Well respected, well connected … and he’s one of us

T he mystery man of Australian football still looks fit enough to play, and talks smart enough to coach. Rene Colusso is doing neither, preferring to ride his bike around the hills near his home in Arezzo for exercise, or take a seat in the VIP box at Juventus, Milan or Fiorentina whenever he feels the need to take in a game.

One phone call is all it takes for Colusso to gain entry to the inner sanctum of some of Italy’s biggest clubs. He didn’t play for the Azzurri – in fact, his only international appearance came as a teenager for Australia, and he never played in Serie A. But Colusso has recognition and respect in Italy. In Australia, he’s all but unknown.

At Smithfield, where he grew up, some people still remember him. At his local Italian eatery, Candelori’s, the staff always fuss over him. But in the wider football community, Colusso is a name without a face, despite what he’s achieved. And those achievements are enormous.

At the age of 16, he was training with Pele at Santos, and with Zico at Flamengo, and going to watch games at the Maracana with Mario Zagalo. The four-week trip to Brazil was his reward for being picked as a player of great promise by Pele, who had toured Australia with Santos the year before.

At 17, he was playing first grade at Marconi Stallions. At 18, he was making his Socceroos debut against China. At 19, he was on the books at Torino – the first Australian to play in mainland Europe. Then he disappeared.

Not that he wasn’t having fun. How he got his first professional contract is a story Colusso enjoys recounting: "I was in the primavera [youth] team of Torino, one of my teammates was [current AS Roma coach] Luciano Spalletti, and at the end of the season he says, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I suppose I’ll spend two months here in Torino.’ He said, ‘Come down to Pisa for a holiday, you can stay with my parents.’ I said, ‘Where do you live?’ He said, ‘On the beach.’ I said, ‘I’m there.’ So we went down there, a few of us, we spent the whole off-season, maybe two months, every day on the beach, every night playing in tournaments, and that’s how I ended up signing with Pisa. When I got my first pay, I went out and bought an old 850 Fiat. It was exciting."

Thirty-four years later, Colusso is as much Tuscan as Australian. When Australia played Italy at the last World Cup, he reckons he "couldn’t lose". But perhaps it’s time for him to come in from the cold. Colusso is not in the Australian Football Hall of Fame, and he should be. He’s not been utilised by Football Federation Australia, and he could be. There’s no rancour, or regret. But still …

So how does he feel about being such a mystery man?

"I’m fine with that," he says. "The people who know me respect what I did. Kids who go now, they get all the media, all the attention, but times were different then. Distance, no internet, no communication. I never played for Australia once I left, but I understand why. The coaches would pick players they could see every weekend. They had no information about me, they probably didn’t know how to contact me. It would have been nice if things had been different, but that’s the way it was, and you’ve got to accept that."

If there’s modesty, there’s also pride. While Australian players had been going to England since the 1940s, none had gone to mainland Europe, where the culture, and the challenge, was another level again. When Colusso went to Italy in 1975, he was the trailblazer, and while he never quite scaled the summit, he has no regrets. Well, almost no regrets.

"I was the first young boy to pack my bags and have the courage to go to Europe," he says. "Sooner or later someone was going to do it, I just happened to be the first. Obviously, I went to Italy because of my heritage, because I could speak the language. And at the time it was the right decision. But seeing how things evolved, I probably would have done it differently. I could have gone to Belgium, or England, where they gave more opportunity to Australian boys, so you can develop much faster. The Latin countries, they’re very hard on the young boys. They want straight away the mature player. Latin football burns players pretty fast. But I survived."

That he did. Colusso played second- and third-tier football for eight clubs over 14 seasons, from Piedmont in the north, to Sicily in the south. He never played Serie A, but he did play many times against top-flight clubs in the Coppa Italia, including one unforgettable appearance for Salernitana, who made the short trip north to the Stadio Sao Paolo to play local rivals Napoli. Unforgettable, because Colusso got to see first hand just how good Diego Maradona was in his prime.

Just how good Colusso could have been, even he’ll never know. The pivotal moment of his career came in his first season as a professional, and luck was not on his side. "I was playing for Pisa, I’d come into the team and played 13 games straight, and the president asks me to come into the office the day after a game," he says.

"When I get there, he says every club in Italy wants me. We had a talk, and it came down to a choice between Juventus and Fiorentina. I chose Fiorentina, and agreed to a pre-contract to go at the end of the season. Two weeks later, I got a bad knee injury, and I was out for six to eight months. By the time I came back, the deal had fallen through. I had chances after that, but they never eventuated. Football has given me a great life, and I made a decent career. But my aim was to play Serie A, and I never got there. So I guess that’s a regret."

Since retiring, Colusso has dabbled in coaching – as an assistant to former Italian World Cup winner Francesco Graziani at Reggina and Avellino – and as a match promoter, and player agent.

He’s seen the good, bad and the ugly of a sport, which in Italy is treated more as an obsession than a passion. He’s seen the changes in the game in Australia, and likes what he sees. Could he contribute to the evolution? He’s not been asked, but doesn’t resist the suggestion.