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EXCLUSIVE: Mark Viduka breaks his silence on Leeds, the Socceroos and Lucas Neill

ZAGREB, Croatia -- Twenty minutes out of Croatia's capital, nestled upon a hill called Sestine, sits a cafe called Non Plus Ultra, or "No Higher Point."

It's a busy establishment. The smell of coffee fills the air as businessmen, politicians and mother's groups sit rugged up, chatting inside, underneath the heaters or braving it in the frosty conditions.

- WATCH: Mark Viduka Uncovered on YouTube

Behind the counter, a barista has a familiar look. Former Premier League star and Australian captain Mark Viduka spent his whole career in the spotlight, front and centre. Now, he seems worlds away. As his wife, Ivana, waits tables, Mark goes at a slower pace, which suits him down to the ground.

"It's great to do something different," Viduka tells ESPN in an exclusive interview. "You make a bad coffee, you throw it in the bin. I try and make the best coffee as I can, though. I think I've become pretty good at it."

The man many Australians affectionately know as the V-Bomber now calls Croatia home, and the cafe is his focus. It's a busy life, but surely there isn't as much pressure to pour a good latte as there is to score a winner for the Socceroos?

"Well, actually, you'd be surprised. Lots of people take their coffee seriously these days!" he says with a laugh.

Viduka is somewhat of an enigma to football fans. Perhaps the most talented Australian striker in history, Viduka stepped away from the game as a 33-year-old without so much as a goodbye. Relegation from the Premier League with Newcastle United in 2009 was the closing chapter of his career.

More than a decade on, the former Socceroo seems genuinely interested in what is happening in the country he once called home, but his prickly relationship with some journalists in the past suggests that he is not one who seeks out the limelight. The word "reclusive" is often associated with the big man.

"I'm not really a guy that needs to constantly be in the press," Viduka says. "It's not that I'm not comfortable doing an interview. I just don't have the need to be constantly in the press, constantly on Instagram.

"I don't even have an Instagram account or whatever ... social media ... I don't think it's relevant at all."

Why speak now?

"Let's just say I have a lot to get off my chest," he says.

Mark Viduka has spoken little since he quietly exited the football scene in 2009.

VIDUKA'S CONNECTION TO CROATIA runs deep. After he was born in Melbourne to a Ukrainian-Croat mother and a Croatian father, it didn't take long before football became his sporting epicentre.

Melbourne Croatia -- now the Melbourne Knights -- are the only Australian team Viduka ever represented. He joined the club at age 6.

"My only goal in life was to play for them one day, if that was possible. Play for Melbourne Croatia," he says. "My dad took me to a game when I was about 3, and from there I was just crazy about it. That was the club to me which meant the most."

Given Viduka's pride in his heritage, the club founded by immigrants symbolised much more than football to him. It was also a window to the rest of the world.

"The club was a symbol of the struggle of free Croatia -- free from communism, free from Yugoslavia -- and that, for me, meant everything," he says. "It was a torch to the rest of the world to say: 'Look, there's a place in Europe called Croatia. It's not called Yugoslavia, and one day we'd like to be a free country.'"

If Croatia meant so much to Viduka, then why didn't he feel the need to represent the national team? Was there a temptation to go down the path of fellow Melbourne-born star Josip Simunic, who went on to become Croatia's third-most capped player of all time?

"It might have crossed my mind ... but when I first visited here, I realised I didn't belong to their football family in that sense. I belonged to Australia," Viduka says. "I grew up in that footballing family in Australia.

"The president of Croatia, Franjo Tudman, he was trying to get me to play for Croatia, but how do you tell the president no? I had to politely say, 'I'm OK where I am.'"

Viduka's stint in Australia's National Soccer League as a teenager was short, but it was the perfect stepping stone to his professional career.

After Viduka helped Melbourne Croatia to its first title, it was a visit from Tudman that facilitated Viduka's European move.

Croatia's first democratically elected president was on a state visit to Australia in 1995, and convinced of Viduka's ability, he put the hard word on the 19-year-old to play for Dinamo Croatia, now Dinamo Zagreb.

After some deliberation, Viduka agreed and arrived in a city still in the grips of war some four years after Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia.

"There were MiGs flying above the stadium," Viduka says. "My teammates used to give me stick when I heard all these sonic booms ... they were used to it.

"I remember walking down one of the main streets one day, and there was an air raid siren, and everyone just disappeared. It was scary."

Despite the distraction, Viduka's form on the pitch was just as fruitful as it was during his time in Australia. The striker helped Zagreb to three consecutive league and cup doubles, but as his president's popularity waned, so did the fans' love affair with Viduka, as they knew he was Tudman's pride and joy.

"It became a burden. Croatian people are extreme people. They have extreme highs and extreme lows, while in Australia they don't get too over-excited about one thing or too overly down on things," Viduka says.

"Here, it's different. One day, you are god. The next day, they want to burn you at the stake. In the end, it was a very difficult time to stay here. I was happy at the end of the day that I left."

Leave he did, but the experience left him on the verge of a mental break down, which very nearly saw him give up football for good.

Joining Scottish giants Celtic for a reputed fee of £3.5 million would have been the highlight of a career to some, but just four days after arriving in Glasgow in 1998, Viduka shocked the Hoops faithful by fleeing home to Australia, claiming that he was too stressed to focus on football.

"I was burned out. Burned out mentally. I just needed a break, and getting back to see my family and friends is what I needed," he says.

"Thank God I did. They were understanding but urged me back. I have a lot to thank them for."

Under the new management of John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish, Celtic's strike-force of Viduka and Sweden legend Henrik Larsson had the potential for greatness, and all was going well until disaster struck in October: Larsson broke his leg in a UEFA Cup tie in Lyon, and Celtic began to stutter in the title race, eventually ending the season runners-up to fierce rivals Rangers.

"Sadly, in Scotland, coming second is like coming last. No one cares unless you win the league," Viduka says. "Who knows what would have happened if Henrik didn't get injured. I think we would have won it."


VIDUKA'S STUNNING RECORD OF 25 goals in 28 games in Scotland had Premier League side Leeds United calling for the then-25-year-old.

Signed by David O'Leary for £6 million in July 2000, Viduka joined one of England's most exciting sides and soon forged a potent attacking force with the likes Alan Smith, Robbie Keane, Michael Bridges and fellow Socceroo Harry Kewell.

Fans back home rejoiced: Australia's two premier talents were playing side-by-side, in great form, and playing in the Champions League. However, all was not well between the two Aussies behind the scenes.

"At Leeds, it got to the point, if Harry and I were in the sheds by ourselves, we wouldn't even look at each other," Viduka says. "It was that bad.

"I had a problem with [Kewell's agent] Bernie Mandic. Bernie was my agent when he took me from Celtic to Leeds, but ... I severed ties with Bernie.

"I think maybe our relationship at Leeds wasn't that good because -- and I can't say for sure -- I think that affected the way [Harry] viewed me. [The relationship is better now.] We last spoke in 2013."

Despite the unease in the dressing room, Viduka was at the peak of his powers at Leeds -- never more so than on Nov. 4, 2000.

High-flying Liverpool travelled to Elland Road on the back of five wins, and O'Leary's side -- who had Champions League ambitions -- were languishing in 10th place and had just lost midweek to Tranmere Rovers in the League Cup.

"The night before the game was cracker night [Guy Fawkes Day] in England, and although it was a home game for us, we were put hotel to stay focused," Viduka says.

"My wife was calling up in tears every 10 minutes, as she could hear the noise going on outside, which reminded her of bombs going off in Croatia. I didn't get a wink of sleep all night.

"I was a wreck by the time I got to the team breakfast. I had every reason to have a shocker that day."

Instead, Viduka turned in one of the most memorable performances of his career, scoring all four goals in a thrilling, come-from-behind, 4-3 win.

The striker took the game by the scruff of the neck with his quartet of finishes. This was "peak Viduka," a threat in the air and just as majestic with the ball on the ground as he produced a devastating showcase of his talents.


VIDUKA WAS FAST BECOMING one of the most lethal strikers in the Premier League. His maiden campaign delivered 22 goals, a top-four finish and a Champions League semifinal for Leeds, sending scouts across Europe scrambling for the in-form Australian.

"I had the chance to join AC Milan at the end of the 2001 season, after we made the Champions League semifinal," Viduka says.

"[Leeds United] were negotiating with Milan and wanted £38 million. I was friends with [Milan star] Zvonimir Boban at the time, and we were negotiating terms through him. In the end, [Milan] offer the £38 million, and Leeds didn't want to sell. And that was that.

"I was a huge AC Milan fan. As a kid, I grew up watching [Marco] van Basten, [Frank] Rijkaard and [Ruud] Gullit ... They were my favourite team. It just wasn't to be."

The interest in Viduka wasn't just from abroad, either. The striker held talks with then-Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, with Elton John of all people one of the first to know of the possible deal.

"I was in Manchester, and my agent at the time also had a lot to do with Elton John," Viduka says. "He said stay for the night and come to the show. He had backstage passes, and I'd get the chance to meet the man for myself. It was an offer I couldn't refuse.

"So I'm there with Jacob Burns, my Leeds teammate and fellow Aussie, as we got ushered into his dressing room. As we enter, Elton swings around on a swivel chair and says, 'Mark Viduka, you're from Melbourne. I love that place!'

"I was nervous, so I babbled on about my meeting with the Red Devils that day and a possible move. Instead of going to our seats to watch the concert, Elton gets us to watch it at the side of the stage. About three songs in, he says, 'I want to dedicate this next one to my good friend Mark, who is in Manchester today to make a big decision.'

"I'm thinking: 'S---, please don't say any more!' Thank God he didn't. I didn't sign for Man United. I think I loved living in Leeds too much at the time."


AWAY FROM CLUB LAND, Viduka was establishing himself at international level, but his holy grail was to play in the World Cup for Australia.

After enduring the heartbreak of losing a 1997 World Cup qualifying playoff to Iran in Melbourne and being knocked out by Uruguay four years later in a hostile Montevideo, Viduka knew that Australia's best chance to reach the big dance as Oceania's representative was in 2005 -- with Uruguay again in the Socceroos' way.

With Dutch mastermind Guus Hiddink in the dugout, Viduka was the focal point of Australia's attack. It was Viduka's flick that set up the Socceroos' crucial lone goal in front of a packed second-leg crowd at the Sydney Olympic Stadium (now known as ANZ Stadium). After that, only penalties separated Australia and qualifying for their first World Cup in 32 years.

With Viduka captain in the absence of an injured Craig Moore, the script seemed written when he stepped up to the penalty spot with the Socceroos 3-2 up in the shootout. Australia's cult hero had the chance to all but guarantee the Socceroos' World Cup place ... but he pushed his shot wide.

Fortunately for Viduka, keeper Mark Schwarzer made his second save of the shootout, and fellow striker John Aloisi put the icing on what will long be remembered as one of Australia's greatest triumphs in any sport.

"I can't describe it," Viduka says. "It was like a buildup within us that was suddenly released.

"A lot of us had been through the heartbreak before. Losing at the final hurdle was like going through trauma together. We all felt the same thing."

For someone who struggles with being in the limelight, Viduka's anointment as Socceroos captain came with its own burden.

"Guus came to me, and he said, 'Look, I'd like you to be captain [permanently],'" Viduka says. "It's a huge honour, and I'm not one of the guys whose dream is about being captain of anything, really.

"[Moore] would have been the better person to do it, playing at the back and all that. But Guus had to make the call because he didn't know if [Moore's] injury would come good. I felt bad because he's a good mate.

"It was actually a bit of a burden to me, but I'd never knock it back."

Germany 2006 had Australia united as one. Even non-football fans across the country seemed to be willing Hiddink's men on. After the team made it through a group stage that contained Japan, Brazil and Viduka's beloved Croatia, Italy were the Socceroos' next hurdle in the round of 16.

In a David vs. Goliath-type matchup, with the score still 0-0, Marco Materazzi's 50th-minute red card gave Australia real hope of an upset. It saw the weight of possession switch to the Socceroos' favour, but that was not converted into goals. Marcello Lippi's team, stretched and exhausted, delved for a sucker punch -- and got just that.

An injury-time penalty converted by Azzuri legend Francesco Totti ended the Socceroos' fairytale World Cup run. The penalty came courtesy of a mistimed challenge on Fabio Grosso by (until then) one of the Socceroos' breakout stars of the tournament, Lucas Neill. Or was it a penalty?

"It definitely wasn't a penalty," Viduka says. "Lucas went for the ball, and [Grosso] played the leg.

"It happens, and there's nothing we could do. Had we got to extra time, maybe we could have won. Or the luck of penalties? Football is full of drama, and that was another chapter."


ONE THING VIDUKA WISHES he could shut out of his mind is the Socceroos' disastrous 2007 Asian Cup campaign. After the incredible World Cup ride 12 months earlier, Australia -- now with Graham Arnold, Hiddink's assistant in Germany, in charge -- had every reason to head into their first continental championships as part of the AFC as favourites. While the squad looked similar on paper to Germany, a sense of unison within the team was notably lacking.

Australia's bowing out in the quarterfinals at the hands of Japan summed up the limp campaign as the hot and humid conditions in Southeast Asia took their toll. Even Arnold famously said mid-tournament that there were players within the side who didn't want to be there.

Viduka, whose captainship was still up for debate at the time, is frank in his view of the situation.

"I think some people came to that Asian Cup thinking more about themselves more than the national team," he says.

"I think Lucas Neill came to that Asian Cup at that stage not in a good state of mind because of the fact that Graham Arnold had offered him the captaincy because he wasn't sure I was coming to the Asian Cup or not.

"Once I was at the Asian Cup, either [Arnold] wasn't brave enough to tell me that I wasn't captain anymore, and I felt Lucas Neill was sulking the whole Asian Cup through the preparations for it and through the Asian Cup, and it affected other players.

"I think Lucas tried to undermine me. His priority was to be captain -- more because of his other activities off the pitch rather than on the pitch stuff. That's my opinion. That was the main reason I stopped playing for the national team.

"Do I regret stopping? No. Because my problem was that my generation of players that I grew up with were a different breed to the new generation, and to be the honest, I wasn't a big fan of the new generation of players.

"A lot of them were more interested in how many deals they were doing on the side, through sponsorship and getting their heads on the television, than actually playing for the national team."

Arnold was dumped as Australian coach after the 2007 Asian Cup, but he has worked his way back to the helm after successful stints in the A-League with the Central Coast Mariners and Sydney FC. Viduka wishes nothing but the best for the current Socceroos boss.

"Hopefully he's learned a lot from the days of when he coached the national team at the Asian Cup, especially man management," Viduka says. "I think he has."


VIDUKA'S CURRENT DEDICATION TO running a coffee shop could well have happened in his old stomping ground in Melbourne. 

After finishing with Newcastle United, Viduka returned to Melbourne with his wife and three sons, Joseph, Lucas and Oliver. His boots had been hung up, but he didn't want to be far removed from the game to which he had given much of his life.

"When I came back to Australia, I wasn't looking at getting out of football," he says.

"I was looking to have a rest from football, but nobody contacted me at all to be involved in football. The only thing Football Federation Australia contacted me for was so I could be a special guest at their dinners."

As with his relationship with the media, Viduka is uneasy with those who have been running the game back home.

"You have people running football in Australia that don't have a clue about football," he says. "They don't want to get older players involved who actually have that experience, who have been in those situations in front of 100,000 people. When the s--- hits the fan, what are they going to do?"

That does not mean that Viduka doesn't want to be involved with the game in the future.

"I did my badges in the U.K., and the first thing that [course] said is you need to have your own philosophy, the way you want to play. We've lost our identity as a football nation," he says.

"I may come back to the A-League to coach, but ... it all depends if I'm prepared to give everything again because you can't do things half-heartedly. It has to be full-on or nothing.

"It's like when I had the chance to keep playing. I had an agreed deal to leave Newcastle and play with Fulham for two years. I met up with Roy Hodgson, and he was telling me how he wanted me to hold up the ball, bring players in.

"I said, 'Roy, I want to be that player, but I'm not anymore.' I could have gone there and took the money, but physically and mentally, I couldn't do it."

For now, Viduka is content to work behind a coffee machine with a very different daily grind. Sitting at tables outside the cafe, amongst the picturesque view of the cascading mountains nearby, it's there that he often ponders a career that was more than just a game. It was his life.

And although he's happy being out of the glaring spotlight, he misses it at the same time.

"There are so many moments. Everyone assumes scoring four goals against Liverpool would be my highlight or captaining Australia at a World Cup," he says.

"But I'd have to say kicking the ball in the family backyard with my dad will always be my greatest football memory."

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