Socceroo striker Robbie Kruse speaks openly about his injury, missing the World Cup, being labelled a flop in Germany and his new and improved mindset as Australia prepare to open the Asian Cup this Friday night against Kuwait.
The last time Australia played in Melbourne, Robbie Kruse was at his lightning best. A lot has happened in the intervening 19 months since that sensational FIFA World Cup qualifier when the Socceroos put Jordan to the sword 4-0 at Docklands, Kruse bagging a brilliant individual goal to help lay the platform for qualification to Brazil.
Six months after that wonderful night, Kruse had to overcome a devastating ACL injury resulting from an innocuous turn in training, one which effectively ruled him out of the 2014 World Cup.
Having to watch a tournament in which he was integral in helping the Socceroos qualify was tough enough. Losing his chance to cement a regular spot at his German club Bayer Leverkusen and the chance of Champions League football was another hammer blow.
Then there was the rehab.
The loneliness, the mental toughness needed, the questions about his future - all undertaken in a harsh German winter. For a Brisbane boy who loves his sunshine it wasn’t easy the daily rehab grind at Leverkusen.
Little wonder the 26-year-old former Roar and Victory striker demonstrates a more mature, reflective and grateful outlook, as he explains.
“If you knew me early on in my years things came more naturally to me on the football field. I didn’t think I had to work hard for it. And when you’re young you make silly decisions.
“I was earning good money for my age [at Brisbane Roar] and I thought this was as good as it gets. I didn’t probably realise what I could do in football till I moved to Melbourne Victory then to an even greater extent when I moved to Germany.
“It opened my eyes. That I was from Australia but could be really good at football. And Leverkusen is a massive club in Germany. Every year we’re in the Champions League.
“I’m privileged and honoured to be paid to do something I love. That realisation, it took a while to sink in. Sometimes I think how some players never let it sink in, how good a chance or how lucky they are.
“For me, fortunately, it hit me. And I haven’t looked back since. People close to me see my new attitude.”
As a sign of his commitment, Kruse elected to stay in Germany to do his rehab. A return to sunnier climes could’ve been the easier option. Among family and friends and an Aussie summer.
But no. Kruse bit the bullet at Bayer, a club he signed for in 2013.
“Most players come back to Australia in the early part of the rehab, but I chose to stay in Germany. I knew I could do it then 100% without distractions. I was still in the face of the club, part of the team, still getting fined if I was late for a session.
“I was there from 8.30am to 4-5pm. The club is very proud of me and they tell me every day how happy they are and how well I did my rehab. I was training with the team after five and half to six months, which was quite quick.
“I’ve been going really well and it says a lot about how I’ve changed, as a footballer and as a professional. I’m doing the little things off the field that will help me on the field. It makes a big difference.”
He admits diet is one area he’s looking at conceding he may’ve been overweight.
“I did look at Mark Schwarzer’s diet. Not to the extent he has because as a field player you do need a lot of energy. But I’m now fuelling my body with the right things.”
Kruse concedes he’s still a little way off where he was pre-injury, noting the last couple of percent is the hardest.
Catching up with fellow Mitch Langerak - who lives about 30 minutes from him - and spending time with his fiancee and their pet dog has helped Kruse get through the hard times.
But hard times have been par for the course for Kruse.
He was labelled a “flop” in the first year after he signed for Dusseldorf from Victory in 2011, after he didn’t play much at all.
“It was difficult but Holger [Osieck, then Socceroo boss] told me there’d be days when I’d want to cry and go home. And I did have days when I wanted to go home.
“But I stuck it out. Had a great season and transferred to Bayer Leverkusen where I had a good first half of the season before the injury.
“I’m in a happy space at the moment. I was a tough time. But mentally I’ve come back stronger than before," says Kruse, who has 35 caps after debuting for Australia five years ago.
Who knows how the Socceroos would have done in Brazil had Kruse been fit and firing alongside Tim Cahill.
But repeating his performance from 19 months ago on Friday night as the Socceroos kick off their Asian Cup adventure would be a good start to 2015.
“Football has a lot ups and downs,” Kruse said. “I’ve had both but it’s about riding the wave and coming out better at the end.
“Hopefully the luck is turning for me now.
“I really appreciate football now and the Socceroos jersey more so than before my injury because you don’t realise the magnitude of wearing the colours of the national team till it’s taken away."
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