Socceroos' midfielder Massimo Luongo fights for starting spot at QPR
LONDON -- From becoming a national hero and being named on the preliminary FIFA Ballon d'Or list, to sitting on the bench on a cold Saturday afternoon in Birmingham; Massimo Luongo's life is anything but predictable.
Nine months after his player of the tournament award as Australia won the AFC Asian Cup for the first time, the 23-year-old midfielder is still fighting to establish himself at Queens Park Rangers in the English League Championship.
Luongo made the move from third tier Swindon Town to Loftus Road in May, to reunite with his former Tottenham Hotspur under-21 coach Chris Ramsey and ex-Spurs assistant Les Ferdinand, a QPR legend.
Eleven games into the season, Luongo -- like the West London club -- has made a mixed start. Played further forward as a No. 10 rather than in his preferred, deeper position, Luongo initially formed a promising partnership with Charlie Austin before the striker was sidelined with a hamstring injury. But for last Saturday's trip to Birmingham City, Luongo gave way to Dutch international Leroy Fer, who supported Jay-Emmanuel Thomas in attack.
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QPR lost 2-1, their second defeat in three games, with Luongo coming off the bench for Fer in the 71st minute. Their mid-table spot leaves them five points behind the playoff positions.
Luongo has been the talk of the dressing room after being one of the names on the 59-man Ballon d'Or list leaked earlier this month.
The list was reduced to 23 on Tuesday, with Luongo not making the cut. "I've been trying to keep my attention away from all that [hype] and keep my head down a little bit," Luongo told ESPN FC.
"[Being on the preliminary list] was a shock at first. It was hard to explain the feeling because there's a lot going on in the season, playing for Australia and stuff like that."
Despite the international recognition, it remains a steep learning curve for Luongo who had a brief spell in the Championship three years ago, on loan from Tottenham Hotspur. He was dispatched to Ipswich Town in July 2012 as Andre Villas-Boas took over from Harry Redknapp as Spurs' manager.
The previous September, Luongo missed a penalty in a shootout against Stoke City as Spurs were eliminated in the third round of the English League Cup. Despite that, he remained part of the first team squad until Villas-Boas' arrival.
"I was pushed straight out on loan to Ipswich and it was difficult to play in the Championship and adjust to the style," he said.
"But this time around I think I'm better suited and more mature, although there are games when it poses difficulties for me in certain ways because every team offers something different."
Luongo's football education is also being flavoured by Australia's exotic qualifying path for Russia 2018. Already he's made trips to Dushanbe and Amman -- having missed the away game in Bishkek -- as the Socceroos look to book their place in a fourth consecutive World Cup.
Unquestionably, it was Luongo's achievements at January's Asian Cup that earned him the Ballon d'Or recognition, joining Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill as Australians to have previously made initial FIFA list.
A fringe squad member before the start of the Asian Cup who'd made his international debut only 10 months earlier, Luongo scored in the opening 4-1 victory over Kuwait in Melbourne and quickly became an irreplaceable part of Ange Postecoglou's midfield puzzle, keeping veteran Mark Bresciano on the bench.
"I went into the tournament not expecting to play as much as I did but grew in confidence with every game," he said.
"When I scored against Kuwait, I just wanted my space to absorb the moment. It was my first international goal on home soil and it came to put us 2-1 up at halftime after we had a really shaky opening 15 minutes.
"But we found our feet and that win set us up for the whole tournament."
In the final against South Korea in his hometown of Sydney, Luongo scored what seemed destined to be the winner until South Korea's Son Heung-min -- now with Tottenham -- equalised in the 91st minute. But James Troisi's extra-time goal secured a 2-1 victory for the home side.
"It was relief at first when we won. After six games everyone was exhausted mentally and physically," he said.
"When James Troisi scored, it was an amazing feeling. Normally I don't show my emotions much, but it all poured out ."
After failing to see any game time at Brazil 2014 after being a surprise inclusion in the squad, Luongo says that appearing at Russia 2018 is a major career ambition, along with playing in the Premier League.
But he admits that the Oct. 8 defeat in Jordan -- Australia's first loss in eight matches -- was a knock to the confidence of Postecoglou's side.
"It was a bit disappointing and a wake-up call and it felt like we had five days of a wasted [Socceroos] camp," he said. "But we've got loads of games and time to get where we want to be."
Australia, who are second in AFC Group B behind Jordan, will play Bangladesh in Canberra on Nov. 12 before travelling to Dhaka to face Bangladesh on Nov. 17 in their next qualifiers.
In the meantime, Luongo will continue to secure a starting berth at QPR -- and deal with increasing interest from his mother's homeland of Indonesia, which represents a large chunk of his 48,000 followers on Twitter. As a student in the 1980s, his mother Ira moved from Jakarta to Sydney where she met Luongo's Italian father, and there was earlier speculation that their son might play for Indonesia.
"People tweet to me in Indonesian but I don't understand because I don't speak it," he said.
"My Mum went back to Indonesia with my uncle recently. People wanted to meet her and there was news in the paper because of what I was doing. I've never been there but I'd love to go one day."
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.