JASON CULINA has defied Pim Verbeek, but the Socceroos star is confident his decision to join the A-League next season against the national coach’s wishes will not jeopardise his quest to play in the World Cup next year.
Culina spoke to Verbeek before signing with Gold Coast United. The reaction he received was consistent with Verbeek’s polarising view that players should compete in European leagues rather than play in Australia. Despite the advice, however, Culina, 28, elected to pass up a new contract with Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven – and an estimated $2 million in wages – and return to the A-League in the prime of his career. He is due to finish playing in Europe next month.
"Pim made it clear that he prefers us to stay in Europe," Culina said from The Netherlands. "But after speaking to him I feel my place in the national team is not in jeopardy. If I felt it was, I wouldn’t have decided to come back. Pim knows me well, knows that I’ll always work hard and the slight drop in level won’t effect me. That makes me think there won’t be a problem."
Culina feels he has achieved everything he wanted to in football and it’s the right time to help raise the standard of the young Australian league. He hopes other high-profile overseas-based players will follow his lead.
"The A-League needs some of us to come back," he said. "I don’t tell other players what they should do, but I’m coming back for the right reasons. Hopefully, in the future, maybe after the World Cup, [others will come back]. The decision wasn’t easy but I felt it was right.
"I’ve been in Europe for 10 years and been successful. When I was younger my goals were to play in big competitions. I’ve played in the World Cup, Champions League, UEFA Cup, the Olympics and I’ve won domestic championships. I’ve achieved my goals and I’m very satisfied. It’s a new chapter in my career and I think that going back now will allow me to be at my best and show everybody at home how good I really am."
Verbeek believes players’ development is better served in Europe. But Culina believes he will still be able to develop in Australia.
"No matter where you’re playing, improvement is up to the player," he said. "If your heart’s not in it, you won’t improve. I’m always looking to get better no matter where I am. Even though I’m going back to the A-League I think that as a 28-year-old I can still become a better player. I don’t expect it to be like European football, but Australian football is getting there. The A-League has got better and I think it will continue. Hopefully, we’ll be at the top level soon."
Culina’s father, Newcastle Jets technical director and former Sydney FC coach Branko Culina, hopes Football Federation Australia will back his son, thereby encouraging more elite players to return.
"He could have stayed in Europe and picked up another couple of million dollars, but he’s coming back because he genuinely wants to be part of the A-League – we should encourage and promote that," Branko Culina said.
"Other top players might come back when they’re a bit older. But Jason felt that to really help the game develop here he has to come back when he’s playing at a reasonable level. He thought it’s either now or never. Financially? Not a good move. But he wants to be a bit different. He’s making a statement and I’ve got no doubt that other Aussies will follow."
Branko Culina said he hoped "common sense would prevail" when it came to national team selection. "Jason respects Pim’s view and will continue to do the best he can [to be picked for the Socceroos]," he said. "I think he has enough runs on the board, he’s been one of the first picked … Pim might not like the idea of Jason playing in Australia, but he will still pick the best players."
Culina’s decision is heartening for those trying to lift the standard and profile of the A-League.
Mariners backer Peter Turnbull last week told The Sydney Morning Herald : "He’s bucking the trend, he’s backing himself, because he believes in the A-League."