'The boss' bows out with a smile

IF there’s any sadness in calling time on an 18-year career in professional football, Ross Aloisi’s doing a damned good job hiding it.

IF there-s any sadness in calling time on an 18-year career in professional football, Ross Aloisi-s doing a damned good job hiding it.

“I see a lot of guys in similar situations when they retire and there are lots of tears. Me? I can-t get the smile off my face.”

Still, one of the hard men of Australian football got a little choked up when he formally announced his retirement from all football on Thursday. It shouldn-t be surprising, really - Aloisi-s the sort of guy who wears his heart on his sleeve in everything he does. His passion for football and his commitment to the game cannot be questioned.

And that-s the reason why the inspirational Wellington Phoenix skipper struggled to make the decision to retire, to call time on a career that has taken him around the world and to the highest levels of the game. The passion to play remains, but the 34-year-old-s body - bashed, bruised and battered after more than 300 games of professional football - has given up the ghost.

“It was very hard because that-s all I-ve done all pretty much all of my life - play football. No one ever wants to end their career but, unfortunately, due to injury, I-ve got to call it quits.”

That injury was a severe back problem that hampered much of the combative midfielder-s season with the fledging Wellington Phoenix side in their debut season in the Hyundai A-League.

Bulging and collapsed discs, fractured vertebrae, numb legs - Aloisi-s back problems are serious. So serious, in fact, that he was warned he could suffer severe repercussions if he played on.

“Whether it was in a year or two years, I was going to end my career anyway. Unfortunately I-ve had to end it now. I-m worried about my health, so I have to do what-s best here and now. It-s doctor-s orders - I run the risk of doing irreparable damage to my back if I ever play again.”

Now he-s getting himself prepared for life away from football, a career that has occupied more than half his life. He will return to his beloved Adelaide to work at the tile importing business he set up with his footballing superstar brother, John, and their cousin. Instead of weightlifting sessions, he-ll be lifting pallets with a forklift.

“When you do something every day of your life for some 18 years then you have to give it away, it-s tough. Even now it-s tough to watch the other guys training; it-s hard having to get up at 6.30am in the morning and go to work till 5.30pm. I know it-s my own business but it-s a hard thing to do, especially when you-ve trained as a footballer all your life.

“Then there-s the problem of having to watch my weight,” Aloisi laughs.

But the physical challenges are nothing compared to the mental challenges that retirement poses for top-flight sportspeople.

“Mentally it-s tough. Some nights I lie in bed wondering what my life-s going to be like after football. And, after having a sneak preview with getting up to go to work at 6.30am, I-ve worked out it won-t be easy.

“But I wouldn-t change a thing, really. Football-s been a great career and it was the thing I wanted to do right from the time I was a kid. I was fortunate enough to play overseas having persevered after a lot of knockbacks. I-ve seen a lot of the world, I-ve lived in a number of countries, and I got paid to do something I love. I didn-t make millions like a few other people in the game do, but my reason for playing was my passion for the game and not to go out and make obscene amounts of money.”

In such a long career there are always going to be many highs and lows. Battles with injury are an obvious downer. Then there was Aloisi-s acrimonious split with Adelaide United, the club he led to the inaugural Hyundai A-League title in 2005/06 and to the grand final in 2006/07. The latter was controversial for Aloisi as he was sent off early in the match as Melbourne Victory romped to a 6-0 win. Aloisi vows to one day tell the full story behind his split with the Reds, but not for the moment.

“There have been a lot of low points in my life as a footballer and I can understand why a lot of players struggle with depression. It hasn-t been an issue for me but those low points have made me a stronger person and made me work harder to get where I wanted to be.

“I-ve put those things behind me and concentrate more on the high points, and there-s so many for me.

“It was always my dream to end my career in Adelaide. Unfortunately that couldn-t happen and when I came to Wellington I said to myself, ‘this is the place where I-m going to end my career-. Whether it was one year, two years or three years, Wellington was where I would finish.”

And it was New Zealand capital where Aloisi enjoyed one of his proudest moments as a footballer.

“The defining moment in my life, when I finally decided it was time to go, was the game against the LA Galaxy. I should never have played in the game because of my back, but [coach] Ricki Herbert said it was such a special occasion that I should try and play 10 minutes. As it turned out I played 60 minutes, scored a goal, got a standing ovation from 32,000 fans as I left the field and swapped shirts with David Beckham.

“That-s when I realised that things couldn-t getter any better than that and that I wouldn-t do the fans, the club and my teammates any justice if I played on through injury.”

Aloisi is honoured to have had the opportunity to play for the Phoenix.

“And to be named skipper was huge. I just can-t think of a more perfect scenario for me to go out on, to have been the skipper of a club that came out of nothing, restored the game-s credibility in New Zealand and had the best fans in the competition.

“[Owner] Terry Serepisos had big ambitions for this club when he started but I don-t think anyone would have imagined just how huge this whole thing would become. I wasn-t sure what to expect, but when I found out more about Terry and that Ricki Herbert would be coaching the side, coming to Wellington was one of the easiest decisions I-ve ever had to make in my career.

“And look what we have now - a great management team, great players and great support. Finally no one-s talking about whether a New Zealand-based team deserves to be in the A-League. We do deserve it and that can-t be denied. It makes me proud to have been part of that.”

The future is very, very bright for the Phoenix, Aloisi reckons.

“Look at what we achieved last season in such a short space of time. Now the club has time on its side to get ready for the next campaign. As long as Terry and Ricki are involved, this club is going to go from something that-s already pretty big to who knows.

“I know Ricki won-t like me putting extra pressure on, but I predict the Phoenix to win the comp in three years- time. This season I think they-ll make the top four and you wait till finals football comes around - Wellington will go crazy.”

Aloisi will return home to Adelaide and to his family on Sunday. There-ll be occasional stints away from home as he does some A-League commentary work for Fox Sports, but he-ll have plenty of time for this three kids.

“It was hard being away from my family and if I had been able to play another season in Wellington I would have had my family move over. Now I-ll get the chance to kick a ball around with my kids, even though I-ll be a bit sore in the morning.”