RYAN McGOWAN has travelled 36 hours across three continents on three different aeroplanes to play in a friendly.
He would go to the ends of the earth to represent Australia, and this journey must have felt like he was doing exactly that. Yet this is no ordinary challenge match.
Yet this is no ordinary challenge match. The former Hearts defender is in Brasilia with his national team to face Luiz Felipe Scolari and the World Cup 2014 hosts.
A 12-hour flight from his home in China to Madrid was the first leg. Then came 12 and a half hours flying from the Spanish capital to Sao Paulo, followed by two and a half hours from Sao Paulo to Brasilia. Factor in connection times and the 11-and-a-half-hour time difference, and it amounts to the ultimate transcontinental trip. It isn’t often you play Brazil, in their capital city, in a stadium named after an all-time footballing God which will be a World Cup venue in nine months’ time. Tomorrow is a Brazilian national holiday. The Verde-Amarela (yellow and green) will be everywhere inside and outside the Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha. It’s carnival time, the samba dancers are donning their bikinis and McGowan is right in the thick of it.
“It took me 36 hours to get here, but you get to represent your country, it’s something I’ll never complain about,” he said in an exclusive Evening News interview. “If I get any game time tomorrow, it makes the trip all worthwhile. Even if I’m on the bench and I don’t get on, the experience of being here and getting to see a stadium which will be a World Cup venue in nine months’ time is great.
“Then there’s the Brazilian fans. There will be a big party, carnival-type atmosphere because of the holiday. We don’t want them to get too carried away though,” he laughs, “so hopefully we can stifle them a bit, but at the same time, it will be a great atmosphere to soak up.
“As soon as this fixture was announced by the FFA [Football Federation Australia], that we would be playing Brazil in Brazil, everyone got excited and wanted to be a part of it. Now that it’s only a day away the excitement has really set in amongst the squad. I can’t wait for tomorrow.”
Acclimatising hasn’t been too difficult, for McGowan is now used to international jet-setting. He did many long-haul trips from Edinburgh back to his homeland whilst at Hearts, and little has changed since his January transfer to the Chinese Super League club Shandong Luneng Taishan.
“It’s taken a day or so for me just to get into the rhythm since I got to Brazil. We have doctors and physios and everything is very professional to help you hit the ground running. Plus, I’ve been doing this for three or four years now, travelling to different places with maybe only a day or two to prepare for a match. I’ve sort of got into a routine of how to travel and prepare best for training and games.”
But how do you prepare for a potential tormenting? Stepover kings like Neymar, Oscar, Hernandes, Bernard and Marcelo are waiting to weave their unique brand of sorcery in front of a partisan crowd tomorrow.
If they can destroy Spain 3-0 in the final of the Confederations Cup just two months ago, imagine what fate might await Australia. “When their squad was announced, you just had to look at the clubs they all play for. It’s the biggest teams in the world,” acknowledged McGowan.
“That’s what you want to test yourself against. You want to be involved in the massive games against the big superstars rather than lesser teams whose players aren’t household names. Leading up to the World Cup next year, it will be a good gauge for us to see where we are and how we measure up.
“When you think of Brazil, everyone remembers the great players they’ve produced over the last 30 or 40 years and the style of play. They just won the Confederations Cup, so they are flying just now and it’s going to be a fantastic experience playing against these great players in their own back garden.”
Images of flying Brazilians and magical ball skills are still vivid in his mind. Like many, McGowan’s childhood was spent idolising Brazilian greats of his generation. For him it was the 1998 vintage of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos.
“France 98 is the World Cup I remember most. I was eight and that was the first World Cup I remember knowing everything that was going on and really appreciating what was happening. Growing up, Ronaldo was the guy I liked. I just loved the way he played. He was the best player in the world at that time.”
The best player in the world from a country which lives for football. Alas, McGowan’s travels do not always take him to such hallowed environments. Australia play in the Asian World Cup qualifying section and earned their place in next summer’s finals by overcoming countries like Iraq, Jordan and Oman.
“In qualifying we have our own difficulties travelling to places which aren’t the best and where the facilities just aren’t there,” he explained. “The biggest battle for us during qualification is probably the off-field stuff. Sometimes we go to countries where they will tend to do little things to us like send us to the wrong training pitch.
“Or the training facilities are just terrible – you’d get better junior pitches than the pitches they send us to. Other times it’s simple things like food in the hotel. You go down for dinner and there are maybe only three or four options, and they’re just things you’ve never even heard of and they look disgusting.
“In some places it’s the heat that’s the problem. I remember playing in Qatar in the middle of summer. We kicked off about 4pm, whereas even their local league games kicked off at 9pm or 9.30pm because of the heat.
“These are the advantages some countries can use against us. When you go to these places, you can’t drink the tap water and there are hygiene issues, so most of the stuff is off the field.
“Just travelling to some countries can be hard because they don’t have the biggest airports and you might have to take four or five planes to get to the country you’re playing in. The actual 90 minutes is probably the easiest part.
“Everything is perfect here, though. We’re in a nice place, a nice hotel and playing against world-class opposition. We don’t need to do too much research. We all watch Brazil on TV and know what they’re capable. It’s just trying to get a gameplan to control and contain them.”
Despite the festival atmosphere, tomorrow’s encounter has a serious purpose for McGowan. The World Cup is looming on the horizon and he is now a regular member of Holger Osieck’s Australia squad. At 24, he wants to cement his place and ensure he returns to Brazil in nine months’ time for the so-called Greatest Show on Earth.
“It’s a great experience being involved in this game but, at the same time, it’s another opportunity for me to impress during training.
“I want to keep making the squads and keep getting more and more game time. The end goal is to be back here in nine months’ time preparing for the World Cup.”
McGowan would fly round the world ten times over just for that opportunity.