All about the Socceroos, by the book

All sports have their unsung heroes.

Sometimes they are that indispensable, no-fuss, no-nonsense player in the team, the one who goes about their business quietly and efficiently, making a major contribution but rarely attracting plaudits.

In other cases they might be the selfless, hard-working volunteer, the person who has perhaps played for a club’s lower sides in their youth and retains an emotional and physical attachment as they age.

This kind turns up not just to watch the stars play but provides support and encouragement, practical help and often financial assistance when called upon.

There are many others, but one who doesn’t always get the credit they deserve is the statistician. A ‘‘statto’’ is someone who follows a sport in forensic detail. A statto has an obsession with finding out every aspect of the contemporary game. And when they have done that, their attention turns to the historical record.

A burning, compulsive drive fuels their commitment to endless research and the accumulation of detailed information about a sport’s history and its past players.

The stars are easy enough to find. But the statto's determination and love of their pursuit ensures they dive ever deeper into a game’s history, lore and traditions.

Some sports are better suited to this pursuit and have historically been well-served by their administrators and statisticians who have collated a reliable accumulation of data down the decades.

Cricket is probably pre-eminent in this regard, with the Wisden Almanack first published in 1854.
American sports such as gridiron (with its set plays), basketball (with its time-outs) and baseball (with its changes of innings) all have similar stop-start rhythms to cricket and are ideally suited to the collection of statistical data.

Soccer’s history in many countries is well-documented. In Australia, where the game has been for so long a minor or secondary sport, is rather different.

But now the game has its own unsung hero, its own ‘‘statto extraordinaire’’ in Andrew Howe, the Adelaide-based statistician (yes, that really is his day job) who has made it his life’s work to chronicle, record, collate and order the definitive events and people who have made the game in this country what it is today.

Sydney-born Howe is an invaluable assistant to every journalist, PR man or administrator who has worked in the game in the past 20 years.

Soccer’s historical record is patchy, and the statistics validating events, games and sometimes whole careers were not always what they might be.

But Howe, who said he became entranced by the game when he wandered into multicultural Apia Leichardt as a 19-year-old, has performed wonders to set the record straight.

Most of the time his work is undertaken in the background.

But his latest tome – Encyclopedia of Socceroos: Every National Team Player – will ensure he grabs at least some time in the spotlight.

Aided by veteran journalist Ray Gatt, who worked for Fairfax earlier in his career but is now the chief soccer writer with The Australian, the encyclopedia is just that: a detailed record and career analysis of every player who has ever donned the green and gold (or whatever variation thereof Australia was using at their time in the game).

It’s a labour of love, but it is far more than just a dry list of names, dates and numbers denoting those, from Atilla Abonyi (89 international games between 1967 and 1977 for 36 goals) to Sydney defender Michael Zullo (10 games, no goals between 2009 and 2013), who have represented their country.

There is information galore, great action pictures of the men in question, lots of trivia and a special section devoted to World Cup captains – from the reclusive Peter Wilson, through Mark Viduka, the almost reclusive Lucas Neill and the current skipper Mile Jedinak.

More than anything though this book places soccer in its Australian context. It reveals its history, its culture, its stories and its role in helping integrate generations of immigrants into the Australian way of life.

It will bring to life new heroes for fresh-faced fans, trigger memories for older supporters and shine a light on the unappreciated and unknown.

Howe and Gatt have done themselves proud – and in so doing, provided the game not just with a great reference book but have done it a great service.

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