'People underestimate how difficult goal keeping is'

The year 2002 was a good one for Ajax. And for goalkeeper Joey Didulica it was more than that. ,,It has been brilliant'', says the good-natured Australian. ,,I have a big smile on my face. What a great year for the club. It has been a turnaround year. We got a new coach, we won the championship and the cup and we qualified for the second round of the Champions League. Ajax have been rejuvenated.''

,,I also cannot complain about my personal performance. I made my debut for Ajax and got to play twenty-odd matches. Including a few in the Champions League’’, the 25-year old Didulica says. His performance in the Champions League matches against Olympique Lyonnais and especially Valencia was outstanding and drew international attention on the until then relatively unknown goalkeeper. ,,If you play well against a Spanish team, they’ll want you on their team, because they feel they play in the strongest competition in Europe and if you can perform well against them, you can perform well against anyone.’’ The fact that it happened in a season after which his contract with Ajax expires, is very fortunate for Didulica. ,,I could not have picked a better time. God must have been looking down on me.’’ Playing well on the highest level in Europe and being a transfer-free Bosman player at the end of the season makes him a good option for any club.

But don’t think Joey Didulica, who also played for the Melbourne Knights in Australia and the Belgian Ajax alliance GBA, necessarily wants to leave Ajax. He is having a great time in Amsterdam, despite the tough competition from Maarten Stekelenburg and Bogdan Lobont. ,,But it is healthy competition’’, he says. ,,We’re great friends. We are all young and ambitious, so we all want to play but it is nothing personal. It makes us push ourselves harder, but there’s no rivalry at all.’’
Didulica thinks that every club needs three keepers, just as every club needs three strikers. He also thinks that the three Ajax goalkeepers are equally talented. ,,You can flip a coin’’, the Australian says. ,,We have just about the same amount of experience as well. Ajax are lucky. No other team has three goalkeepers this good.’’

The three have all been plagued by injuries. It happens, Didulica thinks. ,,People were talking about our training method, but that is not the reason. Nobody remains free of injuries. Look at the forty players that are under contract here, in the first and second team. Everybody has had some kind of injury.’’ But, Didulica points out, keeper is a unique position. ,,You can, say, put a defender in midfield, but you don’t put a midfielder in goal.’’

Goal keeping is an art, according to Joey Didulica. ,,Most people underestimate how difficult it is. And how important a goalkeeper is. It is so easy to judge when you look at it from only one or two angles. The balls swerve when shot from distance and they get slippery in the rain. Often there are five or six players in front of you when someone shoots. And you have to be good with your arms and your legs. Look at the keeper of AS Roma. When we played against them, a ball bounced right before him and it hit his chin. Zlatan scored and everybody blamed the goalkeeper. But it could have happened to anyone. Mind you, I am glad that it happened to him because we won the match’’, says Didulica with a smile.

The Rock, as is his nickname with Ajax, is often called a ‘kamikaze’ keeper. ,,I have to take offence with that’’, Didulica says. ,,They say I have an unorthodox style. What is that? I just try to stop the balls from going in. Why stay on the goal line, when you can come out and take the ball away before somebody heads it? I don’t have to do all those acrobatics, I rather get it before something happens.’’

Sometimes an Ajax goalkeeper goes through matches having to make only two or three saves. ,,It hard to keep your concentration’’, Didulica explains. ,,Suddenly you have to be ready, after doing next to nothing and standing in the cold for a long time. That is why it is difficult for most goalkeepers to play for Ajax. I myself prefer a match where I have lots to do, it is easier that way. Of course it is better for the team when I have nothing to do because we are leading 6-0.’’

There are two other teams vying for Joey Didulica’s skills. The national teams of Australia and Croatia. ,,I was born in Australia and I feel Australian. But my father is Croatian and my mother’s parents are too. That makes me eligible to play for Croatia. And they play against strong opposition in Europe. My heart belongs to Australia though.’’ Recently, thirty Australian footballers, amongst whom Didulica, received a letter from the national football association telling them they are considered for the friendly international match against England in Upton Park, home of West Ham United, on February 12th. ,,I would love to be part of that Australian squad’’, Didulica says. He also thinks his goal keeping style would make him a perfect fit for a club in the Premier League. ,,But I cannot get a work permit for England’’, Didulica explains. ,,Only footballers who play more than eighty percent of the national team’s matches or players with an EU-passport can apply.’’

Joey Didulica may get another chance to shine on English ground when Ajax play Arsenal on Highbury for the Champions League on February 18th. ,,Arsenal are one of the best teams in Europe at the moment. I have a lot of respect for them, they are the strongest team in our group. If we can get a point there, just like we did at Valencia, the road to the quarter final is open for us.’’

The road for Ajax to new success in the Dutch championship is one that Didulica describes as ‘tough’. ,,We have to stay tuned, keep believing in ourselves. Let’s not look too far ahead. We cannot afford to overlook the next opponent. It will cost us if we do not beat the ‘little’ teams. Those matches are probably the hardest. Consistency wins championships.’’