Interview - Alpha Magazine Sep '08

It’s the strangest transfer move of the season, and yet Harry Kewell believes his move to Galatasaray is one filled with Eastern promise.
Words Rob Pegley Photography James Demitri

He’s gone where?

Like most Australians, the Alpha office reacted with a mixture of disbelief, confusion and, frankly disappointment at Harry’s move to Turkey. Only days earlier we’d spent a morning with Harry at a photoshoot, when he was still between clubs. At that point, there were only three rumoured to be interested in his services and all of them – Fulham, Portsmouth and AS Roma- seemed, on face value, more palatable than Galatasaray. As a Pompey fan, I spent the morning trying to persuade Harry of the benefits of signing for his namesake, Harry Redknapp at Portsmouth. But with Mark Schwarzer heading to resurgent Premier League side Fulham –based in one of London’s trendiest areas- a move to Craven Cottage also appeared a good option. In addition, there was the chance for him to play Serie A football alongside Totti and his old Liverpool teammate Riise in the beautiful city of Rome – nothing to be sniffed at.

Harry was in good spirits, but gave nothing away about his impending plans, indicating it would be early August before anything was finalised. In the event, he signed for Gala on July 5. At the shoot, Nikolai Mandic (son of Bernie, Kewell’s manager, and part of the management team) had told us teasingly that Harry was keen to learn a new language. We just didn’t think it would be Turkish. Let’s look at things objectively: there’s no doubt Galatasaray is a big club. In 2001, they were named the Best Football Club in the World, following on from a 2000 season that saw them do the Turkish double, beat Arsenal on penalties to win the UEFA Cup and overturn Real Madrid’s Galacticos to win the European Supercup.

Their intimidating Ali Sami Yen Stadium is often adorned with “Welcome to Hell banners”.  And, indeed, during the 2000 UEFAS Cup Campaign, two Leeds fans were stabbed to death in semi-final leg played in Istanbul. Leeds fans haven’t forgotten, and Kewell was forced to write an open letter to them defending his move. In a gesture of goodwill, he opted to take his old Leeds shirt No.19 as his new number at Gala.

Harry is also not the first big foreign star to play for the Istanbul Club. Graeme Souness managed them, tempting Dean Saunders and Barry Venison to join him for one controversial season. Brad Friedel, Frank De Boer, Mario Jardel and Gheorge Hagi have also all pulled on the shirt.

As for Istanbul itself, it was voted the third-best city in Europe in ’07, after Rome and beating Paris. The East-meets-West culture there is fascinating, and the weather is certainly better than that at Leeds or Liverpool.

Kewell has also signed a two-year contract, when most savvy English clubs would have only been tabling a one-year deal because of his past injuries. And, finally, he gets to play Champions League football, putting himself in the window for a move to a so-called bigger club if he proves the injury problems are behind him. It all makes sense, doesn’t it? Well, doesn’t it?

Istanbul is a beautiful city, Galatasaray is a club with passionate fans and you’ll be playing Champions League football next year. Is that why you chose to sign for them?
Yeah, Galatasaray and Istanbul are all of those things, so you’ve summed up that side of things pretty well. It was a decision made without thinking about anything except my football. This is the place where I can come and enjoy my football. The Club did everything that I asked for in terms of how I’ll be looked after health-wise. After weighing up everything, such as football, family and culture, it was an easy decision to make.

What do you say to people who question the move as strange?
Galatasaray is a massive club, simple as that. Of the Turkish squad that just finished in the top four in Euro 2008 –and could have easily made the final- eight of those players were from Galatasaray. They weren’t just squad players, either. Each of those eight players started for Turkey at some point during the tournament. In the two matches that Turkey won, fixe Galatasaray players started. In another match they won, and another that they lost to Germany in semi-finals, four Galatasaray players started. It’s very rare for one club to contribute so many players to a national team that has had so much success. When you compare these sort of results with those of other clubs, I’m very comfortable being where I am –at a top club.

Is it a weird “football v life” situation that fans would have preferred you to move somewhere like Aston Villa and not play in Europe?
Fans who watch mainly the Premier League probably say that. Fans who enjoy Champions League more wouldn’t and there’s no way that anyone could argue that outside of the top four in England, that the Champions League is not better than the Premier League. But I don’t see it as football v life. They are obviously entwined, but it was an easy decision in terms of football and in terms of life.

You’re only 29. How long will you play for?
I’ve said before that I could see myself playing until I’m 40. I’m feeling great and have for a while, so I definitely see no end in sight.

Assuming you play that long, I presume you won’t be in Turkey for that whole time. What other ambitions for club football do you have?
I definitely wouldn’t rule out playing that long in Turkey. I feel like I’ve everything to play for and achieve. Obviously, helping Gala defend their title, and winning in Europe is my No.1 priority. Anywhere you go, you want to win, and that’s why I’m here.

For Aussie fans about to have Galatasaray as their second team, what facts or phrases do they need to know?
Knowing how many Gala players play for a top national team is good to know. The manager of Spain (Luis Aragones), who won Euro 2008 will be managing in Turkey this year (at Fenerbahce) and the top scorer in the Spanish Primera Liga last season is also in Turkey (Dani Guiza, Fenerbahce).

Whatever Harry says, we probably need to witness a few months of his new life at Gala to be totally convinced. As we await the season’s start, the move remains something of an enigma. Like his move to Gala, meeting Harry in itself is a surprise. He’s taller and leaner than you’d expect. He’s better looking than you’d expect, too. “He’s perfect” said the female make-up artist at his Alpha shoot. “I didn’t need to do a thing”.

He’s also wittier, cheekier and more direct than you’d imagine, sharing quips about Liverpool and giving me stick about supporting Portsmouth and the fans who inhabit Fratton Park.

Although at ease with everyone during the shoot, at the same time he maintained a slight distance due to an unmistakable aura. It’s easy to see why Harry is the most important footballer that Australia has ever produced. He’s almost the stereotyped modern footballer: model looks, prominent tattoo, Vegas marriage to a soap star, all while retaining an everyman charm. Everyone loves Harry in Australia. On the day of our shoot at Parramatta Stadium, there was a stuff-up and they weren’t expecting us. An administrator wasn’t happy and for a while it seemed that the photographs weren’t going ahead. But when Harry arrived, suddenly there were smiles all around and instant access to grandstand.

Australians don’t care that Harry’s career has been hampered by injury. We just remember fondly the brilliant teenager at Leeds who entertained us alongside Mark Viduka. And we point to the fact that Harry has both FA Cup and Champions League medals. In fact, since his debut in ’95, Harry has played an impressive 378 top-level games for Leeds and Liverpool.

Although there was a massive blacklash in the UK press when he moved to Liverpool for financial reasons (at the time Gary Lineker was said that he was sickened by it), Gala will be only Kewell’s third club. It’s a fairly rare situation these days.

Despite his achievements, you suspect that Harry’s time at Liverpool was not a happy one. One wonders what an autobiography down the track will have to say about his time at Anfield, but for now he’s happy to put a positive spin on it…

How do you look back on your time at Liverpool?
Liverpool is a great club and always will be, but it was time for a change. While I was there, we won the Champions League, played in two Champions League finals, won the FA  Cup, and one season, finished with the highest points tally by any Liverpool side ever in the Premier League. I will always have real memories about that success and everything that went into it.

Will Liverpool ever be successful under Rafael Benitez, or is it time for a change?
Any manager who, in the space for of four years, achieves what he’s done and has his record in Europe would be considered successful. After what he’s done at Liverpool, you could never say there should be a change.

Who will you stay in touch with from your Anfield days?
Finnan and Djib.

For all his longer and more eloquent responses, perhaps these blunt three words say more about Harry than anything else. The current Liverpool squad boasts 59 players, including the knockabout scousers Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. Over his five years at Anfield, Harry would have come across over 100 players. Only two make his Christmas-card list: Steve Finnan, an anonymous right back; and Djibril Cisse, a temperamental Frenchman whose Liverpool career was blighted by injury, like Kewell’s. Perhaps a friendship developed over days sweating through rehab training?

Totally at ease with his Aussie teammates at international level, Harry clearly didn’t bond that strongly with his Liverpool colleagues. In an interview he gave the BBC when leaving Leeds, he accused his teammates of ostracizing him. Perhaps Harry is a player content to turn up, play his football and then go home to his wife and three children. Hey not everyone fancies a beer after work.

The fact 21 of Gala’s 26 players are Turkish may not be the problem it could be for other players needing the banter of a changing room to settle in. Unless Lucas Neill’s rumoured move to join Kewell materializes, Harry’s only non-Turkish company will be a Brazilian, a Swede, a Portuguese defender and a striker from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Harry might be pretty self-contained, but that’s a hard environment to enjoy by anybody’s standards. Even if Harry’s stay in Turkey turns out to only be a brief one, perhaps he should start learning Turkish after all, or that Christmas-card list won’t be growing longer.