Interview - The Sun-Herald, 15th March '09

Harry’s a Turkish Delight

Galatasaray fans love Harry Kewell and he is keen to put their club on top of the table, writes Matthew Hall in Istanbul.

There are, according to Harry Kewell, no longer any valid excuses. Such is the high level of professionalism within the Socceroos that travelling long distances for matches and lack of preparation fail to faze the Galatasaray star.

Professionalism is one reason, Kewell says, that Australia's 2010 World Cup campaign has - so far - taken the team unbeaten across the Middle East, Japan and Uzbekistan.

"Players in Europe are used to travelling," Kewell says. "It is part and parcel of the game. The only difference is the most you fly in Europe is five hours. Yes, it is difficult to fly 24 hours [to Australia] but we have the medical staff and everything we need to perform.

"It's not as if we are going and living in a caravan park. We have the best available to us. We have masseurs and the food that we want. There are no excuses [for a bad performance]. No player will make excuses."

He pauses and laughs.

"Only if we have a bad game."

This is a story about Kewell but also the professionalism that envelops Australia's most gifted and most famous footballer. And it is a story about the commitment required to recover the form that made the kid from Smithfield in Sydney's south-west one of the most talented young footballers in Europe.

Ask around Galatasaray, the Turkish club Kewell joined this season in what some saw as a surprising move, and one word keeps cropping up about their Australian import - professionalism.

That's how the club's management describes Kewell but it's not PR spin. The word keeps surfacing when talking with local reporters, the team's physiotherapist, fans and a random guy with no apparent official job who hangs around the reception area at Galatasaray's training ground.

It is also apparent in Kewell's spartan living conditions. Visit the Istanbul apartment he shares with Australian physiotherapist Les Gelis and it's clear this is not the scene of many dinner parties.

Kewell has yet to see much of the city's impressive tourist attractions. Between training sessions, Pilates classes, gym workouts, and rest, he has no time. He's in Turkey to work.

"Seeing some sights is one of the things on the list but we have no time," Kewell says. "We play so many games and are just training, resting, training, resting. Some would say we are machines."

After four years of injury hell, a now fit 30-year-old Kewell is so committed to football that he moved to Istanbul for the game while his wife, Sheree, and their three children stayed at home in England.

Kewell's surrogate family is Gelis, a former Socceroos physiotherapist, who consulted at Liverpool and can now be seen in a Galatasaray tracksuit. Their apartment is a 10-minute walk to the club's training ground.

"My family in Istanbul is Les," Kewell says. "We're here together and there is not a lot we do but train, eat, sleep, maybe play a little Xbox now and then. Other than that I am just working all the time.

"I could not have moved to Istanbul without having him here. I have always travelled and been away from my family when I was young, but this time it was different. I was going away for good. It's difficult and we're both in the same boat. We have to keep ourselves occupied and that is one reason why we work a lot."

If Kewell impresses Galatasaray officials and fans, the relationship is working two ways. On the field, the team is having an erratic season, but Istanbul has handed Kewell a new lease of life.

"I am very happy here," he says. "The weather is great. The sun is coming out now so it is time to work on the tan. I can speak a bit of Turkish. I can say hello and . . . and that is about it."

He laughs again.

"The players are very good. The majority of them speak broken English but there's a common language when you're on the park. There's a football language we all speak."

With the club in fourth place mid-season, Michael Skibbe, the German coach who signed Kewell, was sacked last month after apparently underachieving. Bulent Korkmaz, a club legend who was a player when Galatasaray won the UEFA Cup in 2000, has replaced him.

"If you ask a Galatasaray fan if the team was a top-four club, they would shoot you down," Kewell says. "There is only one club for them in Turkey and it is fantastic to be a part of it.

"There's a lot of pressure on players here. They do not concede to second. If you come second you may as well come last. You may as well be relegated. First is the only place. And even if you come first, that is expected.

"There is a lot of pressure on us but that's great. It is not good for the hair because I can see a few grey bits but I think you need pressure in football. When the pressure isn't there, you slip into easy mode and start getting sloppy."

Those words could serve as a warning to Pim Verbeek's Socceroos as they look to seal World Cup qualification in the next few months. Kewell missed the 0-0 draw with Japan in Yokohama because he was recovering from an operation but watched the game on television from Istanbul.

"It was showing live over here and I was watching it at my apartment," Kewell says. "The boys did well. The majority played Saturday - some played Sunday - so by the time they got out there, they only had time to have a sleep and then they had to play.

"We could have nicked a goal which would have been too good to be true but we still got a good result. Now we can look forward to the Uzbekistan game next month."

Kewell defends Verbeek against criticism he has been too defensive or radically conservative in his tactical approach.

Kewell says even if it is against his own personal instinct, international football is about not letting the opposition score.

"I don't think you can be too defensive," says Kewell, who played as a makeshift centre back for Galatasaray in its UEFA Cup game with Hamburg last Thursday. "Everyone wants to see 10 goals a game, I want to score nine of them, but you can't now because everyone is defending. So you have to counter-attack as quickly as possible. I don't like it but it's part of the game now."

And Tim Cahill as a lone striker against Japan? Kewell supports that improvisation as much as he does Verbeek's overall method.

"It wasn't that Tim went, 'Bang, I am going to be striker.' It wasn't that the trainer said, 'I'll play Tim up-front now.' Before Japan, he'd played the past three or four games for Everton up-front. It was a perfect tactical move. I watched the game. He worked hard. He made himself a nuisance. That is what Pim wanted."

"A good manager is one who can be a friend to the team but he still has that boundary where, 'You know what? I am still the boss,' " Kewell says of Verbeek.

"You can't have a manager who completely doesn't get on with the team or have one who is too good with the team. You have got to have that in-between. You can be friendly with the players but when it is time to crack the whip it is going to get attention."

For Kewell, it's that professionalism thing. Once again.