Western Sydney Wanderers targeting the big prizes
Tony Popovic and his Wanderers didn’t take long to convince a wary public in the untapped football market of Sydney’s sprawling fringes that they were the real deal.
In two years, they’ve gone a long way to proving themselves on a continental scale, too.
The Western Sydney Wanders are potentially just 90 minutes away from achieving something no Australian club has ever done by winning the Asian Champions League title.
But there are perhaps more prizes on offer than the trophy. This youngest of the 10 A-League clubs could also do more than any other to improve the reputation of the Australian football scene across the vast and diverse continent.
Going into the return leg of the final at Riyadh on Saturday, Western Sydney holds a 1-0 advantage over Saudi powerhouse Al Hilal. Avoiding defeat means Asia’s biggest club title will belong to a team that played its first professional game in 2012. Not only that, success in Saudi Arabia will book the Wanderers a berth in December’s FIFA Club World Cup and a possible match with European champion and global powerhouse Real Madrid.
Since Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation in 2006, its national team has usually competed well with the world’s best and, in Asia, has been regarded as one of the strongest in the region. A-League teams, which joined the AFC’s flagship club tournament in 2007, have had less impact.
The highlight until this year was Adelaide United’s run to the 2008 final, where it was thrashed 5-0 by Gamba Osaka of Japan. Overall, South Korean and Japanese teams have dominated the competition in the last eight years, with clubs from Qatar and China also winning during that span. Western Sydney is aiming to go one better than Adelaide.
Australian clubs have rarely featured highly toward the end of the competition, and that hasn’t done much too lift the profile of the domestic league elsewhere in Asia.
The Wanderers campaign has garnered increasing attention, and has been all the more impressive given the fact that A-League teams operate under an annual salary cap of 2.5 million Australian dollars ($2.2 million) that covers the entire squad except two ‘marquee’ players who can be paid outside the cap. The fledgling A-League clubs also have to compete for attention in a crowded Australian sports landscape against the much bigger and more established Australian rules Australian Football League and National Rugby League clubs, and the Super Rugby teams.
After topping its group including 2012 Asian title holder Ulsan Horangi in its debut appearance in the Asian Champions League, the Western Sydney team had three tough encounters in the knockout stage.
The Wanderers beat Japanese champion Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the second round and, most surprisingly, eliminated a star-studded Guangzhou Evergrande squad, the reigning Asian champion that is guided by World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi, at the quarterfinal stage. They booked a place in the final with a semifinal victory over 2013 finalist FC Seoul.
Those results have helped raise the profile of, and respect for, the A-League around Asia, according to Robert Cornthwaite, a member of that 2008 Adelaide United team who has played in South Korea since 2011.
“Western Sydney Wanderers have definitely helped Australian football,” the Chunnam Dragons defender said. Cornthwaite believes, however, that A-League teams will have to achieve sustained, Korean-level success in the Asian Champions League to really change perceptions. K-League clubs have been continental champions 10 times and this year’s final is the first since 2008 not to feature a Korean team.
“I still think Aussie sides will be considered the underdog when playing Asian teams in the future,” Cornthwaite said. “We need to maintain this level for a few years before making a true impact. I don’t think it will change perceptions that much until our teams are consistently making it to the last four.”
Alex Brosque is another established Australian international with extensive experience of Asian club football who believes winning the 2014 title would be just the start of the process. The current captain of Sydney FC, the Wanderers’ cross-town rival, has played for two of Asia’s biggest clubs after stints at Urawa Reds of Japan and UAE’s Al Ain, both past Champions League winners.
“I think the Wanderers have definitely been noticed throughout Asia with them having done so well to reach the final,” Brosque said. “Adelaide made the final several years ago and while it was a fantastic achievement it hasn’t changed much. In terms of whether it will change the attitudes of other Asian nations toward us depends on more than just the Wanderers winning it.
“The only way for Asian clubs to really fear Australian teams is if we consistently see them making the latter stages of the tournament.”
There is evidence to suggest that clubs around Asia are taking notice.
“The Wanderers have certainly raised the profile of Australian football,” Pakistan captain Zesh Rehman told The Associated Press. The defender plays his club football for Pahang FC, one of Malaysia’s top clubs. “The games have been shown live here. There will be in increase in Australian players in Malaysia next season so the success of the Wanderers is actually opening doors. In Asia, I think people are starting to see Australia as a football loving country.”