Interview - Sunday Magazine, 5th Oct '08

Kewell Operator
Tony Magnusson

Harry Kewell is seated at a rooftop restaurant in Istanbul's Sultanahmet district on a breezy, late summer's evening. As the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia look on, the 30-year-old midfielder shrugs off his jacket to show me a tattoo.
I've already clocked the tribal design on the back of his right hand, which resembles a sort of martial arts-inspired death blade. But the one he's now revealing is a whole different proposition; the word 'tattoo' barely does it justice. It's more of an extended pictorial narrative in glorious Technicolor, engulfing his gym-cut left shoulder before coursing down a bulging bicep.

"It's Aztec," he informs me, "and it's all symbolism. I wanted something to represent my family. This man, here, is me, facing all my fears against this snake dragon, the one with the feathers. I have a weapon, too, just in case I need it.

That, there, is my wife Sheree's symbol, her month in the Aztec calendar." He points out symbols representing their children - Taylor, 7, Ruby, 5, and Matilda, 6 months - before identifying another section, around the back of his arm, where he's "kind of praying" while descending a pyramid. "Then you have the rosary beads going down the length of my arm."

Created by a young Mexican tattooist from Liverpool, it's a stunning piece of imagery that took the pair six hours just to conceive. How long did it take to execute, I wonder. "About 36 hours," says Kewell. "Not all at once. It was broken up. My little boy, Taylor, wants one when he gets older," he says, sliding back into his jacket. "We'll see."

Kewell has good reason to want his family close to his heart - or his elbow, at least - right now. Since signing to Galatasaray, Turkey's most successful soccer team, in July, he's been based in Istanbul while his family have continued to reside in England. "We missed the period for enrolling our kids into school here," he says.

"They would have just sat at home all day and we couldn't have that, so they've stayed in England for the moment." That said, they've visited their dad's new base and are warming to it. "They love Istanbul. They come out here more and more."

For his part, Kewell had only ever visited Turkey's largest metropolis (with a population of around 13 million) while playing for Leeds United. "But it's a beautiful city." A place best seen from behind the wheel of a fast-moving vehicle, it seems.

"I'm loving the driving," he says. "You really get in amongst it." Are locals maniacs on the road? "Crazy," says Kewell. "But I like that. I'll probably lose my licence once I'm back in England but, hey, it doesn't matter."

With his gentle voice, boyish complexion and crinkly eyed smile - not to mention love of fast cars - it would be tempting to cast Kewell as the Peter Pan of soccer. In reality, the Sydney-born athlete had to grow up faster than most of his contemporaries, leaving behind the comforts of family life to trial with Leeds United as a 15-year-old.

He was subsequently offered a contract and relocated to England, making his debut in 1996 at the age of 17.

Kewell's career to date has seen him scale the dizzying heights of success (Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) Young Player of the Year '99/'00'; winner of the Union of European Football Association (UEFA) Champions League with Liverpool FC in '04/'05 and the FA Cup in '06) and chart the depths of despair (a series of recurring injuries that saw many of Liverpool's fans turn against him).

At times, the highs and lows occurred simultaneously - when an injured Kewell exited the pitch in the first half of the Champions League final against AC Milan, he was booed. Liverpool went on to claim the trophy, but it was a bittersweet victory for the man who'd moved to the club on an $11 million transfer.

Looking back on his five years with Liverpool, Kewell is philosophical. "As the player they signed and were excited about, well, obviously I was inhibited by injuries, which was frustrating for fans because they wanted to see me play. I'd play one game, then miss three or four. I could never get the ball rolling."

Things turned nasty, with the UK press claiming Kewell cost the club more than $300,000 per game actually played. He wasn't sad to say goodbye. "I was happy to close that book and start a new chapter," he says, with some understatement.

Released on a free transfer at the end of the English season, Kewell and his manager, Bernie Mandic, were in talks with various clubs. They chose Galatasaray because, says Kewell, "Other clubs weren't showing the respect you show normal human beings. There were a few personal things I needed and they agreed. It wasn't about the money."

Mandic later tells me that many of the clubs they were 'in talks' with were trying to have their cake and eat it, too. "They kept playing games - 'Oh, you've been injured.' It's similar to what you see in the housing market. There's an asset in distress and they think they'll nickel and dime it. Galatasaray just asked us, 'What do you guys need?'"

Kewell needed to bring his physiotherapist, Les Gelis, along with him. "Harry's attitude is, 'Les helped me through all the sh*t when I was at Liverpool and basically saved me from what could have been career-ending injuries. This guy stays with me and he comes into the club,'" says Mandic.

If the footballer was unsure of his decision, or of the reaction of Galatasaray's devoted fans to the news he'd signed, he was soon set straight on arriving at Istanbul airport. "I walked around a corner and saw about 15 TV cameras and 30 photographers.

The next thing, I hear this noise - I didn't know what it was." Upon entering the arrivals hall proper, Kewell was greeted by a crowd of elated fans, all chanting his name in unison. "It took us 20 minutes to reach the taxi area. It was fantastic."

He repaid their enthusiasm by scoring a goal in his first appearance for Galatasaray in August. "First game, first touch. I couldn't have missed it, though," he says. "My team-mate put the ball on a plate for me; I had an open goal." Still, he's glad to have ticked that box. "When a player moves to a new club, it's important to get off to a good start. The first thing you want to do is hit the back of the net."

In spite of being the only Turkish club to have won a major European title - it took both the UEFA Cup (against Arsenal) and the Super Cup (against Real Madrid) in '99/'00 - Galatasaray has been struggling of late. In January 2001, the club topped the world ranking; by August 2008, it had slipped to 51st.

Despite being the defending champion in the domestic league, the 103-year-old club has missed out on this season's top-tier Champions League and is now focusing on the second-tier UEFA Cup.

Does Galatasaray have what it takes to regain its former glory? "It's going to be hard. We have to play well together and fight not only for one game, or three, but for the whole season," says Kewell.

Unfortunately, the game Galatasaray plays the night before our interview, at their home stadium of Ali Sami Yen against a minor team from the south of Turkey, is underwhelming. Kewell acquits himself well, staying with the action for 75 minutes and displaying the best ball-handling skills on the pitch by far, but his team-mates seem dazed by the opposition's aggressive playing strategy.

Kewell wears number 19 for Galatasaray; a number he wore while at Leeds United and which, he hopes, will remind him of "those good old days.

"I played well for Leeds and enjoyed that number," he says. "It was a sign to say, 'What happened in the middle part of my career (with Liverpool), just forget about it.'" It must be hard for someone whose childhood dream was to play for Liverpool - who turned down both Manchester United and Chelsea in favour of The Reds - to say those words.

There's further symbolism to the number, in that two Leeds United fans were stabbed to death in Istanbul in 2000, on the eve of the team's UEFA Cup semi-final against Galatasaray.

"It was a terrible thing. I was there, I know exactly what the fans, the families and the players went through." Was this his way of effecting reconciliation? "You could say God looked down and said, 'Take the number 19, make that kind of connection.' Maybe he did and that's what I felt. Maybe that's why I picked it."

Since signing, Kewell has been working hard, playing seven games in a month and travelling constantly. "It's fantastic, because I've not done that for a long time. The players have treated me well; you work hard for them, they work hard for you."

Added to that workload is his preparation with the Socceroos in their quest to qualify for the 2010 Asian World Cup. Of their upcoming game against Qatar in Brisbane on October 15, he says it's important they win all their home games, at least.

"If we can do that and draw away from home, we should qualify. We have a young, stable team and a good manager. We shocked a few teams last time, so they're going to be taking us seriously. It'll be more difficult, but you never know."

It's telling that in spite of his hectic schedule, Kewell is happy to conduct an interview mid-evening, when he could be relaxing. Unlike reports to the contrary, there's nothing remotely diva-like about him. He has a job to do - as ambassador for Australian menswear brand Politix - and he's getting on with it.

Politix managing director Peter Sitch recalls how Kewell "provided the spark" for the Socceroos' famous victory against Uruguay in the last World Cup qualifying series. "When he had the ball, the crowd stood up, expecting something special. Harry was Australia's inspiration," he says.

Little wonder then that Sitch was inspired to seek out Kewell to help him re-energise the 21-year-old label. "Harry has once-in-a-generation star power. Not since Greg Norman has there been an Australian who transcends his sport and dominates in the heart and mind of the Aussie bloke to such a degree," says Sitch. "And best of all, Harry doesn't wear an Akubra."

"I like to wear the latest fashion," says Kewell of his taste in clothes, "but I have no idea. I'm a normal guy; I'll go into a shop and think, what goes with what?" he says. "I'll admit it, my wife shops for me."

Kewell remembers walking into a hotel room in Manchester that Sitch had turned into a mini-boutique for their meeting. "I looked around and thought, this is my wardrobe." He was impressed by the label's strong foundations, stylish but unfussy European sensibility and proud Australian heritage.

"Harry is the perfect fit," says Sitch. "Blokes respect him as a sportsman and relate to his fashion sense. He personifies sport and fashion, which is unusual in Australia. Few sportsmen cross over into fashion in the Beckham way, but Harry does."

Lights twinkle across the Bosphorus from the Asian side of Istanbul as we conclude our interview and Kewell trots off for a good night's rest.

He's up early the next morning, ready for his close-up. He makes modelling in public look effortless when, really, it's a logistical nightmare, considering he's a celebrity in these parts. Soldiers guarding the Ottoman Empire's historical treasures shyly ask for photos with Galatasaray's new pin-up.

He might be a sportsman who can cross over into fashion, but spend a day with Kewell and you soon realise he has no wish to emulate the kind of lifestyles lived by those at Beckingham Palace.

"Sheree and I are normal people," he says, as the photoshoot winds up. "We drop our kids off at school, we speak to the mums and dads, we go round to their places."

On visits back to Sydney, he'll pop into his favourite chip shop "when I'm allowed", he chuckles. "I'm not one to hide. If you want it," he continues, referring to the paparazzi trail, "it's out there. If not " his voice trails off. "At the end of the day, I play football. It's not as if I'm building a rocket to go and live on the moon."