Football far from home
There’s been a recent increase in the number of German, and German-speaking, players showing up in Australia’s premier football competition, the A-League. Sun, surf and soccer might seem like the perfect combination for a European footballer looking to broaden his horizons, but it can be testing too.
By André Leslie
It's midday at Western Sydney Wanderers' new training facility in the outer Sydney suburb of Blacktown. Under red and black shade cloths in a sweltering courtyard, the players relax on a break, trying to preserve their energy for the upcoming afternoon training session.
Patrick Ziegler stands out amongst them, not just because of his booming laugh and happy demeanour. He's also built like a towering gum tree, with long broad legs that say "Don’t expect to dribble the ball past me."
Patrick’s father grew up in Australia but returned to Germany aged 18, meaning the tall defender spent much of his early life in Munich. He occasionally experienced Antipodean culture when his father bought Vegemite for the family at an old Australian wares shop.
"I knew Australia from what people told me about it, I could associate something with it, but I wasn't quite prepared for the last one and a half years," he says.
But despite not speaking much English, Ziegler says that soon after he arrived in Sydney last year with his wife and young daughter, he felt comfortable in his new surroundings.
"The people are a bit more relaxed than in Germany, it’s true," he says. "I spoke with my wife and asked her about her experiences, and she said the same thing. It probably has something to with the nice weather."
On the football side of things however, the 29-year-old defender says he’s been surprised at the style of play in the A-League.
"I had heard that it was sort of like the English style – very physical, long passes and lots of headers – but it’s not like that at all," Ziegler says. "The youngsters coming through are actually more technical."
New opportunitiesZiegler is one of five German-speaking foreign players currently at the Western Sydney Wanderers club, the highest number of any team in the league. All of the current crop have arrived since the appointment of German head coach Markus Babbel.
Alex Meier and Nicolai Müller, both experienced Bundesliga players, are the other two Germans, while Swiss professionals Daniel Lopar (the goalkeeper) and Pirmin Schwegler are also in the squad. In total, there are 12 German-speaking players in the A-League, plus two German coaches.
Ziegler’s teammate, Nicolai Müller, is right at the start of his Australian soccer experience. He arrived only a few weeks ago, as a last-minute injury substitute for Polish striker Radoslaw Majeski.
"Of course, it’s nicer to come here when you know someone," Müller says. "I knew Pirmin from our time playing together in Hannover. The others I hadn’t met before, but it's happened pretty quickly."
"It’s easier for us footballers, because you are going to training and you have contact with people that way, but for my wife it’s been tougher."
The 32-year-old says since arriving in Sydney he has spent time with his German teammates outside of playing football, with joint beach trips and dinners and even visits to each other's homes.
"It’s pretty cool if you think about it," he says. "That you can come to the other end of the world and still go out and do things with friends."
Bringing people togetherAround 900 kilometres south, in Melbourne, Austrian footballer Richard Windbichler doesn't have it quite so easy. The 28-year-old is one of five foreign players at Melbourne City, but none of them speak German or are former teammates.
He speaks strong English though, something that has helped him through his various overseas footballing stints in Denmark, South Korea and now in Australia.
"I learned English in school and then I had an English-speaking girlfriend and then, obviously, it got better when I moved abroad," he says. "Just learning by doing."
While Windbichler is nursing a hamstring injury, he’s been helping out at one of the club's community projects called "I Speak Football." The fun football sessions aim to help kids from non-English speaking backgrounds to break down barriers and form new friendships. It's something that resonates with the Vienna-born player.
"I experienced this myself when I played in Korea," he says. "At the start you feel like you are an outsider. You don't speak their language and you don’t know their culture. You think, maybe they are going to cut you out a little bit."
"But once you start playing football together and they see that this guy can help and this guy is adapting to our culture, then they start to respect you and take you into their group and approach you."
Despite only arriving in Melbourne in June, Windbichler says that he’s adapting well to Australian life. Now, he just wants to get back to full fitness and show what he can do.
"You know what you are capable of and you know what you have achieved, but they don’t know you," he says. "Everywhere you go in football you have to prove yourself afresh. It's a challenge."