They say it takes a village to help an athlete or a sports team reach the pinnacle of their sport.
For more than a decade, one of the heartbeats of the Football Australia village has been Gerringong's Joel Freeme.
During his time with the green and gold, he held numerous team managerial roles with the Socceroos, Matildas, Joeys and Futsalroos - seeing him travel to all four corners of the globe and experience the inner sanctum of Australia's top football teams.
"If you had told me coming out of high school I'd be involved with the Socceroos for more than a decade I would have signed up there and then," said Freeme, who also called himself their middle-man, organiser and logistics provider for the close to 45 people involved during a camp, that booked flights, accommodation, dealt with respective football associations and each player's individual clubs.
"It's been an absolute dream to work with them and travel to the places I have - I wouldn't change any part of the journey at all.
"From sitting on the bench at a World Cup, or in the change rooms after an 2015 Asian Cup final win, you get to see first hand the inner workings of an elite team.
"Not everyone appreciates how much goes into a 90-minute football match, because of so many moving parts including aspects such as the media, marketing and the sacrifice these athletes make - with me essentially acting as the grease to keep the wheel turning.
"For example, if Mat Ryan flies in from Spain to Australia and lands on a Tuesday night, he then has commercial and media responsibilities, time on the massage table for physio treatment, train with the side and hopefully squeeze in some family time before playing a match on Thursday, not to mention him being jet-lagged - their days just fly by now.
"The demand on the athlete never gets enough attention and I don't think the general public appreciate the sacrifices required to ultimately perform on that pitch - sport is very much a business now and there are so many elements to it.
"Ultimately, a job is a job but when you get to do it with amazing people like I have, many of whom will be mates for life, it doesn't feel like I've worked at all, because I'm with these people all day, every day during camps and spend more time with them than my family or mates back in Gerringong.
"But unfortunately, like most good things in life, they must come to an end at some point - especially as my focus and priorities in life have changed."
His love for the world game started in Gerringong after Freeme and his mother settled on the South Coast town after stops in Queanbeyan and Figtree.
It was during his time at Gerringong Public School that he fell in love with the sport, as all his friends were playing it - compared to previous circles of friends who were more interested in rugby league and cricket.
"This group of friends saw me join my local club, the Gerringong Breakers, and as a lot of us do who are football orientated, I fell in love with the game very quickly and couldn't get enough of it," Freeme said.
The 37-year-old stayed at the Gerry Emery Oval-based club until the age of 16 before transitioning into Southern Branch, to play under Norm Boardman - who has recently returned to the South Coast region as the South East Phoenix's technical director.
"Back then, we used to play against the NSL [National Soccer League] clubs every second weekend in Sydney," he said.
"After that brief stint, I returned to play first grade with Gerringong before I finished high school.
"It was at that point I thought the football dream was over from a playing perspective but if I can't beat them, I may as well join them - which led to doing a sports management degree at the University of Canberra."
This move got the ball rolling on his managerial career, as he first got into the sports industry by doing some work experience with Rowing Australia - which eventually led to a full-time position.
"Through my contacts at Rowing Australia, I was put in contact with John Boultbee, who was one of their board members, but also working at Football Australia at the time as their head of national teams," the Kiama High School alumnus said.
"Not too long after that, he offered me a job in Sydney and I jumped at it - which started my 15-year association with the FA."
During his first year in 2007, Freeme started as a coordinator and executive assistant role, which quickly changed.
"Before I knew it, I was in Thailand for the 2007 Asian Cup, managing the Socceroos' families and friends tour," he said.
"Then when Martyn Crook took over the Joeys [under 17s] later that year, I started working closely with that side and Futsalroos - who were the two teams I spent a lot of time with early on.
"I was even lucky enough to go to World Cups with both sides, which were very different and unbelievable experiences, as one was in Mexico (Joeys in 2011) and Thailand (Futsalroos in 2012).
"I wasn't initially earmarked to work with teams specifically but as is the case with a lot of sports groups that might be under-resourced, you get thrown into the deep end.
"As I was with the FA for such a long period of time, I basically spent time with every team at some point, thanks to my early apprenticeship with the Joeys and Futsalroos."
During this time, Freeme also transitioned into the assistant team manager role with the Socceroos before taking on the Matildas' role in 2013.
But his stint with the women's setup was short-lived, as by April 2014, three months before the men's FIFA World Cup in Brazil, he was offered the Socceroos' managerial role.
"Having already qualified, Ange Postecoglou (Socceroos coach) and Luke Casserly (head of national performance) asked me to come in and have a go at looking after the team for the World Cup," Freeme said.
"I essentially had three months to prove myself and they'd let me know if the role was mine post-Brazil.
"Fortunately, I managed to land that job and held it until May this year."
The aforementioned World Cups are easily one of the highlights for Freeme's tenure with the green and gold.
"The World Cups are a funny one because I first attended one as a punter in 2006 with my best mate in Germany, which was fantastic and something I'll never forget," he said.
"The following year I start working for the FA and then the next World Cup I attend is in a working capacity.
"As exciting as the actual event is, the three-year qualifying journey is just as thrilling in my eyes because you work for that whole period for one goal.
"At a World Cup, it can all be over for you within 10 days if you don't make it out of the group stage - there's a completely different buzz from the journey to the event and the actual finals itself."
The other memory that stands out is the 2015 Asian Cup on home soil.
"We were in camp for six weeks, while also being close to family and friends, during that tournament," he said.
"Plus we got to play a couple of games in Sydney, so people close to me could attend the fixtures which were quite special.
"To top it all off, Mile [Jedinak] and the boys lifted the trophy at the end of the tournament - which was an opportunity of a lifetime for those players and us staff.
"Looking back on that tournament, I'm really proud of what the team achieved under Postecoglou, setting up future success for this country around the world."
As well as those World Cup locations, Freeme has travelled to North and South America, Europe, Africa and extensively through Asia, thanks to FA's alignment to that confederation.
"The beauty of football is that it truly is a world game and I've been lucky enough to go to all four corners of the globe because if it," Freeme, who singled out countries Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as highlights we would never have experienced if not for this role, said.
"In the same breath, while it's amazing to travel to all those locations, most people in similar positions will attest that it's actually a lot of airports, training fields, match stadiums and hotels before you're actually back in Australia.
"Despite that, you do get a feel for the culture and the people in those countries, as you sometimes get a day here or there to experience the city we are lucky enough to be in - it's definitely helped me grow as a person.
"Admittedly, not everything goes to plan on the road though, with there being plenty of instances where a language barrier has caused a miscommunication, such as a bus not turning up - but you learnt to embrace that and take trying to work out solutions in your stride.
"Prior to going to Russia, I wouldn't have really considered travelling there but I would encourage any young backpacker these days to add it to their list, as it's absolutely incredible."
Another beauty of working so closely with the sport, Freeme has seen firsthand what the national team's success does for participation numbers around the country.
"In a position like mine, I get to see all that data on a regular basis and to see the growth numbers, especially in the female side, off the back of the success of our national teams is unreal," he said.
"The bigger our game becomes, it will put us in a position to challenge the others codes and try and secure more funding, which in turn leads to better resources, competitions and players - it's all just one big snowball effect.
"Those spike in numbers is extremely exciting for the game's future, especially with the Women's World Cup to be played in here in 2023.
"Look at, for example, the impact the Olympics has had on everyone lately despite it being in another country and during COVID-19 lockdown - so a major event like the World Cup on home soil will be massive.
"Admittedly, I had my reservations during the 2015 Asian Cup that some of the matches between two foreign countries might not pull a crowd but I was proven wrong, as we have such a culturally diverse society.
"So regardless of who is playing here in 2023, it will resonate with the community, as all Australians just love their sport."
"When I first came in, I was a peer to a lot of the players, as I was a similar age to them - including the likes of Mark Milligan and Mile Jedinak," he said
"During that 10-year span, I've seen all the players and families grow and likewise, they've seen me develop.
"The biggest learning I got from my time with them is athletes are athletes and at the end of the day, they're Australians like the rest of us and are always keen for a laugh and a good time - there are no big egos there.
"Obviously athletes have to be focused on the task at hand but you do witness that switch off moment and actually enjoy deep conversations with them about their life away from football.
"It speaks volumes of the Aussie culture because it's rare all those players were in the same room together because for large portions of the year, they're scattered all over the globe.
"Every single one of them revels in that camp environment and although it might be months, or in the most recent case years because of COVID, that we hadn't seen each other, it felt like just yesterday we'd chatted.
"It really highlighted how lucky we are to be Australians and how privileged I was to do something money can't buy.
"The job's taught me the importance of hard work and how you can be rewarded significantly, while also making lifelong memories - that I'll most likely never be able to replicate.
"It was a crazy period of my life and I loved every minute."
Despite living out his footballing dream for more than a decade, Freeme made the difficult decision to step down from his role in May.
"The main reason behind it was my young family and daughter Kennedy, who is three," he said.
"The travel was just getting too much and the time had come to not be as focused on me, take the blinkers off and look at the bigger picture - especially as I had now achieved everything I'd set out to in the sport.
"After the Brazil World Cup, it didn't feel like I'd earned that role, as I was thrown in at the last minute, so I definitely wanted to do a full campaign heading into 2018 Russian World Cup, which also involved the 2015 Asian Cup - which then led to a Confederations Cup in 2017.
"If I had the dream job, that was the dream four years for me.
"Obviously I'd love to be involved with the FA moving forward but I know it's now time to put my energy back into my family.
"I can remember being in Kuwait for the World Cup qualifiers and having my daughter messaging me from Sydney saying she wanted me to pick her up from pre-school that day - a moment which really solidified my decision then and there.
"Especially now with COVID, because previously, with a FIFA international window, we'd be away two weeks maximum, but now with the quarantine rules, that meant potentially a month between seeing my daughter, which didn't sit well with me."
Despite currently being locked down in the Northern Beaches of Sydney, Freeme has transitioned into the building industry, working in the Sydney office for Perth-based company Midcity.
"It's a massive shift of the goalposts and a learning curve for me but it's a challenge I'm embracing because, at the end of my time with the Socceroos, I could have nearly done the role with my eyes shut," he said.
"I always said my first job out of football would be to a completely different industry, as I didn't want to go work in other code - I just needed a break from sport.
"I've always been one to not stay in my comfort zone for too long and this gives me another chance to grow as a person.
"It obviously also ticks that box of being close to family too, for the majority of the year - not to mention it'll be nice to not have my phone go off at 11pm each night."
While Freeme is looking forward to his new challenge, he didn't rule out the possibility of returning to football one day.
"Down the line, I can 100 per cent see myself back in the sports world at a later stage," he said.
"It might start as small as getting back into the grassroots level and helping out with my local club up here in Sydney.
"In a working capacity, I'll never rule out anything because you can never say never, as you don't know what that future holds.
"I also won't rule out a return to Gerringong one day, as it's a place and club I miss a lot."
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Sports Journalist for South Coast Register and Milton-Ulladulla Times, who loves all things sport and travel. All views are my own.
Sports Journalist for South Coast Register and Milton-Ulladulla Times, who loves all things sport and travel. All views are my own.
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