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Kuala Lumpur: Often heralded as Australia’s greatest footballer, Harry Kewell is considered to be among his nation’s finest sporting exports.

With the legendary midfielder and now Crawley Town coach celebrating his 39th birthday on September 22, the-AFC.com profiles a player who can be considered a true Asian icon. 

Four days in June

If ever there was a period of time that encapsulated Harry Kewell’s career with the Australian national team, it was four days in June 2006 during the FIFA World Cup in Germany.

On June 22, 2006 at Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion in Stuttgart, Kewell scored arguably his most important goal in the green and gold – a 79th minute equaliser against Croatia to earn Australia a spot in the Round of 16 and a match against Italy.

“Australia’s golden boy has scored a golden goal,” screamed commentator Simon Hill as Kewell ran away to celebrate, the sheer ecstasy written all over his face.

But just four days later his ecstasy turned to heartbreak. Again.

As bleary-eyed Australians turned on their television sets in the middle of the night in joyous anticipation, they were greeted with an all-too-familiar sight – Kewell on crutches. Once again Kewell’s body had failed him.

On the biggest stage for what should have been his finest moment, a knockout round match against one of world football’s biggest nations, Kewell was once again reduced to the role of spectator.

Boy Genius

It wasn’t always the case, however.

When he burst onto the scene as a prodigiously talented 17-year-old with Leeds United he had the world at his feet, and became the youngest debutant for Australia when he made his debut against Chile aged just 17 years and seven months in 1996, just three weeks after making his debut for the Leeds United senior team.

Born and raised in Smithfield, in Sydney’s western suburbs, Kewell honed his skills at one of Australia’s greatest football nurseries, Marconi Stallions, a club that has developed the likes of Paul Okon, Frank Farina and Mark Schwarzer to name just a few.

At the age of just 15, Kewell packed his bags and headed for England after a successful trial with Leeds United, the club where he would make his name in world football.

Before he took the English Premier League by storm, he announced himself as a genuine star of Australian football as a fresh-faced 19-year-old with the opening goal in a 1-1 draw against Iran in front of 128,000 people at the Azadi Stadium in the first leg of the play-off for the 1998 FIFA World Cup.

Such a stage would have overawed many, even those with vastly more experience. Not Kewell. He thrived on it.

If that wasn’t enough, he followed it up a few days later in front of 98,000 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, opening the scoring again as Australia looked headed for the 1998 FIFA World Cup before a late comeback saw Iran prevail on away goals.

But as Australia mourned its loss, a new star was born and before long Kewell was terrorising defences in the Premier League for Leeds United, alongside Socceroos teammate Mark Viduka.

At just 21 years of age he won the PFA Young Player of the Year award and was regarded as one of the best and most exciting wingers in world football, with some of the world’s most decorated clubs clamouring for his signature.

Leeds resisted the overtures and Kewell repaid their loyalty by playing a key role in their run to the semi finals of the 1999/2000 UEFA Cup, in which he scored five goals and had five assists, and followed it up a year later in their improbable run to the semi finals of the 2000/01 UEFA Champions League.

Liverpool Heartbreak

As Leeds financial troubles hit hard in the early part of this century, Kewell eventually moved away from Elland Road and with the likes of AC Milan, Barcelona, Arsenal and Manchester United reportedly keen on his signature, Kewell signed for the club he had supported as a boy – Liverpool.

But his time at Anfield was blighted by constant and recurring injuries.

In the 2005 UEFA Champions League final against AC Milan, then Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez showed incredible faith in Kewell, whose season had been decimated by injury, by selecting him to start against AC Milan in Istanbul.

The gamble backfired as Kewell was again felled by injury, this time a torn abductor muscle, with the devastated winger jeered by sections of Liverpool fans.

Injury struck again in a major final when he tore his groin in the 2006 FA Cup final against West Ham United, putting in doubt his participation in the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

Kewell’s injury plagued four years at Anfield ended in 2008 when he signed for Turkish giants Galatasaray.

It may have been the warmer weather but the move to Turkey certainly agreed with Kewell, who was able to play regular football and show some of the form that had made him a star, scoring 22 goals in 63 league matches and 10 goals in 21 matches in European competitions, becoming a crowd favourite with the passionate Galatasaray fans in the process.

Speaking last year, Kewell revealed he fell out of love with football during his time with Liverpool.

"I was going through a bad moment towards the end of my time at Liverpool, because I didn't know what was happening with myself," Kewell told SBS The World Game.

"I remember sitting on the end of the bed and telling my wife 'what's going on? I may have to quit' - I wasn't enjoying football I wasn't feeling great, every time I was playing, my body was breaking down.

"We decided that I had to move to get a fresh start and break out of England ... my adventure started in Istanbul and I remember just falling in love with football again because I had gone through such a horrible time.

"At Leeds I felt great, then I won a lot of things at Liverpool but on an individual level it just wasn't great for me and I just didn't really love football that much.

"So when you talk about falling in love with football again that's what Galatasaray did for me."

National Star

While Kewell fell in and out of love with the game, it’s fair to say that across his career fans in Australia fell in and out of love with Kewell too, with some sections of fans and media disappointed by Kewell’s repeated no-shows for national team duty, with the impression being, rightly or wrongly, that he only turned up when it suited him.

But as his career wore on, few could doubt his commitment to the green and gold.

While he is feted for his goals and wonderful striking of the ball, it’s a miskick that will go down in folklore, with his mistimed attempt at a strike falling perfectly for Mark Bresciano to smash home the all-important goal in Australia’s do-or-die qualifier against Uruguay in 2005. Never has a miskick been so celebrated.

The 2010 FIFA World Cup, like the one in 2006, however, was to end with disappointment, with Kewell sent off for a handball in what was to be his only appearance in the second match of the group stage against Ghana. It was to be his last act at a FIFA World Cup.

Kewell played for Australia in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup Final

Twice Kewell played at the AFC Asian Cup – in 2007 and 2011 – but try as he might, he couldn’t get his hands on the silverware, despite a brilliant tournament in 2011 when he led Australia to the final against Japan, earning a place in the Best XI for the tournament in the process.

Homecoming

After three successful seasons in Turkey, and nearing the end of his career, Kewell created waves of excitement in Australia when he announced he was coming home to sign for A-League side Melbourne Victory, in what was the biggest signing in A-League history at the time.

While he cut short his time in Melbourne after one season for family reasons, fans in Australia were once again reminded of the individual brilliance that he possesses. After a short stint in Qatar with Al Gharafa, it was announced Kewell would return to Melbourne to play for the city’s second A-League side, Melbourne Heart (now Melbourne City).

He announced his retirement from football in March 2014 after 515 matches and 124 goals with six clubs across 18 years.

In 2012 he was voted as Australia’s greatest ever footballer and in 2014 was one of 10 inaugural inductees into the Asian Football Hall of Fame.

Quite simply, he is one of Australia’s and Asia’s finest ever players.

Photos: Lagardère Sports

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