Loathing Lucas – Watford’s new signing hated back home

Loathing players from other national teams is nothing new for football supporters with the likes of Mark van Bommel and Wayne Rooney not really loved outside their own nations.  What happens though when a nation’s football supporters loathe their OWN National team captain?  This is actually what is happening at the moment between Australian football supporters and national team captain Lucas Neill and the question needs to be asked – Is Lucas Neill the most loathed national team captain in the world?

In an online survey by leading Australian sports website Foxsports.com.au over 78% of respondents stated that they didn’t want Neill in the National team for the upcoming World Cup.

This debate has intensified today with the news that Neill has signed on for Championship club Watford for the remainder of the season after recently training with Blackburn to keep his fitness up.  National manager Ange Postecoglou has publically stated that as long as players are playing regularly for their clubs then they will be in his calculations for the World Cup squad.  He has also come out recently challenging Neill to find himself a club in order to retain the national side captaincy following his release from Japanese club Omiya Ardija in November 2013.

Given that Neill is the incumbent captain of the Socceroos one would assume should he get decent playing time with Watford then he’ll be on the plane to Brazil.  If this is the case then what does this mean for the squad who will be in Brazil knowing that they are playing for a Captain that does not have the backing of his people.  This issue was highlighted during Australia’s last friendly against Costa Rica when Neill was booed by a section of the Sydney crowd and foolishly lashed out at the crowd for this, thus creating a schism between the team and its supporters.

Lucas Neill Lucas Neill, captain of Australia looks on during a press conference during an Australia Training session at the Wisla Krakow Stadium on September 6, 2010 in Krakow, Poland.

SO HOW DID IT GET TO THIS?

How did a formerly very popular member of Australia’s golden team of 2006 become so unloved in his own country?  After all we’re talking about a guy who by all accounts was strongly linked to Barcelona after the 2006 World Cup and then famously downed down Liverpool at the same time to join West Ham.  Neill was also given lots of sympathy in Australia for being the victim of Fabio Grosso’s ‘cheating’ to win the penalty that ultimately knocked Australia out of the 2006 World Cup.  His public image reached a crescendo after this World Cup due to these factors combined with his good looks and good media abilities.  Neill was everywhere in the media and the nation fell in love with him and this is perhaps part of the problem ie tall poppy syndrome.

Australians love nothing more than hating on those that are seen to be taking advantage of their popularity or have done something to not justify their lofty status.  In Lucas’s case he seemed to suffer fallout from his move to West Ham (over Liverpool) which at the time was rumoured to be due to West Ham offering him a higher wage. He was instantly labelled a mercenary and many starting calling him Luca$h.  This reputation has never seem to leave him since and was further enhanced by his subsequent club moves to cashed up clubs such as Galatasaray, Al Jazira and Al Wasl.

The Australian public now had a very negative view of Neill as someone who was motivated by money and fame and this was not helped by him constantly changing clubs after not having his contracts renewed.  He even attempted to play in the local A-League for Sydney FC for a minimal fee to restore his reputation but his short time at the club was marred by poor performances and many in the Australian media were imploring Neill to retire and allow the next generation to come through.

There was a perception that despite his inability to get a permanent club contract he seemed to enjoy preferential treatment with the National side and was ever present in the 2014 World Cup qualification campaign and related friendlies.  After the back to back 6-0 losses by Australia to Brazil and France in September and October 2013 many were convinced that Neill was too out of form and old to be considered as an important part of the National setup with many in the media again calling on him to retire.  When Holger Osieck was then sacked as National team manager after these losses many though that new manager Postecoglou would sweep a broom through the squad and this included replacing Neill as captain with the much more populist choices of either Tim Cahill or Mile Jedinak.

Much to everyone’s surprise Neill was not only selected to play in the Costa Rica friendly despite being clubless but also captained the side.  It was these tensions that resulted in the crowd booing his every touch and Neill then responding in kind to the crowd.  The situation was further inflamed with Neill stating that the next generation of Australian players did not have the right attitude to play in the side, which further got up the noses of the public who have been asking for a generational change in the side.

Many were then convinced that with Neill being clubless at the start of 2014 that he would be no chance of he being included in the World Cup squad but this latest development puts him right back into the frame.  It must be said that part of the reason why Neill hasn’t retired from International duty is the belief that there is no one better than him to replace him.  When fit there is no doubt that Neill is a very calm and collected central defender who is great on the ball and can still do a job on any striker out there.

Whilst there are some younger defenders coming through the ranks, such as Curtis Good (Newcastle United), Matthew Spiranovic (Western Sydney) and Rhys Williams (Middlesbrough) the paradox is that they haven’t been able to get the exposure to the Australian set up that their development needs because Neill has been ever present.  This situation echoes that of Mark Schwarzer whose longevity prevented other top Aussie goalies from breaking through until his retirement late last year.  This is not Neill’s problem though for as long as he’s committed and keeps getting selected for the side he’ll keep putting his hand up.

Ange Postecoglou knows he’s on a hiding to nothing with the group that Australia has in the World Cup and so he needs to make a decision.  He can either try and get one last spirited set of performances out of what’s left of the golden generation, including Neill, or does he use the opportunity to blood the new generation into the cauldron of a World Cup and build towards something fresh.  It seems the Australian public has already played judge and jury here and the verdict is that they do not want Lucas Neill to go to Brazil.  We will get a sneak peak of Ange’s intentions with the naming of the squad for an upcoming friendly against Ecuador next month.  In the meantime though there will be a lot of interest in Neill’s situation at Watford and whether Mr Unpopular can turn around his fortunes between now and June.

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