AFC nomination vindicates Neill's move
Lucas Neill's nomination for AFC Player of the Year shows that his move to the Gulf states has been the right one for his career.
Lucas Neill knows just how ruthless Asian football can be.
In the Round of 16 clash between his UAE outfit Al-Jazira and Saudi opponent Al-Ahli last May, Neill stepped up to a penalty spot marking the difference between AFC Champions League glory and despair.
Staring down goalkeeper Abdullah Mayyof in a tense penalty shoot-out, Neill smashed a nigh-on perfect spot-kick and watched in agony as it clattered against the crossbar and bounced off into the night sky.
His Brazilian coach Caio Junior looked distraught. Neither man would be at Jazira come the start of the new season.
History shows Victor Simoes subsequently converted the winning penalty to knock Jazira out of the ACL and Neill was soon on his way to domestic rival Al-Wasl.
“Leaving Jazira was a strange one,” Neill admitted on his website.
“I genuinely felt I had given my all for the team but the management decided they wanted to fill the Asian spot with a midfielder. That's football and I respect them for that.”
That Neill fell out of favour with a Jazira side owned by Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan - better known as the owner of Manchester City - should come as no surprise.
The line between success and failure in the Gulf is a fine one.
However fans in Australia should also find it unremarkable that the Socceroos defender has been nominated for this year-s AFC Player of the Year award.
In a league brimming with foreign talent, Neill is highly rated. Some of those foreign names should raise eyebrows in Australia.
Brazilian goal machine Grafite, former Sunderland striker Asamoah Gyan and ex-Bundesliga star Mohamed Zidan all call the UAE Pro League home, as do one-time Italian international Giuseppe Mascara, Lebanese star Youssef Mohamad and ex-Chile captain Luis Jimenez.
Add to that experienced coaches like Quique Flores, Walter Zenga and Marcos Paqueta, surely none of whom would be out of place in the Hyundai A-League, and suddenly football in the UAE isn-t quite the cakewalk many Australians seem to think.
Neill obviously believes so, since he-s staked his international future on remaining in the Gulf state.
“There is no secret that my goal is to play on until the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Asian Cup and this contract (with Al-Wasl) fits in well with that plan,” he admitted.
“When deciding on my future I had to take into consideration the workload on my body but remain in a league that still challenged me.”
Being shortlisted for the AFC Player of the Year award suggests it was a smart decision.
Mind you, Neill-s an outsider to win it if Ulsan Hyundai-s South Korean international Lee Keun-Ho shows up for the ceremony.
Lee recently collected the ACL-s Most Valuable Player award and this year the tricky winger has been in stellar form for both club and country.
Chinese star Zheng Zhi and Iranian veteran Ali Karimi have both been nominated as well, as has Karimi-s compatriot Mohsen Bengar, suggesting it-ll be a tough ask for Neill to become the second Australian after Sasa Ognenovski to win the award.
Plenty of things need to change - not least this silly rule that players have to turn up at the ceremony to actually collect the trophy - for the Asian Football Confederation to be taken more seriously.
Instead of common sense prevailing in that department, the AFC has simply added an Asian International Player of the Year category to recognise those playing outside the region (and therefore unlikely to attend).
In more good news for Australian football Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer is a nominee, although Japanese star Shinji Kagawa surely has that one in the bag.
Nevertheless we shouldn-t overlook the significance of Australian players being nominated for AFC awards.
It demonstrates that our football is becoming increasingly respected in the region, even if it-s sometimes difficult to convince fans in Australia of that.