Arok still burning the flame

Still going strong is Frank Arok, in my experience the best coach of the Socceroos we've had.

Still going strong is Frank Arok, in my experience the best coach of the Socceroos we've had.

Eighty-one years old, and obviously in mourning after the recent death of his wife Gordana, the light of his life. But being back in Australia - the country that gave him as much as he gave it - is part of the rehabilitation process.

Not so long ago, he jumped on a long-distance bus in his hometown of Novi Sad and told the driver to let him off after an hour.

"I got a hotel somewhere'', he says. He knew then he needed to get out of Serbia for a while, to recharge his batteries. That's what Australia does. Rejuvenate him.

It's been a decade since Arok left for good, but the connection remains as strong as ever. Not because he works on it, but simply because it'll always be there.

"I have had so much noise in my life, all kinds of bulldust, so when I come here I try to stay quiet," he says. "But the bastards, they all find me." They do.

Being called a bastard by Arok is a term of endearment. For those of a certain generation, Arok-speak is embedded in their DNA. "Bulldust" is a favourite saying. So is "shitovich". Then there's his signature phrase,"who bloody cares".

I hear it all over a lunch which sees Arok shift around salt and pepper shakers as he discusses how he approached certain games, or lean back in his chair and laugh uproariously as he tells you about one of his pranks, or stroke his beard as he tries to put a name to a face buried deep in his memory.

Best of all, there's still the glint in his eye - a sure sign that the legendary mischievous streak is alive and well. Thank God for that.

Arok has always cared, passionately, about everything he does. It's why so many in the game here hold him in such esteem.

No one before, or after him, has done so much for the Socceroos "brand". Not in a commercial sense, but in a much more meaningful way. I doubt there's ever been a more patriotic coach of the national team, and he wasn't even born here.

It's that unvarnished sentiment that made Arok the inspiration for those who recognised it for what it was, and the enemy of those who confused it for something else.

Nothing got in the way of what he felt was best for the Socceroos - especially hand-wringing officials. He would have coached Australia for nothing, such was his love of the green and gold. He virtually did.

Mostly, his players loved him for it. Even tough, mean, hombres like John Kosmina, or David Ratcliffe, or Steve O'Connor, or Kenny Murphy.

Years after he departed, there was a fund-raiser at Marconi Stadium for a terminally-ill Joe Watson. Arok got the band back together again, and to a man they all turned up, wearing their Winfield Socceroos tracksuits circa 1985. The warmth Arok got from his players was genuine, and heartfelt.

There was even a mass rendition of the famous Arok "jig", a dozen grown men reduced to giggling infants as they rocked back and forth, arms cocked at the elbows, fists pumping the air.

Arok wasn't just a players' coach, he was also a press man's dream, not least because he was a press man himself. The only journalist to have coached the Socceroos, the fact that Arok came into coaching from such an unconventional background meant he cared little for convention.

Sometimes the controversy was manufactured, other times it couldn't be avoided. Either way there was never a dull moment with Arok around.

A showman? That he was. But there was a razor sharp mind behind the smile.

Arok coached Australia in 46 full internationals, for more wins (19) than losses (14). The wins included unforgettable triumphs against the reigning world champions, Argentina, and the Olympic Games gold medal favourites Yugoslavia.

The losses included disastrous defeats against New Zealand and Fiji. There were also a couple of memorable draws against England in his first spell in charge in 1983.

The late Bobby Robson, who brought the English team to Australia, told Arok before the first game at the SCG not to worry because he'd spoken to (federation president) Sir Arthur George and had agreed not to go past five goals.

"I told him to, and we drew the first match and the third one," Arok recalls. "The second one they won, but their goal (scored by Paul Walsh) shouldn't have stood. Before that game (in Brisbane) I took my players down to watch their training session, and he (Robson) went crazy, and told us to get out. I liked getting under his skin."

The win against Yugoslavia at the 1988 Olympics was another prime example of Arok's masterful kidology. Three weeks before the tournament, he paid his own way to Switzerland to watch the Yugoslavs play a warm-up match.

Surrounded by Yugoslav reporters, he was asked what he thought of the opposition.

"I told them (playmaker) Dragan Stojkovic could beat us on his own," he says. "Then they asked me for a score, and I said we'd win 1-0. They stopped talking. I said we were going to make sure he (Stojkovic) didn't get the ball."

It's history that Frank Farina scored the only goal of the game against a Yugoslav side which had won the world under-20 title the year before, and would play at the World Cup two years later.

"That result has made me persona non grata. I used to be president of the (Yugoslav) coaches federation, but since I've come home I may as well be invisible. Beautiful."

Arok grew up as an ethnic Hungarian in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina. He didn't speak much Serbo-Croat until he got to secondary school at 14. He loved football, played as a winger, and dreamed of making it as a professional. But small-time FK Jedinstro was as far as it got.

There was a trial at Partizan Belgrade, but it didn't last long. Stepjan Bobek was the star of the era - a striker Arok still believes is the best Yugoslavia has ever produced. Arok spent his trial game knocking passes into the feet of Bobek and sprinting for the return. None came.

"I ran like an animal, but he never gave me the ball back. Afterwards I asked why, and he said 'if I give you the pass, then I have to run after it too'. That was as close as I got to the big time."

Instead Arok effectively retired at 22, and went to university to study physical education. But being a teacher bored him, and when the chance came along to turn his hand to journalism, he jumped at it.

It was at the Hungarian-language Magyar Szo that he met his future wife Gordana. It was also while working at the paper that Gordana volunteered him for a coaching role with the Novi Sad youth team.

"She told them I'd do it for nothing, so that made the decision pretty easy," he laughs.

From those small beginnings, Arok embarked on a path which would take him to Vojvodina FC and then, in 1969, to Australia, and Hungarian-backed St George. Arok spent 14 years and three spells with the Saints, which provided the launching pad for his stint with the Socceroos.

Incredible as it may seem today, he combined both jobs. After failing in two World Cup campaigns, he returned to the NSL for spells with Marconi, Sydney Olympic, South Melbourne and Perth Glory, in various capacities. Arok left Australia in 2003, but has never lost touch.

At the 2010 World Cup, he was a team leader for a group of Socceroos supporters in South Africa. Before the opening game against Germany, he was asked what he would do.

"I told them (fans) we had a slow defence, and we should think about a sweeper because the Germans would find the space in behind." Australia copped four goals, and at the next game against Ghana in Rustenburg the supporters produced a banner "Bring back Frank".

Well Arok is back, and they're beating a path to his door to pay homage.

He's been to Morwell to take a look at his old stomping ground, and dined out with Falcons legend Manny Gotis and former president Fred di Sipio.

He's been to lunch in Melbourne with former Socceroos like Oscar Crino, Mehmet Durakovic, John Markovski and Mike Petersen. He's dined in Sydney with former Perth Glory owner Nick Tana, and next week will be a special guest of the FFA at the World Cup qualifiier against Oman.

Yesterday's man? He still writes a provocative weekly column for Magyar Szo, and is helping develop the next generation of journalists by partly-funding 27 positions at the newspaper.

As for the Socceroos, Mark Schwarzer and Archie Thompson are just the latest in a long line of proteges. Put simply, Arok's contribution to our game has been immense.