Zeljko Kalac: When AC Milan took a gamble on an Australian and it paid off

By Oliver Fisher -

AC Milan are one of the most decorated clubs in world football and stars from around the globe have helped contribute to their success.

You just have to look at the club’s rich history of developing home-grown Italian talent, helping players from the likes of Brazil and the Netherlands become the best in the world, and even establishing a well-known English heritage over the years.

One player though came from a bit further afield to San Siro in Australian goalkeeper Zeljko Kalac. Many may know him as “Spider” due to the fact his slight frame stood at 2.02m, making him tallest player to have represented the Australian national team.

Kalac came through the youth system at local club and boyhood team Sydney United before moving to England in 1995. He made a couple of senior appearances for Leicester City, but went back to Sydney a year later, eventually passing through Eredivisie side Roda JC prior to ending up on Italian shores.

It was then that he played for Perugia staring in 2002, and he helped them win the Intertoto Cup by not conceding once in the competition. They would be relegated once and then relegated again due to financial irregularities, and Milan came knocking.

Kalac joined  Milan in the summer of 2005 on a free transfer but it took him until the following February to make his debut in a Milan shirt, coming on for the injured Dida in a Champions League knockout stage game against Bayern Munich. The Brazilian stopper remained out, so Kalac played his first Serie A match since 2004, keeping clean sheets against Palermo and Empoli.

Having then faded back into the background with Dida back in the mix, the Spider’s next Champions League appearance came in November 2006as he came off the bench for the final 15 minutes of a group match against AEK Athens. Dida had torn knee ligaments which allowed the Australian – by now an established international – to play his first full game in the 2006–07 season during a 1–0 win over Messina in Serie A.

Kalac suffered an injury in January 2007 and was replaced by a recovering Dida, but the various injury woes in the goalkeeping position forced manager Carlo Ancelotti to sign Marco Storari as a third choice.

Kalac recovered in time to play against Celtic in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League in February but five days later Dida was back and remained between the posts until mid-April when a shoulder injury forced him out. Ultimately, Dida would return for the UEFA Champions League semi-finals against Manchester United, and Kalac finished his second season at Milan with 10 appearances in Serie A and three in the Champions League.

Kalac signed a new two-year deal with Milan that summer and once again he found himself starting in the Champions League after Dida was suspended for simulation.

By this point the usually reliable Dida had begun to suffer a number of injuries and poor form, all while Kalac – by this point in his mid 30s – appeared to be improving. In the February of the 2007-08 season he made a decisive save against Fiorentina for which he received public praise from Ancelotti.

Later that month he kept a clean sheet against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in the first leg of a Champions League last 16 clash, even being awarded Man of the Match by UEFA. In the second leg of the tie he conceded two late goals, and that would be the beginning of the end.

Christian Abbiati’s returned from his loan spell at Atlético Madrid which added to the competition, and Kalac was between the sticks during a 5–0 humiliation by Chelsea in the Russian Railways Cup in August 2008. Perhaps he could have better spent the 90 minutes providing tips on choosing the best online gambling sites.

He was then demoted to third-choice behind Abbiati and Dida, and would make just one Serie A appearance that season. He was released by Milan on 11 August following a mutual agreement, but all in all it would be fair to say that Kalac didn’t have a bad run for a goalkeeper signed on a free as a third choice.

He would go on to boomerang back around to Sydney United once again before retiring with the Hobart Zebras in 2013 aged 40.

Tags AC Milan Zeljko Kalac