the starting line-up from 1997 until his departure in 2004. That departure was brought about by the arrival of Ian McCall as manager, whose reign saw Craig somewhat fall out of favour.

By late 2003, the midfielder had decided not to sign a new contract with the club when his current deal expired, and in April 2004 McCall confirmed that Easton was free to leave at the end of the season. Of course, McCall’s verdict was irrelevant; as Craig himself said at the time, “It was clear I wasn’t going to be in the manager’s plans, so when the club said they didn’t want to offer me a new deal, it came as no surprise.”

However, the news did upset many supporters, and a May 2004 statement on the club website paid tribute to his popularity: “News that Craig Easton is to leave the club at the end of the season has sparked a flood of mail in appreciation of his contribution to the club, both on and off the park…Off the park, he has attended countless events on behalf of the club and has always been amongst the first to volunteer to help out when required.”

United’s SPL rivals Livingston offered a fresh start, and Easton immediately justified the club’s interest in him by scoring on his debut against Inverness.  He went on to play in 30 of Livingston’s 38 league games, even scoring the crucial goal that saved them from relegation on the last day of the season – sending Dundee, his first club’s rivals, down at Livingston’s expense.

Despite this, Livingston declined to renew Craig’s contract, and he spurned interest from mid-table Motherwell to move south and join Leyton Orient of the English fourth division. It was there that Easton would meet Martin Ling, then Orient’s manager, who would eventually bring the player to Torquay in 2012.

His first season in England couldn’t have gone better. Almost ever-present in the league as Orient won promotion to League One, the third division, on the last day of the season (with Craig scoring again), Easton also opened the scoring at Craven Cottage as Orient pulled off a huge shock to knock Premier League Fulham out of the FA Cup in January 2006. Unsurprisingly, it meant a lot to Craig, who revealed after the match, “I would put that down as my greatest achievement and my most enjoyable moment in football so far.”

Easton’s appearances the following season were slightly decreased, playing two-thirds of Orient’s games in League One, and in June 2007 he opted to join Swindon Town of the same division. His first season with the Robins yielded his highest ever goal tally for a single season – six goals in League One. However, it was a similar story to at Orient, as Craig’s second campaign saw him used more sparingly and in a variety of positions. He made fewer appearances still in 2009-10, and at the end of the season he rejected a new deal with Swindon.

Graduating from Staffordshire University

Graduating from Staffordshire University

It was while at the County Ground that Craig was approached by the editor of a newspaper in Scotland to write a column about his life as a footballer. Although the editor initially planned to ghost write the column himself – as is often done when journalists interview players for similar features – Craig asked for the opportunity to practice his writing skills, and this step would eventually lead to his enrolling on a Journalism and Broadcasting degree course at Staffordshire University. He would graduate from the course with a first-class honours degree.

Craig subsequently signed for Southend United, immediately being named club captain, scoring his first Shrimpers goal shortly afterwards against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the League Cup. It was a return to regular playing time, with 38 appearances in all competitions, but at the end of the 2010-11 season the player rejected a reduced contract and found himself a free agent once more.

What followed was a return to Scottish football after six years away, but unfortunately Easton’s six-month deal with Dunfermline Athletic was not a homecoming to remember.  Struggling with injuries, Craig managed just three games for Dunfermline before his contract ended in January 2012.

Many players would no doubt have been disheartened by such a downturn of fortunes, but Craig continued to search for a route back up the football ladder, and, thanks to their Leyton Orient connection, was handed a two-week trial by Torquay boss Ling towards the end of the Gulls’ successful 2011-12 campaign.

Easton impressed sufficiently to be awarded a permanent deal in June 2012, with Ling hailing the 34-year-old as “the ideal type of character for our squad. He was a massive part of my successful time at Orient…I just know I can trust him.”

Adapting well to life on the English Riviera, Craig was a mainstay in the Torquay side early in the season, and helped the club to a comfortable mid-table position by Christmas, with the play-offs firmly in sight.

However, things took a turn for the worse after Ling was forced to return to London to recuperate from a mystery illness early in 2013, leaving the club to slide down the table under assistant manager Shaun Taylor before Alan Knill was appointed caretaker manager in late February.  Torquay struggled to stay in the division, only securing their safety on the last day of the season against Bristol Rovers.

Craig was unable to help his team-mates in their relegation battle as much as he would have liked towards the end of the season – owing to a calf injury that kept him on the sidelines since March – and he was released by Ling’s successor Alan Knill at the end of the season. The midfielder will now look for his eighth club of a distinguished career, and it will be interesting to see what follows when he eventually hangs up his boots: will he pursue a career in journalism or coaching?

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Craig generously gave up his time to answer my questions about his career and plans after retirement.

Which has been the highlight of your career: scoring against Fulham, captaining the Scotland under-21s, winning promotion with Orient, or something else?

I’m really proud of all the highlights you’ve mentioned. Captaining my country is very special and something I’ll never forget. I’ve got to say that winning promotion with Orient is the greatest achievement in my career.  The atmosphere in that game was amazing, and to do it in front of my wife and both our Mums and Dads just made it one of the best days of my life.

What are the best and worst parts of being a professional footballer?

The best part is a bit of a cliché; doing something I love and the only thing I ever wanted to do since I can remember.  I absolutely love being a footballer.  However, I don’t think people really understand what really goes on, especially at our [Torquay’s] level.  There’s no financial security, and that’s more of an issue as you get older.  Football’s a profession where how hard you actually work doesn’t necessarily reflect how you’re treated by those in charge.

At Plainmoor in 2012-13

At Plainmoor in 2012-13

Do you have any funny anecdotes you can share from your time in football?

Dave Bowman [Craig’s team-mate at Dundee United] was one of the funniest/maddest players I’ve ever played with.

He enjoyed having ‘banter’ with the cleaning ladies Rose and Ann. One day we returned to find Rose, stuck in a bin with her legs and arms sticking out the top and Bow trying to roll her down the corridor. Another time we found her inside one of the industrial dryers in the kit room with Bow threatening to turn it on. I know this might sound harsh, bordering on harassment, but it was hilarious and wee Rose was a great sport.

What is the best game you have played in? The worst?

It’s difficult to narrow down a single game, so I’ll give you a top 3 in no particular order.  Dundee United v Aberdeen in the semi final of the League Cup was one of my first games when I broke into the Dundee United first team as an 18-year-old.  I scored my first professional goal and we won 3-1.  There’s two Leyton Orient games that stick out: the promotion game against Oxford and also the FA Cup game against Fulham when we won 2-1 at Craven Cottage.

My worst game?  There’s too many to mention!  Probably any game where I’ve picked up an injury.

How many more years do you want to play for, and do you see your future in journalism or coaching after retirement?

I would say as long as I feel fit enough I’ll keep going and barring the little injury I’ve got at the moment, I feel as fit as at any point in my career.  I would love to stay in football.  I want to coach and ultimately manage at the highest level possible.  I’ll always write, so an ideal scenario would be to continue writing about football whilst managing.

What made you study journalism at Staffordshire University? Did you consider becoming a journalist as a teenager?

I never really considered doing anything other than playing football, although I did well in my exams at school.  I suppose, looking back on it now, English was one of my favourite subjects and I did like writing, so I’m not surprised that I’m enjoying the print side of journalism the most.  At Swindon, I was approached to do a ‘Diary of a Pro’ piece for the Airdrie & Coatbridge Advertiser, my local paper back home. I asked if I could have a go at writing it myself;  I really enjoyed it and things just snowballed from there.  I then managed to get on the PFA [Professional Footballers’ Association] course a couple of years later.

Was there a mix of footballers and normal students on your journalism course?  If so, how did the other students react to having professional players on their course?

We did a similar degree to other students, although we crammed it into two years and our classes were separate.  That was because most of our work was done on a distance learning basis.  There were about 15 of us in the class, either pro footballers – mainly from the lower divisions – or ex-players.  We attended Uni in Stoke once a month and for a week in the close season before the beginning of each semester to do most of the practical work. We very rarely crossed paths with the other students, but I did meet one who’s a fellow Scot and we’ve become really good friends and are currently working on a project together.

How have your team-mates reacted to your slightly unusual hobbies for a footballer off the pitch (gardening; writing)? Are there any other budding writers at Torquay?

I’m not sure they knew about the gardening until now!  I’m not into it as much as I used to be because I’m living in a rented property, but I love being outdoors and going for walks and swimming in the sea.  I got a wetsuit for my birthday because it got a bit cold in the winter. That’s what I like about living here – it’s a very outdoorsy area.

[Torquay defender] Aaron Downes is a good writer.  He was in my class on the course and we’re hoping to maybe work on something together in the future.

What are the differences between life in Torquay and life in Scotland?

Obviously the temperature’s a bit different to start with!  The amount of rain we’ve had down here in the last year has made me feel right at home, though.  It’s a very similar sort of lifestyle, especially compared to when I lived in Dundee.  I love being close to the sea and going for walks and exploring the area.  There are so many lovely places to visit, and Dartmoor reminds me a lot of Scotland.  I know this area pretty well as we used to come to Devon and Cornwall most summers when I was growing up.  My Dad used to drive down with the caravan – it used to take us 12 – 14 hours!  My first ever holiday with my wife was when we went to Torquay on the bus together as teenagers.  I have a great affinity with this part of the country.

What were you like as a teenager at school?

I was hardworking and enjoyed some subjects more than others  – P.E., Physics, Economics and English were some of my favourites.  I didn’t hate it, but I couldn’t wait for it to be over so I could go home and play football.

You have made a career in a very competitive environment. What advice would you give teenagers to help them achieve success in their chosen field?

I would just say, give it everything you’ve got.  Things might not always work out how you would like and you’ll probably have some disappointments, but don’t have any regrets that you could have worked harder.  Sometimes you may have to be single-minded and sacrifice things to achieve what you want to, and not just follow the crowd.

What has been the most motivational thing (words or action) you have witnessed from any of your managers?

Martin Ling gave a few brilliant team talks in my time at Leyton Orient, but the biggest motivator I’ve come across in my career has been Terry Butcher.  When he was at Dundee United I remember him getting us going before a game against his old team, Rangers, at Ibrox.  He was ranting and raving and telling us that they were overpaid prima donnas and how we were just as good as them on our day.  By the time the whistle went, we were ready to run through walls for each other and we ended up winning 2-0.

Finally, what are your views on the Scottish independence referendum next year?

I want Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom.  I’m proud to be Scottish, but also proud to be British.  I feel we already have a big say in how things are run in our own country and would be weakening our global position by severing our ties with the rest of the UK.

You can see more of Craig’s writing at http://eastonblog.wordpress.com/

 

 


There are times, such as the ongoing transfer sagas of Torquay playmaker Eunan O’Kane and defender Mark Ellis, when even the club’s most loyal followers are left in the dark as to what is happening. Spare a thought, then, for Dubai-based Gulls fan Sam Jones, who lives over 4,500 miles away from his beloved Plainmoor.

Thankfully for Sam, the modern football fan can easily keep track of most ongoings through internet and television coverage – although, as the man himself explains, that’s not always the case. Following matches, particularly League Two games, via internet updates is a perilous position for any football fan, prone to internet crashes and slow connections. Equally, the lack of League Two media coverage in England, let alone the United Arab Emirates, can sometimes make it hard to keep up-to-date with proceedings.

It’s a credit to Sam, then, that he continues to follow Torquay through thick and thin, in a country where League Two football is not only ignored, but often laughed at! The locals’ favourite clubs – Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid – may be more glamorous and successful, but as Sam will explain, once a bond has been forged with a club, it is not easily broken.

I caught up with the Welshman to quiz him on taking the “fan from afar” concept to a new level, impressive air miles and cherished Torquay moments.

What made you support Torquay in the first place; what was the first Torquay game you attended; and how long have you been supporting them?

My parents bought a house in Torquay in 2005 so I have been supporting them since then. We thought we should support the local team, so the first time we were there we went down to a match – it was Christmas 2005 and Torquay drew 2-2 with Wycombe Wanderers. It was the season before Torquay went down and I have followed them keenly ever since.

Morike Sako celebrates during Sam’s first ever Torquay game, against Wycombe in 2005

Why did you move to Dubai, and how difficult is it to keep up-to-date with Torquay’s results and transfers from over 4,000 miles away?

I moved to Dubai in 2009 from Norway because of my Dad’s work as he is in the oil business, and stayed there because of schooling. Keeping up-to-date is not as difficult as people think, especially with the internet and sites such as the BBC or Sky Sports. They have the rolling updates so we can keep up with the latest scores. Transfers are harder because [Torquay] are a smaller club and obviously the Premier League transfers appear first on these sites, but fortunately the Torquay United website is up-to-date. The worst problems are when the updates are slow in tight games – for example, during the game against Crewe at the end of the season, we lost internet connection! Imagine how we felt when we saw they had equalized in the last minute!

How many Torquay games do you attend each season, and which was the most recent match you attended?

I try to attend as many as I can. Often it is only the friendlies due to the time we’re back in the UK, but last year I got to see a couple of league games at the beginning of the season. I saw the 2-2 draw with Burton and the 3-1 loss to Crawley at home. Little did I guess that we would have made the play-offs after seeing those matches. Next year I’m going to university in Cardiff so hopefully I’ll get to watch more as I’ll be back in the UK and not that far from Torquay.

It must be strange to watch a completely different set of Torquay players on each of your visits to Plainmoor. Does that make it harder to feel attached to the club?

Unfortunately, that is the curse of the lower-league clubs – the turnover is massive. Yet, this has not made me feel less attached to them. When I first started supporting, the team consisted of players such as Kevin Hill, Morike Sako and Tony Bedeau among others. None of that generation is still at the club [all three had left by 2008], but in recent years more players have stayed on for longer. Ever since Torquay went down [in 2006-07] the core of the team has been the same with players such as Lee Mansell, Kevin Nicholson and Danny Stevens, which of course makes it easier to feel attached to. Also, having [former manager Paul] Buckle for a number of years helped as well, but at the end of the day it is the club that I support, not the individual players.

Play-off final misery in 2011: “so much work goes to waste”

What is your favourite match and most memorable moment from your time supporting Torquay? And your least favourite?

My favourite match has to be Boxing Day 2008 when I went to the West Country Derby. Torquay beat Exeter 1-0 through a Tim Sills goal and he celebrated right in front of the Family Stand! It was an incredible experience as it was my first game in over year and I had never seen Plainmoor so full.

My favourite moment has to be promotion back to the League [in 2008-09] – a bit cliche, but true! My worst memory has to have been losing out on promotion last year. Despite the fact we were relegated in 2007, that was almost inevitable, yet losing the play-off final in 2011 was the worst as so much work goes to waste, and it was on Dubai TV!

Are there any other Torquay fans or supporters of other League Two clubs in Dubai?

I’m sure there are! There are so many British expats here [an estimated 240,000 in 2012] that there has to be supporters of League Two clubs. I’ve met a couple of Swindon fans, Gillingham fans and supporters of other clubs but have not found any fellow Gulls! I am actually about to start a club called Dubai Gulls to act as the official UAE fan group for TUFC and we’re going to sponsor a couple of the youth players to help the club.

How do people in Dubai react when you tell them you support Torquay? Have Emirati people heard of the club or the town?

I have only met a couple of Emiratis but when I tell them about Torquay they tend to ask who they are! Then when I say they’re in the fourth division, they start laughing and say “you should support Real Madrid or Barcelona”! Most people haven’t even heard of the town or club – that’s Western expats as well! A lot of the football-loving Brits do know about the club and the town so it is well known in the British expat communities.

Plainmoor: better than Camp Nou

Which club is the most supported by the people of Dubai, and how big is support for the game in the United Arab Emirates?

Football is massive in the UAE but the biggest game by a mile is cricket as there are loads of Indian and Pakistani workers. Amongst the Emirati population football is the main sport but most tend to support foreign clubs such as Real and Barca. The support for local clubs is not great as the stadiums are rarely even half full, but it is improving. There is a lot of money in the game though, with big names such as Fabio Cannavaro, David O’Leary, David Trezeguet and most notably Diego Maradona, having roles at clubs either in the form of playing or as a manager. The Pro League is very competitive but the standard of football is not great, with the most recent champions being Al-Ahli, who are also the most successful. The biggest club in Dubai is Al-Wasl as Maradona is their manager.

Have you attended any UAE Premier League games during your stay in Dubai?

I have not, for two main reasons. First, it has a reputation that if you’re not Emirati, you’re not welcome. Second, I have no idea where the stadiums are! All the information about games is in Arabic and I don’t speak a word of it! I watch it on the TV sometimes when it’s on, but that’s rare.

Finally, do you consider yourself to be Torquay’s most loyal foreign-based fan? Surely the amount of miles you have to travel to be at a Torquay game makes you one of the club’s most devoted followers?

Well, I would like to think that I am one of them. I do my best to keep track of news, scores and transfers and whenever I am back in the UK we watch a game, be it a friendly or league match. I would fly back more and watch them,  as the highlight of my trips back to the UK are my visits to Plainmoor and the matches I attend. I am sure that somewhere in the world there are Torquay fans that fly back for the matches, but with the resources I have, I can consider myself one of Torquay’s most devoted.

Photos: Torquay 2-2 Wycombe, 2005 – www.wycombewanderers.co.uk; Eunan O’Kane – http://backpagefootball.com



At first glance, Papua New Guinea forward Nathaniel Lepani’s career may not appear to be particularly unique. Since beginning his footballing journey in 2001 with Cosmos Port Moresby, Lepani has flitted between his homeland and the upper echelons of Australia’s Brisbane Premier League, also enjoying a spell at USA college side Menlo Oaks in 2002-03.

However, what very few realise is that Lepani almost secured a contract with Italian club Brescia Calcio, then enjoying their best-ever campaign in Serie A by finishing 7th and boasting players such as Roberto Baggio and Andrea Pirlo. Lepani trialled, unsuccessfully, for the club’s primavera youth squad in May 2001, a time the man himself describes “the year where I pursued my professional dream.”

Had he succeeded, Nathaniel would have gone down in history as Papua New Guinea’s most successful export. Few footballers from the country stray from the Oceania region, with even the national team’s most adventurous players plying their trade in Australia or New Zealand.

That’s not to say his career since hasn’t seen brilliant highs, including scoring four times in a Pacific Games clash with Kiribati in September, representing his country against the likes of Australia (and facing up against ex-Fulham midfielder Ahmad Elrich and former Tottenham defender Spase Dilevski), and bagging a brace against Samoa just two days after his 22nd birthday in 2004.

Nathaniel cites a three-year stay in Belgium, from 1991-94, as a large influence on his eventual career in football. Flanders club Overijse Voetbal Club, currently in the Belgian fourth division, boasted the youngster’s talents in their U12 and U14 sides during his time in the country. Lepani describes the experience as one that “helped to cement my footballing upbringing” – the taste of European football from an early age has almost certainly given the current Gigira Laitepo Morobe attacker an advantage over his Papua New Guinean peers.

Helping to dispel the “uneducated and uncouth” stereotype that has plagued 21st-century footballers, Lepani has attended universities and colleges in his native PNG, Australia and America. This, combined with a high-ranking job in the Oceania branch of food processing giants Nestlé, has limited Lepani’s time for football, resulting in a “year out” from club football in 2004, and spells at lower-league clubs more convenient for someone juggling work, education and sport.

The rest of this interview contains more than enough evidence to prove his well-spoken nature and articulate views. Enjoy.

What is the highlight of your career, either at international or club level?

I have to at least mention my experience at Brescia Calcio for no other reason than what it showed me in terms of the “professional” approach to the game and all that it encompasses.  It was also a relatively humbling experience in that when we (Primavera) played the first team in a practice match, the top players would all arrive in their fancy sports cars, while us younger squad members were dropped off or caught public transport.

In saying that, though, I can’t go past the experience of being able to represent my country and lining up before the game and hearing the national anthem being played. Playing for PNG may not be the most “glamorous”,  but it’s still an absolute honor nonetheless. I’d have to say my highlights would be my first goals for PNG, at U20 level in Cook Islands at the Oceania U20s World Cup Qualifers in 2001. I had picked up a groin strain in our first training session, so had to carry that through the tournament. Despite starting against Vanuatu in our first game (a 6-0 loss), I was benched for our Cook Islands one. Coming on as a sub in the second half I played the “super sub” role and bagged two goals in my 25 minute performance. So those were my first goals in PNG colors.

 It’s always enjoyable scoring goals, and of course scoring 4 in one game against Kiribati was fulfilling and certainly worth mentioning as a highlight, but funnily enough the atmosphere in which we played that game was quite negative, and to be honest it wasn’t one of my most memorable experiences.

How did the trial at Brescia Calcio in 2001 come about? Not many PNG players make it to Europe, let alone Serie A…

Certainly not the most orthodox of ways. An Italian with close links to Brescia and other Italian Serie A and C clubs was working in PNG at the time.  Alongside a contact at Brescia Calcio (the team manager of the U16s), he set up a player agency with the objective of tapping into the Pacific Market for potential players to trial, and ultimately, play in Italy and possibly Europe as a whole.

I was fortunate that it was created at a time when I had just finished high school and had recently represented PNG at u20 level. So I had time and youth on my side, and had proven that I had the potential to succeed – which was the reason behind my selection. Admittedly as well, compared to the average Papua New Guinean, the means to support this trial was also a factor at the time, as I had to bear the costs of traveling to Bresica as well as room and board during the time there. I was one of two guys, Alex Davani being the second, who were selected to trial at Brescia from PNG.

Although it was reiterated to me that the trial could have lasted anywhere between a few days and a month, my month there showed me that I must have impressed enough for them to have kept me there during that time. While I was there 3 other trialists came and went, so during that time I was reassured that if the club had kept me there while other trialists came and went, then they must have seen something in me to keep me there.

“Lepani’s on trial with us, you say!?” Baggio’s place in football folklore lead to him being “cocooned” from the mere mortals

Did you meet former FIFA World Player of the Year Roberto Baggio or current Serie A stalwarts Andrea Pirlo and Daniele Bonera during your trial? And just how good are players at that level?

I was desperately hoping to meet Baggio. But as he was in his twilight of his career then and had already confirmed himself in the pantheon of footballing Gods, not only in Italy, but the world as well, he was unsurprisingly kept “cocooned” by what I observed. I recall that during our game against the top team, he was training by himself on the other field, under the watchful eyes of a physio (he was injured at the time, I recall) and a television crew from Japan. I do remember Bonera, although possibly due to my ignorance, did not recognise him for the player he was. Same for Pirlo, although admittedly he became the player he is during his time at Milan.

I would like to think that although I didn’t make the cut, I gave as good as other players that I trained and played with. However there was one player who I noticed to be a bit extra special, [Abderrazzak] “‘Razza” Jadid. He was with the Primavera squad at the time, but last I saw he had made the first team and was loaned out to a few other clubs [Jadid currently plays for Serie B club Grosseto, on loan from Parma].

With regards to the first team players, there was certainly a higher level of urgency and skill in their approach to their play. I was fortunate to see them in both training and during games, and their composure and reading of the game was the same. I think back now and realise that the standard I saw was probably reflective of a mid-bottom level club in Serie A (arguably the top league in the world at the time). So it still astounds me to think that if that was the standard there, imagine what it would have been at AC Milan, Roma or Inter?

What are your strengths as a player, and which famous attacker would you compare yourself to in terms of playing style?

Despite always being on the “slight” side in terms of body build, I think it’s contributed to my strengths as a player. My agility, balance, speed and ability to read the game are certainly up there as strengths. Playing in both Australia and the US, where the physical aspects of the game are more apparent, I have always had to ensure I made my mark on the game through other ways. And I think in that sense I can appreciate and admire how players like Xavi and Iniesta have been able to excel.  In terms of playing style and a player I most resemble, I’d have to say Pedro Rodriguez at Barcelona. I may not be as quick as I was, but I definitely see a bit of how I played, in him, whenever I watch Barca play.

Returning to matters closer to home, how far has football in Papua New Guinea come in recent years?

I think the introduction of the National Soccer League [in 2006] has certainly helped to create a nationalised league that challenges all clubs/franchises to operate in a semi-professional manner and strive to lift their standards, both on and off the field. I definitely think that the success of Hekari [winners of every NSL title since 2006, and OFC Champions League winners in 2010] has shown the rest of PNG that it is possible to achieve success at a domestic level and carry that on to a regional level too, and challenge the status quo. So in that sense, football has grown in leaps and bounds in the last few years. There can certainly be many more improvements in a domestic sense, but I think there has been enough of a foundation created that it is really up to us as players and future administrators and club management to continue to lift that standard.

What division in England would you compare the PNG National Soccer League to in terms of standard?

To be honest, apart from the Premier League and the understanding that there’s the “second” division below that, and so forth, I am not familiar at all with the divisions in England to make enough of an informed comparison. I would say that purely skill-wise, we would probably be comparable to the 3rd or 4th tier of the League [League One/League Two]. However in overall approach to the game (changing rooms, pre/post-game “rituals”, physios, training equipment, etc) I would say we are still near “Sunday League” level, unfortunately. It’s frustrating to say, but apart from Hekari, there is a huge gap in the approach to the game that most teams in the NSL have. The introduction of player payments/wages was supposed to bring the level up to “Semi-Professional”, however in my opinion it’s still lacking.

Lepani emulates his closest comparison in playing style, Barcelona forward Pedro, against Tahiti last year

What are the differences between top-flight football in PNG and in Europe? How big is local interest in the game?

PNG is the one country in the world that likes to boast that its national sport is Rugby League. This is certainly the case for support at a grassroots level.  Having said that, soccer has always had its following from different corners of the country. So when it comes to games and certain teams playing, there will always be followers of the game. Again, Hekari has certainly raised the profile of the game in recent years, and alongside the introduction of the NSL, coverage has become more national and therefore players more identifiable. Coverage on the national TV channel also assists in this. I still wouldn’t say it’s at the same level as rugby league players in the country, but still recognisable enough in certain crowds.

Port Moresby has always had 2 to 3 teams in the NSL at any given season, and due to the lack of suitable playing venues, most of those home games are held at the same field. So game days are often double headers. Because of that, crowd numbers are usually respectable (for PNG football standards) – up to 1,000. However for bigger games (O-League, Internationals), the crowds can swell to about 5,000 – 7,000. Lae, which has always been a stronghold for football players and supporters in the country also turns out in numbers for NSL games in Lae at the stadium there.

How did living in Belgium at a young age aid your football development, and how did the move come about? Belgium must be very different to PNG…

I was fortunate to have lived in Belgium for three years (’91-’94) when I was growing up, which helped to cement my footballing “upbringing”.  I didn’t become a teenager until I returned to PNG, but it still had a bit of a bearing on my “formative” years as a footballer. As I mentioned earlier, I think the “holistic” approach to the game really showed me what it’s like to play football in a setup that accepted that football is not only about what happens on the field during the game day.

I was fortunate enough to have lived in and experienced several cultures and countries growing up, due to my Dad’s work commitments. Belgium was no different. Our move there was due to Dad being posted there for work. Belgium  is definitely a huge change from PNG. Although I did live in Hawaii prior to Belgium, so that change in itself was also a major one.

Do you support any English or European clubs as a result of your travels abroad?

Simply put, FC Barcelona. I’ve actually been a fan ever since we lived in Belgium, and not just a recent convert like I’m sure millions of fans have been due to their recent incredible success. Their “original” dream team was just starting to gel and even at my age I recognised their brilliance. I was definitely fortunate to be living in Belgium at the time, so had access to TV and media coverage of them. So had I been in PNG I doubt I would have known of them, let alone most of the other European teams. Of course nowadays it’s easy to be drawn to support various teams due to their team make up (I enjoy the style of play of numerous players plying their trade in several top European teams), however I’m a stalwart fan of the Blaugrana. “Mes que un club”!

In England I do follow Arsenal (my brother’s team [Nathaniel’s brother Andrew has also represented PNG at international level]). An Italian close friend and teamate at Menlo, Chris Antinnuci convinced me of AS Roma’s merits. And I’ve been a fan of Totti ever since. In hindsight I was also unlucky to have missed Guardiola during his time at Brescia as well.

 How disappointed were you not to make the PNG 2012 Nations Cup squad? It must have been a bittersweet feeling to see that your brother Andrew was included, but you weren’t.

Extremely. I won’t go into details, but I did have a lengthy talk with the gaffer [former Australia boss Frank Farina] and was given a reason – I had an untimely accident which left a gash across my right knee requiring 7 stitches and one week out from training camp – for my ommission. I can’t say I blame him for that decision, considering that I agree that only the fittest and experienced of players should be selected. But I still feel that had I been given the opportunity to prove my fitness and see out the healing of my knee, that my experience and presence in the squad of 23 (regardless of whether I would have been a starter or not) would still have been beneficial and warranted. My brother has also struggled with juggling work commitments with national team duties, so in fact I’m extremely happy for him that he’s made it.

Nathaniel (bottom row, second-from-left) was overjoyed to play for Overijse while in Belgium

How much does it mean to represent your country against some of the best footballers in Oceania, and who is the best player you’ve ever faced?

For sure it means a lot. There’s so much passion and potential in Oceania that although we cannot be compared to the heights of Europe or South America or even Asia, there are still some very skillful players that I believe given the opportunity to play in established leagues in Europe would excel (although I’m not sure about the weather!).

I was fortunate enough to have played against the Australian U20s and U23s squads. And in both squads Nick Carle was a member. He may not have fulfilled his potential in Europe, but he’s one of the most skillful players I’ve been up against. I still remember our game against them at U20s level (they ran out winners 6-0). It was near cyclonic conditions – to be honest it was probably fortunate for us that the conditions were so horrendous, or else they really would have ripped us apart. But during the game that was literally played in puddles,  Nick would always be able to caress the ball and flick it up slightly to get it out of the water and just knock it patiently to his team mates. He helped to set Scott McDonald (another quality player) for a hat trick that game, if I remember correctly. But he was certainly the most skillful I had come up against.

 Finally, who do you tip to win this year’s Nations Cup? New Zealand will surely start as favourites, but the Solomon Islands are on home soil, and PNG have been labelled the “dark horses” of the competition…

I’ve just watched PNG fall to Solomons 0-1, so there goes my instinctual answer of PNG! And in the earlier game by all accounts the Kiwis [New Zealand] struggled in their 1-0 win over Fiji. On the face of it, New Zealand should just turn up at the tournament and walk away winners, such is the quality of their team of near fulltime professionals, compared to the majority of “amateurs” who make up the rest of the Pacific countries. But having the tournament hosted out of their comfort zone, always means the Kiwis are going to have to work for their win.

I still think they’ll go all the way to win it, but not without some strong challenges along the way. The Solomon Islands are on home soil, but if their first game is anything to go by, they’ll have to step up to go all the way. With the crowd behind them, maybe that’s the extra gear that they’ll need. Fiji should be able to bounce back from their loss and challenge as well. I see the winner of Fiji and Solomons as going through as the second placed team in the group. I’m sorry to say but after the 1-0 loss to Solomons and next game against New Zealand, PNG really are up against it to progress. Crazier things have happened, but we certainly are up against it.

Having said all that, I’ve been impressed with the Francophone teams, particularly New Caledonia – they play a particular style of football that stands them apart from the other Pacific teams. After several years of underachieving, I think Tahiti are also getting back to their best.

All in all, I think it’ll be an exciting few weeks of football. And I think even if New Zealand win, I think the performance of the teams will show that the gap is closing between New Zealand and the other Pacific nations.

Thanks for your time.

No problem at all.

Read more about Nathaniel’s club and international exploits here.

Photos: Baggio – greenobles.com; Lepani – Andrew Molen/Nathaniel Lepani; Overijse team – Tim Beeckmans.


At first glance, Papua New Guinea forward Nathaniel Lepani’s career may not appear to be particularly unique. Since beginning his footballing journey in 2001 with Cosmos Port Moresby, Lepani has flitted between his homeland and the upper echelons of Australia’s Brisbane Premier League, also enjoying a spell at USA college side Menlo Oaks in 2002-03.

However, what very few realise is that Lepani almost secured a contract with Italian club Brescia Calcio, then enjoying their best-ever campaign in Serie A by finishing 7th and boasting players such as Roberto Baggio and Andrea Pirlo. Lepani trialled, unsuccessfully, for the club’s primavera youth squad in May 2001, a time the man himself describes “the year where I pursued my professional dream.”

Had he succeeded, Nathaniel would have gone down in history as Papua New Guinea’s most successful export. Few footballers from the country stray from the Oceania region, with even the national team’s most adventurous players plying their trade in Australia or New Zealand.

That’s not to say his career since hasn’t seen brilliant highs, including scoring four times in a Pacific Games clash with Kiribati in September, representing his country against the likes of Australia (and facing up against ex-Fulham midfielder Ahmad Elrich and former Tottenham defender Spase Dilevski), and bagging a brace against Samoa just two days after his 22nd birthday in 2004.

Nathaniel cites a three-year stay in Belgium, from 1991-94, as a large influence on his eventual career in football. Flanders club Overijse Voetbal Club, currently in the Belgian fourth division, boasted the youngster’s talents in their U12 and U14 sides during his time in the country. Lepani describes the experience as one that “helped to cement my footballing upbringing” – the taste of European football from an early age has almost certainly given the current Gigira Laitepo Morobe attacker an advantage over his Papua New Guinean peers.

Helping to eliminate the “uneducated and uncouth” stereotype that has plagued 21st-century footballers, Lepani has attended universities and colleges in his native PNG, Australia and America. This, combined with a high-ranking job in the Oceania branch of food processing giants Nestlé, has limited Lepani’s time for football, resulting in a “year out” from club football in 2004, and spells at lower-league clubs more convenient for someone juggling work, education and sport.

The rest of this interview contains more than enough evidence to prove his well-spoken nature and articulate views. Enjoy.

What is the highlight of your career, either at international or club level?

I have to at least mention my experience at Brescia Calcio for no other reason than what it showed me in terms of the “professional” approach to the game and all that it encompasses. From your diet to training and a typical schedule; trainings each day, on different pitch types – gravel, “sweat box” (essentially a 10m x 20m box enclosed by walls to focus on the tight space/closed play factor of the game), full pitch – game against the top side, etc. It was also a relatively humbling experience in that during the session (once a month) where we (Primavera) played the top side in a practice match, the top team players would all arrive in their fancy sports cars, while us younger squad members were dropped off or caught public transport.

In saying that, though, I can’t go past the experience of being able to represent my country and lining up before the game and hearing the national anthem being played. Playing for PNG (a country that most people probably can’t find on a map, let alone know about for its national football team) may not be the most “glamorous”, especially when compared to the previous “powerhouse” of Oceania football – Australia (before they moved to the AFC) or currently New Zealand, but it’s still an absolute honor nonetheless. So to reiterate on that point, I’d have to say my highlights (I’ll take the liberty to mention a few!) would be my first goals (I got a brace in that game) wearing a PNG jumper, at U20 level in Cook Islands at the Oceania U20s World Cup Qualifers in 2001. I had picked up a groin strain in our first training session (2 hours after we arrived in the country after a 9 hour journey via New Zealand! – just an indicator as to how our management “lacked” preparatory understanding), so had to carry that through the tournament. Despite starting against Vanuatu in our first game (a 6-0 loss), I was benched for our Cook Islands one. Coming on as a sub in the second half I played the “super sub” role and bagged two goals in my 25 minute performance. So those were my first goals in PNG colors.

 It’s always enjoyable scoring goals, and of course scoring 4 in one game against Kiribati was fulfilling and certainly worth mentioning as a highlight, but funnily enough the atmosphere in which we played that game was quite negative, and to be honest it wasn’t one of my most memorable experiences. We knew we needed a big scoreline against Kiribati to put us in a good position going into our game against Fiji. But the manner in which we were yelling at one another, forcing the play, heated correspondence by the bench/coaching staff while on the field…it definitely was not reflective of a game in which 18 goals were scored. Not to mention the somewhat humbling aspect of playing against guys who literally were just fisherman back in their villages at home. But such is the beauty of football, I guess.

“Lepani’s on trial with us, you say?!” – Baggio’s place in football folklore resulted in him being “cocooned” from the mere mortals

How did the trial at Brescia Calcio in 2001 come about? Not many PNG players make it to Europe, let alone Serie A…

Certainly not the most orthodox of ways. An Italian with close links to Brescia and other Italian Serie A and C clubs was working in PNG at the time.  Alongside a contact at Brescia Calcio (the team manager of the U16s), he set up a player agency with the objective of tapping into the Pacific Market for potential players to trial, and ultimately, play in Italy and possibly Europe as a whole.

I was fortunate that it was created at a time when I had just finished high school and had recently represented PNG at u20 level. So I had time and youth on my side, and had proven that I had the potential to succeed – which was the reason behind my selection. Admittedly as well, compared to the average Papua New Guinean, the means to support this trial was also a factor at the time, as I had to bear the costs of traveling to Bresica as well as room and board during the time there. I was one of two guys, Alex Davani being the second, who were selected to trial at Brescia from PNG. We were supposed to both travel, however due to Visa issues for Alex, I actually ended up trialing several months before him. He was also a few years younger, so trialed for one of the youth teams at Brescia, and not the Primavera, which I had trialed with.

Although it was reiterated to me that the trial could have lasted anywhere between a few days and a month, my month their showed me that I must have impressed enough for them to have kept me there during that time. While I was there 3 other trailists came and went. There was another Italian who came from AS Roma, but ended up staying for 2 training sessions before leaving. A Brazilian and Trinidad and Tobagan also joined for a week from a club in Trinidad and Tobago. So during that time I was reassured that if the club had kept me there while other trailists came and went, then they must have seen something in me to keep me there.

Did you meet former FIFA World Player of the Year Roberto Baggio or current Serie A stalwarts Andrea Pirlo and Daniele Bonera during your trial? And just how good are players at that level?

I was desperately hoping to meet Baggio. But as he was in his twilight of his career then and had already confirmed himself in the pantheon of footballing Gods, not only in Italy, but the world as well, he was unsurprisingly kept “cocooned” by what I observed. I recall that during our game against the top team, he was training by himself on the other field, under the watchful eyes of a physio (he was injured at the time, I recall) and a television crew from Japan. I do remember Bonera, although possibly due to my ignorance, did not recognise him for the player he was. Same for Pirlo, although admiteddly he became the player he is during his time at Milan.

I would like to think that although I didn’t make the cut, I gave as good as other players that I trained and played with. However there was one player who I noticed to be a bit extra special, [Abderrazzak] “‘Razza” Jadid. He was with the Primavera squad at the time, but last I saw he had made the first team and was loaned out to a few other clubs [Jadid currently plays for Serie B club Grosseto, on loan from Parma].

With regards to the first team players, there was certainly a higher level of urgency and skill in their approach to their play. I was fortunate to see them in both training and during games, and their composure and reading of the game was the same. I think back now and realise that the standard I saw was probably reflective of a mid-bottom level club in Serie A (arguably the top league in the world at the time). So it still astounds me to think that if that was the standard there, imagine what it would have been at AC Milan or Roma or Inter?

What are your strengths as a player, and which famous attacker would you compare yourself to in terms of playing style?

Despite always being on the “slight” side in terms of body build, I think it’s contributed to my strengths as a player. My agility, balance, speed and ability to read the game are certainly up there as strengths. Playing in both Australia and the US, where the physical aspects of the game are more apparent, I have always had to excerpt myself and ensure I made my mark on the game through other ways. And I think in that sense I can appreciate and admire how players like Xavi and Iniesta have been able to excel. Of course playing “the Barcelona Way” has a big influence, but that’s off topic a bit. In terms of playing style and a player I most resemble, I’d have to say Pedro Rodriguez at Barcelona. I may not be as quick as I was, but I definitely see a bit of how I played, in him, whenever I watch Barca play.

Returning to matters closer to home, how far has football in Papua New Guinea come in recent years?

I think the introduction of the National Soccer League [in 2006] has certainly helped to create a nationalised league that challenges all clubs/franchises to operate in a semi-professional manner and strive to lift their standards, both on and off the field. I definitely think that the success of Hekari [winners of every NSL title since 2006, and OFC Champions League winners in 2010] has shown the rest of PNG that it is possible to achieve success at a domestic level and carry that on to a regional level too, and challenge the status quo. So in that sense, football has grown in leaps and bounds in the last few years. There can certainly be many more improvements done in a domestic sense, but I think there has been enough of a foundation created that it is really up to us as players and future (potentially) administrators and club management to continue to lift that standard.

Emulating play-a-like Barcelona forward Pedro in a clash with Tahiti during the 2011 Pacific Games

What division in England would you compare the PNG National Soccer League to in terms of standard?

To be honest, apart from the Premier League and the understanding that there’s the “second” division below that, and so forth, I am not familiar at all with the divisions in England to make enough of an informed comparison. I would say that purely skill-wise, we would probably be comparable to the 3rd or 4th tier of the League [League One/League Two]. However in overall approach to the game (changerooms, pre/post-game “rituals”, physios, training equipment, etc) I would say we are still near “Sunday League” level, unfortunately. It’s frustrating to say, but apart from Hekari, there is a huge gap in the approach to the game that most teams in the NSL have. The introduction of player payments/wages was supposed to bring the level up to “Semi-Professional”, however in my opinion it’s still lacking. There is player discipline and approach, to name a few, that all contribute to the standard of the NSL at the moment.

What are the differences between top-flight football in PNG and in Europe? How big is local interest in the game?

PNG is the one country in the world that likes to boast that its national sport is Rugby League. This is certainly the case for support at a grassroots level. This is probably attributed to the historical ties between Australia and PNG, as well as the proximity to Australia and the coverage of Rugby League in PNG. Having said that, soccer has always had its following from different corners of the country. So when it comes to games and certain teams playing, there will always be followers of the game. Again, Hekari has certainly raised the profile of the game in recent years, and alongside the introduction of the NSL, coverage has become more national and therefore players more identifiable. Coverage on the national tv channel also assists in this. I still wouldn’t say it’s not of the same level as rugby league players in the country, but still recognisable enough in certain crowds.

Port Moresby has always had 2 to 3 teams in the NSL at any given season, and due to the lack of suitable playing venues, most of those home games are held at the same field. So game days are oftentimes double headers. Because of that, crowd numbers are usually respectable (for PNG football standards) – up to 1,000. However for bigger games (O-League, Internationals), the crowds can swell to about 5,000 – 7,000. Lae, which has always been a stronghold for football players and supporters in the country also turns out in numbers for NSL games in Lae at the stadium there.

How did living in Belgium at a young age aid your football development, and how did the move come about? Belgium must be very different to PNG…

I was fortunate to have lived in Belgium for three years (’91-’94) when I was growing up, which helped to cement my footballing “upbringing”.  I didn’t become a teenager until I returned to PNG, but it still had a bit of a bearing on my “formative” years as a footballer. As I mentioned earlier, I think the “holistic” approach to the game really showed me what it’s like to play football in a setup that accepted that football is not only about what happens on the field during the game day. That is many ways it is a ritual in itself – preparing for the game in your own time, arriving at the field, meeting your coach and team mates, going to the change rooms, pre-game talk, etc, etc.

I was fortunate enough to have lived in and experienced several cultures and countries growing up, due to my Dad’s work commitments. Belgium was no different. Our move there was due to Dad being posted there for work. Belgium (and Europe) is definitely a huge change from PNG. Although I did live in Hawaii prior to Belgium, so that change in itself was also a major one.

Nathaniel (front row, second-from-left) was overjoyed to be playing for Overijse during his stay in Belgium

Do you support any English or European clubs as a result of your travels abroad?

Simply put, FC Barcelona. I’ve actually been a fan ever since we lived in Belgium, and not just a recent convert like I’m sure millions of fans have been due to their recent incredible success. Their “original” dream team was just starting to gel and even at my age I recognised their brilliance. I was definitely fortunate to be living in Belgium at the time, so had access to TV and media coverage of them. So had I been in PNG I doubt I would have known of them, let alone most of the other European teams. Of course nowadays it’s easy to be drawn to support various teams due to their team make up (I enjoy the style of play of numerous players plying their trade in several top European teams), however I’m a stalwart fan of the Blaugrana. “Mes que un club”!

In England I do follow Arsenal (my brother’s team [Nathaniel’s brother Andrew has also represented PNG at international level]). An Italian close friend and teamate at Menlo, Chris Antinnuci convinced me of AS Roma’s merits. And I’ve been a fan of Totti ever since. In hindsight I was also unlucky to have missed Guardiola during his time at Brescia as well.

 How disappointed were you not to make the PNG 2012 Nations Cup squad? It must have been a bittersweet feeling to see that your brother Andrew was included, but you weren’t.

Extremely. I won’t go into details, but I did have a lengthy talk with the gaffer [former Australia boss Frank Farina] and was given a reason – I had an untimely accident which left a gash across my right knee requiring 7 stitches one week out from training camp – for my ommission. I can’t say I blame him for that decision, considering that I agree that only the fittest and experienced of players should be selected. But I still feel that had I been given the opportunity to prove my fitness and see out the healing of my knee, that my experience and presence in the squad of 23 (regardless of whether I would have been a starter or not) would still have been beneficial and warranted. My brother has also struggled with juggling work commitments with national team duties, so in fact I’m extremely happy for him that he’s made it.

How much does it mean to represent your country against some of the best footballers in Oceania, and who is the best player you’ve ever faced?

For sure it means a lot. There’s so much passion and potential in Oceania that although we cannot be compared to the heights of Europe or South America or even Asia, there are still some very skillful players that I believe given the opportunity to play in established leagues in Europe would excel (although I’m not sure about the weather!).

Although they are no longer in Oceania, I was fortunate enough to have played against the Australian U20s and U23s squads. And in both squads Nick Carle was a member. He may not have fulfilled his potential in Europe (I think stints with Troye in France and then with Crystal Palace), but he’s one of the most skillful players I’ve been up against. I still remember our game against them at u20s level (they ran out winners 6-0). It was near cyclonic conditions, with a cyclone being a few hundred kilometers offshore. The game had already been postponed for a day and the venue changed, so OFC [Oceania Football Confederation; the region’s equivalent to UEFA] could not afford to delay it again. To be honest it was probably fortunate for us that the conditions were so horrendous, or else they really would have ripped us apart. But during the game that was literally played in puddles, I still remember how despite the conditions, Nick would always be able to caress the ball and flick it up slightly to get it out of the water and just knock it patiently to his team mates. He helped to set Scott McDonald (another quality player) for a hat trick that game, if I remember correctly. But he was certainly the most skillful I had come up against.

 Finally, who do you tip to win this year’s Nations Cup? New Zealand will surely start as favourites, but the Solomon Islands are on home soil, and PNG have been labelled the “dark horses” of the competition…

I’ve just watched PNG fall to Solomons 0-1, so there goes my instinctual answer of PNG! And in the earlier game by all accounts the Kiwis [New Zealand] struggled in their 1-0 win over Fiji. On the face of it, New Zealand should just turn up at the tournament and walk away winners, such is the quality of their team of near fulltime professionals, compared to the majority of “amateurs” who make up the rest of the Pacific countries. But having the tournament hosted out of their comfort zone, always means the Kiwis are going to have to work for their win.

I still think they’ll go all the way to win it, but not without some strong challenges along the way. The Bonitos [Solomon Islands] are on home soil, but if their first game is anything to go by, they’ll have to step up to go all the way. With the crowd behind them, maybe that’s the extra gear that they’ll need. Fiji should be able to bounce back from their loss and challenge as well. I see the winner of Fiji and Solomons as going through as the second placed team in the group. I’m sorry to say but after the 1-0 loss to Solomons and next game against New Zealand, PNG really are up against it to progress. Crazier things have happened, but we certainly are up against it.

Having said all that, I’ve been impressed with the Francophone teams, particularly New Caledonia. Most certainly a reflection of their French influence, they definitely play a particular style of football that stands them apart from the other Pacific teams. After several years of underachieving, I think Tahiti are also getting back to their best.

All in all, I think it’ll be an exciting few weeks of football. And I think even if New Zealand win, I think the performance of the teams will show that the gap is closing between New Zealand and the other Pacific nations.

Thanks for your time.

No problem at all.

Read more about Nathaniel’s club and international exploits here.

Photos: Baggio – greenobles.com; Lepani – Andrew Molen/Nathaniel Lepani; Overijse – Tim Beeckmans.