Nuremberg Trials

With the World Cup qualifier against Japan seemingly out of reach, Matthew Spiranovic has his sights set on returning for Australia’s final four matches

With several players sidelined, it was an optimistic Matthew Spiranovic who packed his bags for the World Cup qualifier against Bahrain last November. On the back of an impressive Beijing Olympics, national team boss Pim Verbeek had made more than one visit to the south-east of Germany to watch the stylish central defender in action.

Spiranovic was due to board a plane to fly out for the match on the Saturday evening after playing for Nuremberg but in the final training session before the match misfortune struck.

“My bags were packed and ready to go and I was looking forward to it because I knew some of the overseas boys were unavailable or out with injury,” Spiranovic recalls. “So I was looking at it as a chance to show myself, but unfortunately, as football goes sometimes, I got injured and I was devastated.

“I knew straight away it wasn-t good because I heard a loud noise. I was scared to look at it and I had a burning sensation, so I knew that I-d done something pretty bad.”

It turned out to be a snapped syndesmosis (the ligament connection of adjoining bones) between the tibia and fibula, and now, after having two screws inserted and hobbling around on crutches, Spiranovic has finally returned to the training track.

“If everything goes well, I-d like to be training with the team at the start of February and by the time I get back to full fitness, realistically it-s probably March,” he said.

Olympic glory

For someone who-s made just two Socceroos appearances, Spiranovic has created quite a buzz, and much of it has been generated from his performances at the Beijing Olympics, where he was one of the shining lights in an otherwise dismal tournament for the Olyroos.

“It was an amazing experience and something I-ll never forget, I enjoyed every minute of it on and off the field,” Spiranovic says. “Not everything went as planned, but I took a lot out if it, and a tournament like that is great for experience.

“It-s just the big match pressure you become used to and it-s important for young players. It-s do or die out there, with the crowd and what-s on the line. It-s a lot different to a club game, where if you lose one week, you-ve always got the next to fix things. This is do or die - every pass and tackle is important.”

With an under-17 World Youth Cup under his belt, the Olympics served as the ideal entrée to international football. “To be on the same field as some of those players, especially the Argentines, was fantastic - Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano, Juan Roman Riquelme, Sergio Aguero,” he says. “You go out there with that belief and you play the game to keep progressing and challenging yourself. All the boys pumped each other up, it was a great opportunity and I wouldn-t have wanted it any other way.

“For me, Messi is the best player in the world and in that game he didn-t destroy us.”

Now the 20-year-old is ready for the main course - the 2010 World Cup and barring a major mishap he-s shaping as a strong bet to be part of the squad, at the very least. For Spiranovic, to have the opportunity to be able to add to the two caps he gained against Ghana and China is something he knows lies predominantly with himself.

“It-s pretty much been a slow progression, one step to another. Pim-s shown a lot of belief in me and come to Nuremberg and watch a few games and to have that interest in me is good,” Spiranovic says, “and to get the opportunity against Ghana and China I-m very grateful. He (Pim) always lets me know when he-s coming and we always have a chat after the game.”

While many Olyroos struggled to regain their places after Beijing, Spiranovic was thrust back into the action with Nuremburg. Relegated from Bundesliga just one year after winning the German Cup final in 2007, the Bavarian club have now climbed to mid-table in the second division and are just six points off top spot. Spiranovic is relishing the chance to perform.

“Personally it-s been action packed, as soon as I got back from the Olympics, I was back in the squad because the captain, who is also centre back, got injured. I was surprised because I thought it would take me a while to get back in.

“It was frustrating early in the season because we started slowly, but we-ve started to get positive results.”

And while playing in a second division may not be ideal, the standard still remains at a high standard for him.

“It-s pretty good, maybe just a different style to the first league,” he says. “In the first league you have a lot more time and other teams sit off and it-s more tactical. Here it-s more direct and you play the percentages, even longer balls.”

Youth progression

In a sense, Spiranovic is probably the only player to have benefitted from the delayed introduction of the National Youth League. Around the time of his move overseas Melbourne Victory were unsure whether he was ready to play in the A-League and (it seems now) erred in not signing the teenager. It paved the way for a trial with Nuremberg, and within months he had made his first Bundesliga start.

While other clubs passed on deals for the likes of Nathan Burns and Bruce Djite around that time also, Spiranovic says having the youth league in place now provides more than just an easier pathway into senior football.

“The biggest bonus with having the youth league is when the national youth teams - the under 17s and 20s - are in the qualifying stages, the players will have got a lot more games under their belts,” he says. “I remember playing for the under 20s against South Korea and they were playing week in, week out, where we weren-t getting regular games and that was the biggest difference.

“A lot of us were at the AIS, and we had to organise friendlies against Premier League teams - at least they-re all playing now. And when they do come into the first team, they-re all confident, in form and fit.”

And Spiranovic has no complaints about how his own career-s unfolded. “It-s all worked out for me pretty nicely. If I had my time again I probably wouldn-t have changed anything,” Spiranovic says.

As with all Australian players, the English Premier League remains a temptation and his 192cm frame makes him particularly appealing - not to mention the fact he-s comfortable with the ball at his feet. So what does the future hold for the Geelong-born player?

“My contract runs until 2010. First I have to get myself back on the park and then we-ll see what happens.”