Football: Bosnich in trance, Australians entranced

Gerard Wright in Sydney describes an awe-inspired homecoming for United's new keeper
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The Independent Online
MARK BOSNICH is back home. It is his old home and could not be more different from his new one. It has blue skies, for one thing, and the Olympics, for another. After a damp week Sydney has returned to its usual self with sunshine, impenetrable traffic and the antics of a sports promoter getting above himself.

If he looked around and remembered, there were reminders for Manchester United's newest signing of where he came from, what it took to get there and how sweet it is now that he has arrived.

Manchester United play Bosnich's other team, Australia's Socceroos, in the second leg of their two-match exhibition series at the newly opened pounds 330m Stadium Australia, the main venue for next year's Olympic Games, early today London time. Neither team are at full strength. United's David Beckham is training at home after his honeymoon. Ryan Giggs might as well have paid to get into the first match, in Melbourne on Thursday, such was the extent of his participation. Paul Scholes, Ronny Johnsen and Roy Keane are not here. Andy Cole and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are, but they did not play on Thursday.

In a sense, the Melbourne game was the first step in a long and arduous trek to a peak yet to be scaled by any club side. Chief executive Martin Edwards calculated United played 62 games last season. You could understand why some of them weren't ready to resume the trip just yet. Except for Bosnich, making his second visit to Sydney in as many months. The first was in early June for a Socceroos match against a Fifa All-Star team.

As a warm-up for that match the Socceroos played their younger compatriots, the Olyroos, the Under-23s who will represent their country at the Olympics. The game was played at the Marconi Stadium, a grand name for an oldish ground in Sydney's inner western suburbs. There, alongside his goal, Bosnich went through his usual pre-match routine. He stretched, he jogged, he exercised for 10 to 15 minutes. Five metres away, on the other side of the fence, the kids saw him and went mad. They yelled his name and held out their pieces of paper. Oblivious, Bosnich continued his preparation.

He was watched from nearby by Robert Krslovic, the deputy chairman of Bosnich's old club, Sydney United. "He was almost in a trance," Krslovic recalled. "It was almost as though he didn't hear or see anything until he finished the routine."

Gradually the noise subsided and the kids became absorbed in what was before them: a fine professional athlete, going to work. "Once they sensed that he wasn't ignoring them, how focused he was on what he was doing, they were watching in awe," Krslovic said.

Bosnich grew up in Fairfield, in Sydney's outer south-western suburbs, the same place where another Croatian-Australian child flourished, then ambushed the sporting world: Jelena Dokic. Bosnich graduated from the Sydney United class of 1989. At least five of his team-mates from that season went on to play overseas, although none would keep the company that Bosnich did.

Among the Socceroos he is not the captain, but a leader nonetheless. On an earlier return for national duty he hired a stretch limo one night and took his team-mates to the newly-opened Planet Hollywood.

To be cast as their opponent was, he said in a press conference on Friday, "a strange feeling, because I've played so many times for the Socceroos". This time he wore navy blue rather than the green and gold of home. That was when he wasn't in club-issue jacket and tie, dutifully offering the house-trained sportsman's platitudes to questions he has probably heard many times already.

Bosnich took questions in a conference room at the Star City casino, along with stand-in skipper Denis Irwin, erstwhile Socceroos team-mate Alex Tobin, the promoter Rene Rivkin, United's Martin Edwards and assistant manager Steve McClaren. Rivkin is a successful and high-profile - some would say ostentatious - stockbroker. Having been thwarted in an attempt to take over a team in the Australian national league two years ago he did what might be seen as the next best thing and, in his first venture as a promoter, enticed the world's most famous sporting conglomerate away from Old Trafford.

He sat mid-table, a fat cigar protruding from the middle of his mouth like some phallic pacifier. He has an uneasy relationship with some sections of the local media and is suing the Sydney Morning Herald for its assertion that he was implicated in the apparent suicide of a female model several years ago.

In the usual manner of the promoter he described United's strikes at the MCG as "two of the best goals I've ever seen", asserted that the tour would run at a substantial profit, without saying how many tickets had been sold, and declared that, save for the few thousand "swooning" teenage girls who had chosen not to turn up because of the absent Beckham, the list of absentees had apparently made little difference to sales.

Rivkin owns two nightclubs, one attached to the Star City hotel where the teams are based, and another in the exclusive suburb of Double Bay. United's training sessions were closed to the public. If the conference was an imposition on Bosnich and Co, it was probably worth it. They were spotted by a nine-year-old boy lingering by the foyer of the casino hotel. "The players are back there," he told his friends, then paused. His timing was perfect. The kid will probably work one of the cabaret rooms at the casino when he grows up.

"They're looking at Rolexes."