‘You eat, or you get eaten’: Socceroos defender lays it on the line

“I can say, fortunately enough, I was one. There were others. One was a guy called Kimmich, who’s not bad.” Joshua Kimmich has played more than 70 times for Germany and 200 for Bayern Munich.

Degenek has had a peripatetic career, including a stint with Red Star Belgrade and is now with Columbus Crew in the US. His mission is resolutely unchanged. He articulated it before the Socceroos’ famous play-off penalty shots win over Peru in Doha in June. “You either eat, or you get eaten. That’s the simplest I can put it,” he said.

Red Star Belgrade after beating Liverpool in 2018.Credit:AP

“I said to the boys, there’s bread on the table. Either we eat tonight, my kids, my wife, my family eats tonight, or they eat and my kids go hungry. I don’t want that to happen.”

Keeping the wolf from the door is exhausting. Degenek said he had never enjoyed a game in its moment, even when Red Star beat Liverpool in the Champions League in 2018. “That’s just me,” he said. “I wasn’t happy. The whole squad went out for a nice evening and I stayed home with my brother and watched the game back and I don’t think I enjoyed it.

“I won’t lie to you. I’m not a robot. I enjoyed the feeling of winning, obviously. It hit me once we got knocked out of the Champions League and Liverpool won it. That’s when it hit me: we beat those guys.”

Degenek watched Tunisia play out a high-intensity draw with Denmark on Tuesday and they struck him as his sort of football team.

Tunisia and Denmark drew 0-0 in the first round of matches.

Tunisia and Denmark drew 0-0 in the first round of matches.Credit:AP

“I haven’t seen a team in the World Cup yet with this much heart and passion and desire and love for their country,” he said. “I think they’re phenomenal. I think the guys love each other and have this fire in their eyes and are very strong in the way they go about it and they made massive problems for Denmark and in the end they should have won.

“It’s one of those games you really want to play because it’s one of the rare games in world football where it’s more about heart and fight rather than technical ability. It’s more about desire to win.

“I love those games. I’m not a technician. I’m not a guy who’s going to dribble 10 players. I don’t have that ability in me, but I’ve got that heart and desire that no-one else can match. I live for these games.”

Then there are the Tunisian fans, plentiful and loud. Though they will outnumber the Australians four or five to one, the atmosphere they create excites Degenek.

Australia concede from a cross again as France’s Olivier Giroud heads home.

Australia concede from a cross again as France’s Olivier Giroud heads home.Credit:AP

It’s immaterial to him that the bulk of the fans will be against him. It matters only that they are there, hyper-stimulating all his senses. He’d love to be able to have spoils to take to the Australian corner at match’s end.

“That’s the best part about football. That’s what you play for,” he said. “You don’t play for the big bucks. You get paid, but you play to make those people happy. It’s to see the enjoyment in these people after a game, the emotions, that’s what I play for anyway.”

Degenek made his World Cup debut against France, coming on as a sub. He is likely to get his chance to start against Tunisia, changing up a defence that was vulnerable to wide players and pinpoint crosses against France.

Fire in his belly and growl in his voice notwithstanding, Degenek describes himself as laid-back in the team environment. He informally mentors younger defenders, willing them to succeed here and by establishing themselves in the major leagues in Europe. He thinks they’re all capable.

The prize.

The prize.Credit:AP

He’s proud to have appeared in the World Cup, but won’t congratulate himself until it’s over and he gets home. “(Now) it’s just the joy of wanting to get better, wanting to have something to say to your grandkids back home, to your friends when you have a coffee,” he said.

“To say, we won a game at the World Cup, we got out of our group. I think we have it in our squad if we match them in terms of intensity and desire to win, I think we will win.”

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