Scuffle, spitting and headbuttWanderers win first title
All hail Tony Popovic and his team from Western Sydney, champions of Asia and now set to rub shoulders with the world’s elite teams – including the Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired galacticos of Real Madrid – at the next club world championships in Morocco later this year.
The Wanderers defied all the odds – a packed stadium and a frenzied opponent – to keep a clean sheet in the early hours of Sunday morning and win the title on a 1-0 aggregate over Al Hilal, the Saudi Arabian team who reacted to their Asian Champions League final loss in poor fashion.
It is, surely, the greatest triumph of an Australian club in a sporting competition.
It was a victory for grit, organisation, dedication, commitment and professionalism. Not to mention large chunks of luck, as the Saudi side – under enormous pressure to win this game in front of a capacity crowd and carrying huge expectations from the country’s rulers – were denied several penalty claims, at least two of them looking clear cut.
But take nothing away from the achievements of Western Sydney. This was a side that did not exist barely three years ago.
It was put together by a rookie coach – Popovic had had limited experience as an assistant at Crystal Palace and Sydney FC before becoming the boss at the A-League’s new franchise – and initially struggled to score a goal, never mind pick up a few points, in its early A-League games.
Popovic had few stars save for initial marquee man Shinji Ono, the Japanese veteran. In fact many of his first signings were discards and cast offs from other A-League teams or younger players looking to make a mark.
It is a matter of history now that the Wanderers stormed through the A-League at their first essay, taking the Premiers Plate but falling short in the Grand Final. It was a similar story in their second season, when they were defeated in extra time in the Grand Final by Brisbane.
But Popovic rallied his side, tapped into their self belief and conviction as they shrugged aside that defeat to progress in the Asian Champions League.
Sure, they rode their luck at times, perhaps never more than in the second leg of the final.
But the saying that you make your own luck is usually not far of the mark, and Popovic’s side,which has never traded on individual brilliance, has always tended to work, graft and manufacture anything, including luck, which has come its way.
Make no mistake, this is an enormous achievement, the greatest by any Australian club in a sporting competition.
Western Sydney took on the might of Asia, the expansively funded clubs fuelled by the petro dollars of the oil rich sheiks of the Middle East and the business tycoons of South East Asia, and triumphed.
While their opponents could lavish millions on big names and star players, top line coaches and a battery of assistants, Popovic and his crew have achieved this success on a relative shoe-string, hemmed in by the A-League salary cap and a number of competition rules which prohibit the amount of foreign players a club can sign and even mandate certain numbers of youngsters in the squad.
It works well for the A-League, which is a paragon of democracy where every team can beat the other on any given day. It is less forgiving in a cut throat environment such as continental competition, where the most lavishly funded, well heeled clubs tend to rule the roost.
That Western Sydney has managed to conquer despite these disadvantages is a huge tribute to the thoroughness and tactical acumen of their manager, the discipline, work rate and ability of their players and, in no small measure, to the fanatical support they have received throughout their existence from their fans.
So many Australian sides – apart from Adelaide United, who reached the final in 2008 only to lose heavily to Gamba Osaka – have moaned and complained about the financial disparity between them and their opponents and have used it as an excuse almost before they kicked off in the competition. Wanderers, despite a very sticky start, didn’t whinge or cavil, they simply got on with the job in hand.
That the Wanderers were an idea waiting to happen no one doubted. The wonder is that it took the FFA so long to sign off on the concept.
They have rapidly become, along with Melbourne Victory, the powerhouse side in the country as far as a supporter base is concerned. They have now outstripped Victory, and everyone else, in achievement: in my book, a continental championship outranks Brisbane’s three domestic titles and Victory and Sydney FC’s two.
Popovic has enhanced his status no end with this triumph. The FFA was always going to overlook him in favour of Ange Postecoglou this time last year when it was seeking a Holger Osieck replacement, but surely he will be amongst the front runners next time, whenever that will be.
It is a moot point where the ex-Socceroo will be. His name is now sure to be on the shopping list of some of Asia’s largest clubs, if not clubs from further afield. His achievement, given the short time frame from Wanderers inception to this, its greatest moment, speaks volumes for his coaching ability and his capacity to build a club.
Wanderers officials and executives should also take a bow. Putting the club together from scratch was never easy, and few expected any success at all for the first few years.
Popovic will want to finish what he has started if at all possible and guide the Wanderers to their inaugural A-League title. It is an irony that they can beat the best in the region but have yet to prove themselves masters in their own back yard – a tribute to the depth of competition and the equivalency measures in operation in Australia.
Business will begin as usual next weekend when the bottom of the table side (who have lost their only two A-League fixtures this season) return to domestic action.
Wanderers win is also a timely boost for the Asian Cup,being hosted by Australia early next year. If the Socceroos are not inspired by this achievement, they never will be!!