The greatest Austrian sportsman you’ve never heard of…
By John Cummins
Fifty years ago today, on September 26, 1970, the most celebrated final in the history of Australian rules football was played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Before a record crowd of 121,000 spectators, the Carlton Blues defeated their arch enemies, the Collingwood Magpies, by 10 points.
The game is best remembered for Carlton’s extraordinary comeback. Facing a 44 point deficit at half time, the Blues threw caution to the wind, employing an all-out style of attack that completely redefined the game as it was then played.
Like most epic sporting contests, the 1970 grand final had several intriguing subplots which helped cement its legendary status. Alongside the match winning exploits of little-known substitute Ted Hopkins, was an extraordinary cameo of athletic brilliance by star forward Alex Jesaulenko which would come to be regarded as one of the sport’s most iconic moments.
With Carlton trailing early in the game, Jesaulenko catapulted himself over his opponent Graeme Jenkin, hanging impossibly in mid-air to meet the arriving ball. Watching the grainy black and white television footage fifty years on, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer athleticism of the leap, its effortlessness and grace. It’s one of those rare sporting moments that take your breath away, a sportsman at the peak of his powers, making the incredible look mundane through his extraordinary skill.
Alex Jesaulenko was born in Salzburg in 1945 to a Ukrainian father and Russian mother. His parents, like millions of other Eastern Europeans, had become displaced after suffering terribly during World War Two.
Jesaulenko’s mother Wera was interned in a prison camp after witnessing the killing of her father by Nazi soldiers. While living in the camp she gave birth to a child, a boy called Alex, who was subsequently taken away from her by the authorities. The boy was given up for dead, only to miraculously reappear some 50 years later in 1994.
At the end of the war Wera made her way to Austria, where she met Jesaulenko’s father Wasil, a former policeman. The two decided to start a family and, when Wera gave birth to another boy, they agreed to name him Alex, in memory of the child who had been lost.
The family, which later grew to include another two children, emigrated to Australia in 1949, where a mistake by immigration officials saw their name changed from Esaulenko to Jesaulenko. After spending six months at a migrant camp, they set up home in a quiet corner of the Australian capital Canberra.
At an early age, Alex displayed an aptitude for sport, playing both soccer and rugby, but it was at Australian rules football that he truly excelled, and, after several standout seasons with the local league, professional clubs from Melbourne came calling and he was signed by Carlton.
A star is born
Jesaulenko, or “Jezza” as he was dubbed by adoring fans, quickly established himself as a star of the game, dominating matches with his freakish skills, goal scoring prowess and uncanny ability to read the play. More than anything else, however, he was known for his acrobatic „marking“.
Unlike other football codes, Australian rules allows players to catch or „mark“ the ball in the air, even if they jump on their opponent’s back. Over the years this has become a defining and spectacular feature of the game, and one of the most obvious differences to related sports such as rugby or Gaelic football.
Jesaulenko’s leap in the 1970 grand final is still widely regarded as the greatest mark in the history of the game. Other players may have jumped higher, or taken marks with a greater degree of difficulty, but rarely has the move been executed with the sublime mix of balance and power demonstrated by Jesaulenko on that September afternoon.
Such was the brilliance of the mark that it seemed to transcend the narrow confines of sport and take on a life of its own, inspiring not only generations of Australian footballers but also songs and poems and even a popular advertisement. For Australia’s large migrant population it was a defining moment, proving that someone with foreign roots and a strange name could capture the attention and acclaim of the mainstream. In fact, for anyone like me growing up in 1970s Australia, Jesaulenko’s exploits had such currency, that spectacular marks on the football field were referred to simply as “taking a Jezza”.
A neglected Austrian champion?
Jesaulenko retired from the game in 1981, having played 279 matches and scored over 400 goals. He won four premierships with Carlton and went on to have a successful coaching career. On the weight of those achievements he was named in the Australian Football League’s “Team of the Twentieth Century” and, in 2008, he was inducted as a „legend“ into the Australia Football Hall of Fame.
In 2002 Jesaulenko was also inducted into the Ukrainian Sports Hall of Fame, in what was undoubtedly a proud moment for his family. Sadly, Austria has almost completely ignored the Carlton champion, despite the fact that he spent the first years of his life here.
Dominic Thiem’s breakthrough win at the US open earlier this month has prompted comparisons with sporting triumphs of the past, including discussion of the country’s greatest ever sporting champions. Alongside the usual suspects, there’s another name that should be added to the list. Alex Jesaulenko may have played a foreign code on the other side of the world, but his achievements on the football field are every bit as impressive as Krankl and Polster, Sindelar or Alaba.
So on the fiftieth anniversary of his finest sporting moment, perhaps it’s time for Austria to finally honour one of its forgotten sons. Nothing would make me prouder than to see the man I idolised as a child finally given the recognition he deserves in the country of his birth.
In the meantime, the most fitting tribute to Jesaulenko remains the words of commentator Mike Williamson, whose description of that moment in the 1970 Grand Final is almost as famous as the mark itself: “Jesaulenko, you beauty!”
Publiziert am 26.09.2020