Australian football this week farewelled one of its most cherished figures, as former Socceroos and long-time NSL manager Frank Arok passed away aged 88.
Arok arrived from his native Yugoslavia in 1969 to manage St George Budapest, before taking on the national team job from 1983-1989.
“He re-lit the Socceroos flame. It had gone out post-1974… we didn’t qualify in ‘78 to go to Argentina, after that we failed under Rudi Gutendorf”, Socceroo of the era John Kosmina told Box2Box.
“Frank certainly re-lit it with his passion, his personality as well.”
“He was great with the media. They loved him because he was different, he was out there, and the whole experience was great. It was a rebirth of Australian football. He gave the game belief and he gave identity back to the national team.”
Although never able to take Australia to a World Cup, Arok’s tenure was immortalised by a famous 4-1 win over then-world champions Argentina, and progression to the knockout stages of the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
That his pleas to host Scotland in the hostility of the mid-day Darwin sun in a 1985 World Cup qualifier went unheeded by the Australian Soccer Federation is well known, and held up as an exemplar of his managerial innovation. Kosmina fondly recalled a lesser-known tale, from the Oceanic qualifying rounds of 1985.
“Australia had always struggled against Israel over the years… It was a game we needed to win because we’d started off the tournament with a game against the Kiwis away from home [0-0).”
“Frank wanted us on an army base well out of Tel Aviv because he picked guys who liked to have a little bit of fun, we’d make the most of a trip away”, he laughed.
“He was a little bit concerned when we pulled up at the Tel Aviv Hilton, which is fairly plush right on the shores of the Mediterranean with beautiful blue waters!”
“He locked us on the bus while he remonstrated with the Israeli officials about where we were going to stay.”
Bookending Arok’s Socceroos stint were considerable periods in the NSL, including titles with St George and South Melbourne, and time at Gippsland.
That the influence he had still reverberates through the local game has been shown by the tributes paid by Australia’s two most prominent managers of the modern era this week, in Ange Postecoglou and Graham Arnold.
The regard in which he was held was also reflected through former players Manny Gelagotis and Will Hastie, who both played under Arok at South Melbourne and Gippsland, and maintained friendships for life.
“I’m indebted to Frank like many former players, he gave me my chance. I was at Morwell Falcons in the early days, but unfortunately didn’t make the cut when they went to the NSL”, said Gelagotis.
“I was in the wilderness for a little while, then went to Port Melbourne where Frank ended up coming from South Melbourne. From there he gave me my opportunity to come back home.”
“To hear the news really shocked me I must admit. It hit me really bad for a day, and I’m just happy to see he’s being celebrated and respected. He meant a lot to us.”
“Being able to fulfil our dreams under a great coach is what I’ll recall… I’ve been quoted as saying he’s like my second dad, and I’ll stand by that.”
Hastie also credits Arok with steering his career back on track, having returned from Scotland at a young age without much direction.
“I came home for a break in January 1990 and he welcomed me in to train with the Socceroos squad that year. I was 16-year old kid running around with Wadey and Kossie… it was very special.”
“I am so pleased there has been so much outpouring of emotion, because I think this is when Australian football shines. I hope we can stay in this space for as long as possible.”
“I think he really was the first [coach] of my generation of players that really tapped into this Australian DNA, and have players believe having an Australian identity was the unique thing that made Australian football special.”