Johnny Warren was football’s greatest evangelist and captain.
“My dream,” he once told this writer, “is to see football as popular as Aussie rules and the rugby codes.”
Today, with the A-League’s packed arenas, passionate fans and scintillating contests, and Australia’s regular World Cup appearances, Warren’s dream is coming true. Sadly, the man they called Captain Kangaroo is not here to say, “I told you so,” falling to lung cancer in 2004, aged 61, just as A-League was kicking off.
In the 1960s and ‘70s when Warren was so forcefully championing the credibility of his beloved game, as a skilful midfielder leading Australia in 24 internationals and later as a coach, writer and commentator, soccer was routinely derided as Wogball, a “foreigner’s” game in which players took unmanly dives to win penalties, and fans, perpetuating the hatreds of the old country, were regarded as brawling, Molotov cocktail-hurling terrorists.
Warren tirelessly spruiked that the key to success was for soccer to have “a distinctly-Australian character [and] be a professionally-administered national competition with fine local and international players competing in a family-friendly, non-political environment.” His advice was taken to heart.
When the A-League coined its annual best and fairest player award it was a no-brainer that it be named the Johnny Warren Medal.
He said, “If people credit me for making things better for soccer I’ll be satisfied. I’d also like to think I set a good example as Australian captain and never shirked my responsibility to make football a better, more accepted game for the generations of players to come.”