Boss, I can’t finish this way,” Alex Brosque told Graham Arnold in April 2016.
He had just returned to Sydney FC’s training base after undergoing surgery on a serious hamstring injury that ended his season and threatened his career. With his team sliding down the table and his captain hobbling around, Arnold nodded in agreement.
“You’ve got another year or two at least left in you,” Arnold told Brosque. “But mate I can’t give you that marquee status again, I have to put you in the [salary] cap.”
Arnold intended to halve Brosque’s wages and, from past experience with other players, he feared a protest. Instead, the response he got was like no other.
“I asked him what he was looking for because I had to try and get a few players in the cap – I won’t mention their names – to make it all work,” Arnold recalls. “Then Brosque said to me, ‘Arnie, don’t worry about it. Give them what they need, whatever you need to do to keep them and give me what is left over’. And he did that for two years.
“I will be honest, it wasn’t much over a hundred grand that I ended up giving him, but the most important thing for him was to keep the group together and it was to get the players that we needed to be successful.”
By the start of the next season, Brosque was earning about a quarter of his previous $500,000-a-year marquee deal. Had he not voluntarily chosen to slash his own wages, Sydney FC would not have been able to recruit the squad that went on to break almost every A-League record as they marched towards a premiership and championship in the 2016-17 season.
“He went severely underpaid as a player just so we could fit his mates in and for us to be successful,” Arnold says. “That’s the type of person he is.”
Of all the traits his former coaches and teammates remember, selflessness is the one most commonly brought up.
Lee Sterry was the first to notice that when he unearthed the forward in 2002. He handed a 17-year-old Brosque his debut, but not before being captivated by his skill. Forced to gamble on youngsters after having his budget cut at Marconi, Sterry recalled Brosque prematurely from the AIS program. He took him to Wagga Wagga and Griffith for a pre-season camp.
“That first touch he had in Wagga, I’ll never forget it – never,” Sterry says. “He was marked by two senior players – these guys were bulls. He [Brosque] jumped up, chested the ball on halfway, dribbled past those two players and then ran another 30 metres closer towards goal. He shot, hit the crossbar and it went in. My assistant looked at me and winked. We knew we were on to something special.”
His talents were undeniable. In his first two seasons at Marconi, Brosque won the NSL young player of the year award, becoming the only player other than Mark Viduka to win that honour in successive years. It made him an instant key at Bossley Park.
He had a silky first touch balanced by a fierce left boot. He had flair and creativity, but used both sparingly, saving them for when it mattered most. He was unlike other forwards in that he worked as hard as a box-to-box midfielder and read the game with the intelligence usually reserved for a sweeper.
The late, great journalist Mike Cockerill said in 2003 that Brosque had all the hallmarks to become the next Harry Kewell, but lacked the ego.
In the eyes of some, that lack of ego might be why he never forged a long career in Europe. Brosque was on course to become Australia’s next big name when he signed for Feyenoord in 2004. He was loaned out to Westerlo in Belgium to get game time, but lasted only a year before he returned home.
To Sterry, it was Brosque’s famed unselfishness that cut short his European career.
“Alex has never been a golden boot winner,” Sterry says. “Whatever he scores, he sets up at least 70 more per cent chances for other players around him because he’s so unselfish. He’s never, ever been a selfish player … he’s never thought of himself first, he thinks of the team.”
Brosque seems almost embarrassed by the words that have been offered in the final days of his professional career.
“It’s been nice. A lot of the things people have said, players, coaches and guys I have a lot of involvement with in the game, media as well,” Brosque says. “It’s all been overwhelming with a lot of that stuff but in terms of reflecting, I sit back and think about how lucky I am.
“I think about guys I played with in younger days and realise how lucky you have to be to continue and play a career as long as I have.”
That self-effacing attitude is part of what drove Brosque to offer to slash his own wages at Sydney FC reflected his attitude towards professional football. It was a big part of the reason he returned home in 2005.
“I didn’t have that mental strength to forge that career overseas to become a real elite international player and they’re the sacrifices you have to make,” Brosque said in April. “I always played my best football when I was comfortable and happy. Being comfortable and happy to me meant being in Australia and close to my family.”
There have been lot of highs along the way, lots of lows bt its all part of it and all part of a really enjoyable experience when I look back on it all.
Sydney FC midfielder Anthony Caceres has an inkling as to why that might be. The two are close family friends, growing up together in a tight-knit ex-pat Uruguayan community in Sydney’s west. Their families fled the Uruguayan military dictatorship of the 1970s fearing political persecution and forged a strong bond over football. Their fathers played together in Marconi’s youth team shortly after arriving in Australia and when Brosque became one of the first from his community to become a regular in the senior team, it elevated him to hero status.
“If I am with my old man buying Asado for a barbecue, he always bumps into someone he knows and the first topic they talk about is Brosque,” Caceres says. “There weren’t many Australian-Uruguayans playing; he was the one leading that for us. When you have someone like Brosque leading it gives you hope and inspiration. He was always someone I looked up to.”
In remaining close to home for the bulk of his career, Brosque became Sydney FC’s greatest player. While he may not have enjoyed the stardom of others, no player has left a greater mark on the Sky Blues. He has made the most appearances for the club, scored more goals than any other, lead them to an FFA Cup title, three premierships, two championships, and could make that three by Sunday if he leaves Perth with a grand final triumph before retiring.
However, it won’t be honours that will dictate his legacy, but far less tangible factors. For Arnold, its the standards he set at the club and the virtues of a team Brosque has defined. Work rate is one, competitiveness another, but none rival that of sacrifice. Unlike almost any other modern professional, Brosque put his money where his mouth is.
“When you talk about players retiring you just talk about what great players they are, but at the end of the day, Brosque is such a great fella,” Arnold says. “He bleeds for the team and he bleeds for that club, Sydney FC.”
Dominic Bossi is a football reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald.