Mark Bresciano: The Australian champion with Italian roots

Roots in many ways define us. How we are raised shapes us for the rest of our lives.

Growing up in Australia as a young boy, Mark Bresciano – named after his Italian grandfather Marco – would religiously wake up at the crack of dawn every weekend. “I used to get up to watch Serie A,” Bresciano remembered, “as a kid all I wanted to do was play in Italy”Given football, or soccer as it is called ‘Down Under’, trumps all others sports in Australia in terms of youth participation, it was no surprise a young Bresciano turned to the beautiful game. Coming through the ranks at Bullen FC, in the north-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, young Mark dreamt big, but his life plan seemed already set for him.

He was going to be a Tiler. That is what Italian boys from the suburbs did. His father, Prospero Bresciano, who was born near Naples, but in Melbourne answered to Ross, was a tiler. During school holidays, Mark and his two brothers, Rob and Joe, were already learning the trade. That is how it was going to be.

But Mark was impressing on the pitch. Even back then, he was a controlling midfielder with a creative spark. This did not mean he didn’t have to overcome barriers. He made his debut for Bulleen in the Victorian Premier League at the age of just 16. Peter Ollerton was the coach who gave him his first start, an expat Brit who had played for Australia in the 1974 World Cup and claimed at the time that Bresciano was “a 16-year-old with a 24-year-old’s brain.” Bresciano, though, constantly had to deal with accusations of favouritism as his dad was the club’s team manager. However, it soon became clear he was something special.

Having toured Britain with Australia’s schoolboys and scored five goals in the under-17s World Cup, his big break came when he was signed by NSL club Carlton. The forerunner to the A-League, the National Soccer League was the top tier of Australian football and sides were often closely associated with the ethnic background of their location, with Melbourne being the true melting pot of Australian football.

Playing at Princes Park, Bresciano was just a stone’s throw away from Lygon Street, the traditional heart of Melbourne’s Italian community. Bresciano was also playing with a childhood friend for the Blues.

Vincenzo “Vince” Grella had grown up with Bresciano in Melbourne. They had made waves together at the Australian Institute of Sport before they both joined Carlton in 1997. Grella even described Bresciano as “more than a brother”. It seemed like destiny that the fratelli would head back to the motherland together.

By 1999, Bresciano and Grella were both in the first team squad at Empoli, with the latter having spent the previous campaign on loan at Ternana. They went on to form the midfield base of an Empoli side which secured an instant return to Serie A in 2002, losing just twice at home all season. After he retired, Bresciano said this time was “special” and his favourite during his stint in Italy, particularly because he was alongside Grella.

Offers began to flood in for Bresciano. He was so highly thought of that, on serveral occasions, coach Giovanni Trapattoni rang him to try and persuade him to play for Italy. Unfortunately, by this stage, he had already played several times for his native Australia.

In the summer of 2002, Bresciano joined Parma for €7 million, a record at the time for an Australian player. He knew he was making a step up. “Moving to Parma is a big change,” the Australian admitted at the time. “It is a big club and you are under a lot more pressure to get results.”

While the Parma side Bresciano joined was not the golden team of a few years previous, it was still littered with stars, including Fabio Cannavaro, who Bresciano described as “easily the best player he ever played with” and the “ultimate pro”.

Back-to-back fifth place finishes followed. Bresciano was even joined by Grella after 14 months in Emilia-Romagna. In 2005, Parma reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup, beating the likes of Sevilla and Stuttgart on their way. But their Serie A form suffered, with Silvio Baldini’s side, who had coached Bresciano at Empoli, beating Reggina in a relegation play-off to preserve their top-flight status. The next season was Parma’s first without European football since 1991.

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Read ‘Parma: The Alternative Club Guide’

Following Australia’s exploits in the 2006 World Cup, Bresciano moved south to Palermo. Once again, he impressed with his goal scoring exploits from midfield, both in Italy and Europe. However, his time in Sicily is best remembered for a classic Maurizio Zamparini manoeuvre.

In the summer of 2008, Bresciano was on the verge of a move to the newly cash rich Manchester City. “The deal was done, I signed my contract. I had my house sorted and had even started training with them,” Bresciano recalled. Yet without telling the player, Zamparini pulled the pin on the deal, no explanation, no nothing.

Once again, after another World Cup in 2010, Bresciano moved on. For the first time in his career though, it did not lead to better things. In the summer of 2010, Lazio bought both Bresciano and Hernanes to provide some attacking flair. While the Brazilian shone, Bresciano struggled.

Lazio finished the season in fifth, but Bresciano could only manage one goal. It was not the end his 10-year Serie A career deserved, but with a heavy heart, he bid farewell to the peninsula and moved to the Middle East. Nevertheless, the Aussie remains highly regarded in Italy and in his native Australia he is viewed as much more than that.

Bresciano made his debut for the Socceroos in 2001 during the Confederations Cup. Australia won the game against reigning World and European champions France, in a historic victory. And historic is the perfect word to sum up Bresciano’s international career.

Australia’s dismal 2005 Confederations Cup campaign, in which they lost all three games conceding 10 goals, led to Frank Farina stepping down as coach. Bresciano missed the tournament due to a relegation playoff against Reggina. When the Australian-Italian returned to the international fold, Guus Hiddink had taken charge with the task of taking the Socceroos golden generation to the World Cup.

This golden generation had their defining hour in a World Cup qualification play-off against Uruguay. Four years earlier, Uruguay had easily beaten the Socceroos 3-1 over two legs to reach the World Cup in South Korea and Japan. In the first leg in 2005, Uruguay had won 1-0 in the modern-day battle of Montevideo.

In front of over 80,000 fans at Sydney’s ANZ stadium, Australia expected. And they weren’t disappointed. On a barmy spring night, the nation ended their 32-year wait to play in a World Cup. Before Mark Schwarzer saved two penalties and John Aloisi slotted the decisive spot-kick home in the penalty shootout, Bresciano had scored the only goal in normal time to force the tie into extra-time.

Australia were the second lowest ranked side going into the tournament in Germany, but they escaped their group and were only beaten in the final minute of their last 16 tie against Italy by Francesco Totti’s controversial penalty. Although Bresciano did not shine in the tournament, Australia had done themselves proud. He went on to play 84 times for his country and appear in three World Cups.

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Bresciano up against his old teammate Cannavaro in Australia’s last 16 tie against Italy in the 2006 World Cup

His exit on the international stage and indeed his career was fitting. Australia hosted the Asian Cup in 2015 and by this stage, Bresciano was on the fringes of the Socceroos squad, with the new generation coming to the fore. He made just one start as Australia reached the final.

In the final in Sydney, Ange Postecoglou’s side faced South Korea, who had beaten them in the group stages. Bresciano started on the bench at the ground where 10 years earlier, he had starred. And like a decade earlier, the match went to extra time. A James Troisi winner sealed the cup for Australia, as Bresciano cheered on from the bench. He did not play in the final, but he had gone out as a winner.

This year, Tim Cahill drew in the crowds around Australia as he returned to his native land to play in the A-League for Melbourne City. He is the last of the golden generation still playing after Bresciano’s retirement two years ago.

Perhaps the only shame for Bresciano is that he never got the chance to make the same hero’s return to the Australian domestic game. Since hanging up his boots, he has spent his time between Melbourne and Italy, where his two daughters were born.

Having recently completed a director of football course at the prestigious Coverciano in Florence, Bresciano is set to remain in football. His two brothers meanwhile remain in the suburbs of Melbourne, working as tilers. Football gave Mark the chance to fulfil his dreams and his Italian upbringing helped make him an Australian hero.

Words by Richard Hinman: @RichardHinman

Richard has been an avid follower of Italian football since the turn of the century and in particular Roma’s dramatic final day Scudetto triumph. A Yorkshire man with Calabrian roots, he is passionate about writing on all things calcio, from its historic players to current issues.