When Tony Popovic left Crystal Palace in May 2012, where he had been first team coach under former team-mate Dougie Freedman, he could not have imagined the adventure to follow.
The Australian was returning to his hometown Sydney, to manage a brand new football club, Western Sydney Wanderers, but his and the team’s subsequent achievements have beggared belief.
Wanderers are an artificial creation, founded by Football Federation Australia because they wanted a team in Sydney’s highly-populated western suburbs. But fan forums were consulted on every aspect, from the home ground location (Parramatta) to the badge and the club gained an instant following.
Nevertheless, it was still remarkable for Wanderers, who unlike some rivals did not have a marquee foreign star like Alessandro Del Piero or David Villa, to win the A-League in their first season. But that was just the start. That success brought entry into the Asian Champions League and, at the weekend, they surpassed all expectation by holding out for a goalless draw in Riyadh to lift the title at the first attempt.
Defending a one-nil first leg lead against Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal Wanderers were given little chance. Strict visa regulations meant they had only 14 supporters in the 65,000 crowd while Al-Hilal’s Romanian coach Laurentiu Reghecampf had dismissed them as ‘a small team’. Perhaps the fact they are bottom of this season’ A-League – Popovic having focused on the ACL – fooled him.
Wanderers were particularly grateful to referee Yuichi Nishimura and goalkeeper Ante Covic. Nishimura is the official who gave Fred a dubious penalty in the opening game of the World Cup, but he was less swayed by home pressure in Riyadh as he dismissed two very strong penalty appeals. One was against Covic who perhaps deserved some fortune, the 39-year-old defying his years – and laser pointers being aimed at his eyes - with several agile saves.
En route to the final Wanderers had travelled 83,000 miles, more than three times the earth’s circumference, in defeating two teams each from Japan, South Korea and China, including the holders - Marcello Lippi’s Evergrande Guangzhou, and one of Popovic’s former teams, Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
Now they have more travel to do having qualified for next month’s Fifa Club World Cup in Morocco. They meet Mexico’s Cruz Azul in the quarter-finals with the winner playing Real Madrid.
Wanderers’ success will further fuel soccer’s rise in Australia. Once dismissed as ‘wogball’ because it was only played by east and southern European immigrants, it is now rivaling the established football codes: Australian rules, rugby league and rugby union. More than 5,000 fans watched the final on giant screens in Parramata in the early hours of the morning and the Socceroos will hope to build on Wanderers’ success in the Asian Cup which Australia hosts in January.
Al-Hilal took defeat badly with Nasser Al-Shamrani butting Matthew Spiranovic towards the end of the match, and spitting at him afterwards. The Saudi striker is likely to be playing for his country in the Asian Cup; he may get a hot reception.Reuse content