Ante of Arabia (or How The Wanderers Feared None, Conquered All and Returned From Riyadh With The ACL Title)

I’ve often talked to friends and family about the moments in my life when I experienced true bliss, when happiness was not just a transitory feeling but a pure state of being. Unlike many I’ve not couched such experiences in the traditional contexts of births and marriages, but instead focused on sport. Perhaps that demonstrates a certain shallowness or a paucity of exposure to meaningful life matters, however they are my experiences and I will always treasure them.

The first was back in the early hours of September 24th, 1993. Before there was an A-League, in the days when football was more a dormant like than an all-consuming love, I was engrossed in the Olympics. Before I knew of the legendary 1974 Socceroos I had been bitten by the bug of the five ringed circus thanks to watching Munich 72 on a black and white television in a caravan in East Maitland. So, when Sydney’s bid for the 2000 Olympics came to the all important juncture, aiming to get the nod by the IOC over Beijing, Manchester and other bidding cities, well it was one of the moments in my life. At the ungodly hour local time that the late and not much lamented Juan Antonio Samaranch said “….And the winner is Sydney, Australia”, well there and then I had the first defining moment of ecstacy in my life thanks to sport.

Come forward over 12 years and it was Germany 2006 qualification time for the Socceroos. Another November date with destiny, having gone through the heart ache of watching the national side fail at every attempt to repeat the wondrous achievements of Rale Rasic’s 1974 heroes, it was a long and tortuous experience having to watch the Socceroos triumph over the Uruguyans. Thirty-two years of sadness, of frustration, of disappointment melted away under the floodlight glare of legends like Schwarzer, Bresciano, Kewell, Viduka, Alosi and that man Tony Popovic, and once more I was taken to another plane of happiness. Giddy with the penalty shoot-out win and a few good measures of kartoffelschnapps all I could do was euphorically celebrate the erasing of all those disappointing years, all those bad memories, all those frustrated Socceroo campaigns. I had another moment in my life that was filtered through sport and epic success to memorize.

So last morning, as my beloved Western Sydney Wanderers battled through possibly the sternest challenge ever faced by any club of any code in this country to win not just a famous victory, but one with global implications…well let me say that I am on a high equal to the intoxicating joy as I experienced back in 1993 and 2005, if not higher.

Popa and the Wanderers Jubilant in Riyadh

I had been debating whether to go to the live site in Parramatta’s Centenary Square, as I’m not as young as I once was and the stress of what was going to be an all-nighter was something better dealt with in my old university days 30 years ago. Throw in the hassle of heading into Parramatta, the possibility of a loss souring the mood post-match (as was experienced after the 2012/13 grand final), and being a lazy old prick, well my mind was not made up until my beloved said the right words; “You’ll regret it if you don’t go”. A few additional incentives from friends online who were going to be at the first (and arguably best) home of the RBB (i.e. The Woolpack Hotel), I decided to let go of my middle aged doubts and get on board the live site experience.

The hours leading into the match were profitably spent drinking a few ales, chatting with some of my aforementioned keyboard comrades at the Woolie, contemplating the imposing date with destiny for the Wanderers over in Saudi, and trying not to feel sick in the stomach with nerves. If there is one thing that really helps with the trials of being a Wanderers fan it’s the brotherhood and sisterhood of fellow fans. I know this might sound a bit hyperbolic, a bit over the top, however I can honestly say I’ve not felt a greater and more enjoyable sense of camaraderie, dare I say family, than with those who share my passion for the Western Sydney Wanderers, since at least my time as an undergraduate up at UNE. The range of ages, of ethnicity, of home roots, of opinions matters not a jot when we get together. Over a few cleansing ales or steins we can relate without all the BS our non-Wanderers lives could bring to bear on our communication. Young or old, male or female, bogan Anglo or effnick wog I am part of this amazing community of western Sydney people, all sharing the love of the Wanderers, and it is a wonderful experience made even more potent at 3.30am before an AFC Champions’ League final.

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Centenary Square, Parramatta…3.40am before the ACL Final

With a few of my comrades as company it was a short walk over to Centenary square, and within minutes it was a sea of fellow Wanderers faithful in red and black, or perhaps a sprinkling of white and red away strips. The mood was one of nervous energy, coupled with that unmistakable air of people trying to either stay awake or wake up. It wasn’t the most well organised or comfortable of set-ups, and the three mobile big screen displays had their issues. However as my beloved said, I would have regretted not being there to share the whole experience. Throw in the presence of members of the RBB and La Banda, a bracing cup of coffee and a collapsible camp chair I was about as ready as I could be for the big game.

Now when it came to the match itself, first off I note with approval that Tony Popovic followed his own mind and ignored my manifesto on how to beat Al Hilal. It was a little surprising to see Kwabena Appiah run on as the RAM and Shannon Cole take over from Daniel Mullen as RB, however as is the mantra of all who follow the Wanderers, in Popa we/I trust. The early moments of the game were positive for the away team, and it looked like perhaps the match would be more even than that played last week at Wanderland. Then the tempo changed, and it was as if Al Hilal were always on the attack and the Wanderers hunkered down for an assault of biblical magnitude. Time and time again the home forwards surged forwards, putting the back five of Cole, Hamill, Topor-Stanley, Golec and Covic under pressure. The referee didn’t aid matters with his seemingly endless awarding of free kicks to Al Hilal, with every contested meeting between players in red and black versus those in blue ending in the home team’s favour. Fast and creative, the Saudi team were playing as if they were chasing the win, and all I could feel as I watched was a gnawing worry in my gut, that we would concede and the dream of an Asian title would crumble with an Al Hilal goal.

However as the game went on in its scoreless manner there was that kernel of hope that kept sustaining me. Through every shot from the misfiring Al Hilal strikers, through every controversial decision from the Japanese referee, through every last minute clearance from NTS or heroic save from Ante Covic, the seemingly doomed chance of an AFC Champions’ League title stayed alive. Half time brought some respite, and discussing the validity of the claims for a penalty that was denied Al Hilal, and my assertion that Vitor Saba was volatile helped divert some of the tension. There had also been some pyro ignited by certain ultra fans, and to be honest it was something visually engaging yet also a pain in the arse when I began coughing my lungs up. However I was glad of the display in that it gave my racing mind something else to latch on, aside from the nervous trauma of watching the Wanderers under the pump in Riyadh.

The second half was, if at all possible, almost twice as stressful that the preceding one. There was more controversy courtesy of another claim for a penalty for the home team, waved away emphatically by the referee (perhaps suffering from nerves himself after his display in the opening match of the 2014 World Cup between Brazil and Croatia). Tomi, Vitor and Spira each came on as Popa rang in the changes. Unfortunately unlike last Saturday the effect on possession and attacking opportunities were minimal, and there was to be no repeat of the magical goal from Golec and Juric as staged in the Wanderland leg. Play opened up a little and there was one or two minor chances from the Wanderers, however it was mostly one way traffic, all towards the goal guarded by Ante. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and those last fifteen minutes or so after a confidence building Poznan in Centenary square was simply a festival of Covic’s acrobatic heroics. In the 86th minute his effort at keeping out an almost certain scoring shot was arguably the best ever save from any Australian goalkeeper in any game ever:

I have seen a lot of good and some great Australian goalies over the years; Jack Riley, Allan Maher, Terry Greedy, Robert Zabica, Mark Bosnich and of course the magisterial Mark Schwartzer, and the last mentioned has a true candidate for save of Australian football’s history with his amazing stop on Zayaleta’s strike from the penalty spot. However the efforts of Covic not just in this match but in others during this AFC Champions’ League campaign are going to be the stuff of legend. Maybe I am succumbing to my own hyperbolic love of the Wanderers, however I would argue that the first statue erected of any player to have worn the red and black at Wanderland must be of Ante. On a slightly less excited note, surely he needs to be considered as at least the no.2 goalie in Ange Postecoglu’s AFC Cup Socceroos squad.

Back to the game itself, those last few minutes and particularly the excoriating stretched moments of injury time were simply agony. It was almost unbearable, yet fascinating and joyful as the game’s duration came closer and closer to ending. Then, at the 96th minute, came release:

It was a moment of pure elation, or unadulterated joy. In a paroxysm of happiness mixed in with disbelief I hugged my nearest red and black adorned compatriot, then went berko with glee. Everyone around me, from all the suburbs of western Sydney and beyond, Anglo or wog, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Muslim, rich or poor, man or woman…we all were united in euphoria.

More Glorious Than Death…victory celebrations in Centenary Square Parramatta as the Wanderers claim the ACL title

In the next hour or so it was all about sharing the happiness, living in the moment, of being with my brothers and sisters who have put our hearts and minds behind the Western Sydney Wanderers. We sang ‘Campiones’, we chanted, we hugged, we danced, we fist-pumped all in true Dino Kresinger style. Tears were shed by some, for others there was the cathartic pleasure of laughing, letting go of the nervous tension that had been all too apparent during the match. Many of us in Centenary Square became angry at the disgusting bad-sportsmanship from the grubby Al Hilal striker Al-Shamrani, whose spitting and head butting was just as vile as Luis Suarez biting incident at Brazil 2014. However our hatred for such a dirty bastard was mollified a little by the fact he and his ineffective and impotent comrades lost what they arrogantly proclaimed as theirs without any concrete justification.

I could describe what happened in Parramatta in more detail but already many aspects are being lost in that forgetfulness you have when extreme happiness creates a memory fog. Plus, I didn’t stay around much longer after the presentation of the trophy was broadcast from Riyadh. The sun was shining and it’d been 24 hours since I’d last slept, plus I wanted to get home to my beloved and share my glee whilst watching whatever I could on TV focused on the Wanderers.

After the rest of the morning and some hours in the afternoon passed in sleep I woke to watch the recording I had of the game. I couldn’t bear to watch the entire match again; it had been far too stressful the first go around. Instead I watched the last few minutes of play and then the celebrations for the boys over in Saudi Arabia. There was one last moment of catharsis, of release, when I saw Vitor Saba cry with joy in the arms of Tony Popovic. I’m not ashamed to say I blubbered a little…nay, a farken lot, watching those scenes from earlier that glorious day. It was the perfect end point for a perfect night and day. I have now got a trifecta of euphoric experiences in my life through the agency of sport, and right now it is the greatest of them all.

How To Beat Al Hilal (Or a Keyboard Warrior’s Manifesto for Popa)

Tomorrow morning in the wee small hours thousands of devoted Western Sydney Wanderers will aggregate together in Parramatta, or perhaps at Club Marconi in Bossley Park, or at Blacktown Workers, or even just stumble out of bed and put the TV onto FoxSports, and every one will have that one hope; bring home the Champions’ League trophy. No doubt many of them, plus non-Wanderer viewers, will have ideas as to how Popovic’s squad can achieve what so many thought was impossible and create a new glorious page in football’s history down under. So, to fulfill that obligation of being a rabid armchair expert, here are my thoughts on how to beat Al Hilal.

1. Self-Belief

If there is one match winning quality that had been demonstrated time and time again by the Wanderers, not just in the 2014 AFC Champions’ League, it has been a well adjusted sense of self-belief. I’m not talking the mind games and braggart behaviour coming through from the likes of Al Hilal’s coach Laurentiu Reghecampf who, when at a pre-match press conference said “No, I promise you we won’t lose tomorrow. I’m going to see to that and I hope that [Western] Sydney will stay a small team.” (source). It’s the kind of confidence and self-belief that club leaders such as captain Nikolai Topor-Stanley (“It’s a massive, massive game, we’re under no illusions about that but we’re really excited to be 90 minutes away from being champions.”) and coach Tony Popovic have kept talking about:

“They’re here because they deserve to be here,” he said of his men.”They’re motivated enough, they’re not here for a holiday, they’re here to win the final.” (source)

Tony Popovic: mastermind of the ascent of the Western Sydney Wanderers

Perhaps the mentality that is most indicative of where the Wanderers are and hopefully need to be at when it comes to beating Al Hilal is that spoken of by heroic goalkeeper Ante Covic:

“There’s going to be 65-odd thousand Hilal supporters and they’re going to make it as intimidating as possible and try and wear us down in that aspect,” said Covic, who was impressive in the 1-0 first leg win in Sydney. “But we’re not going to fall under that kind of pressure. We know that they’re going to be confident, they’re playing at home and they’re rubbing it in our faces how daunting it’s going to be in front of their fans and how we’ve seen nothing yet. We’re not going to fall for those traps. We just know that we’re going to be in for a good, hard, solid game against a quality opposition.” (source)

Make no mistake; the players, coaching staff and administrators have known for sometime that this entire AFC Champions’ League campaign has been one of extraordinary challenge, but also one that they deserve to be part of and where their victories have been well won. There has been none of the arrogance and dare I say sense of entitlement that has oozed from clubs that have boasted about their chances before being beaten by the Wanderers (hello Guangzhou Evergrande), nor as there been a self-pity or contemplation of the imbalance between club resources. Instead Popovic and the rest of the squad have turned up to every match with the innate self-belief that comes not from ego, but from achievement on the pitch and solidarity within all involved in the mission to hand.

2. Acknowledge but don’t fear the Al Hilal’s Home Turf

There has been talk again and again and again from the fans of Al Hilal, the media, the coach, the owners…everyone involved with the Saudi powerhouse, about the imposing quantity and quality of support that last week’s losers will bring on board when at home in Riyadh this week. I don’t think anyone is under any illusion that these kinds of statements are just nervous dog whistles; Al Hilal will have a packed King Fahd Stadium awaiting the Wanderers and almost 99.9% of the 65,000 spectators will be backing the home team. Then there is the much talked about heat, the potential for any shenanigans from the locals, and the distance involved in traveling to Riyadh for the Wanderers.

However recent Wanderers’ experiences have shown that they are capable of dealing with similar circumstances and coming through with flying colours. The away leg to Guangzhou Evergrande was without doubt the hardest faced by any Australian football team since the away leg  of the World Cup qualifiers against Uruguay played by the Socceroos in Montevideo in 2001. In fact, whilst there was some nastiness involving the Socceroos when they arrived in Montevideo in 2001 the level of bastardry and the difficulty of the task at hand for the Wanderers when they went to Guangzhou was many times worse. From phone calls in the middle of the night through to staged bus accidents, and of course the huge disparity in terms of resources and fans available for the home side against the Wanderers, that Guangzhou Evergrande semi was exactly what was needed to give the Australian hope for Champions’ League glory an insight into away intimidation. And the players themselves know this:

“I always go back to that game against Guangzhou Evergrande and about how that was fantastic preparation for this,” he said. “We went through tough times on that trip. Mentally that’s not easy to take. We came through strong… and we can take that experience into this game.” (Brendon Santalab)

So having been through an arguably less pleasant experience than the one they are currently enduring, plus with a solid pre-season 10 day training camp run in Dubai, it can be confidently said that there are no fears within the squad when it comes to running out against the vociferous and fierce opposition of Al Hilal’s home support in a very warm Riyadh, thousands of kilometres away from Wanderland. This group of players, staff and even the fourteen Wanderers fans traveling to watch the final leg are not going to buckle easily where others wouldn’t even be willing or able to go.

3. Don’t Chase The Game Unless Necessary

The Wanderers have got results away from home in the AFC Champions’ League through replicating the same dogged and highly structured defence that has won them games at home not just in this tournament, but also in the A-League. Last week’s first leg was a typical example of what the Wanderers do so well, insofar as they usually deny the opposition clear chances on goal from open play and dead ball situations alike and thus keeping a clean sheet, Whilst they are known to concede they usually can score to balance the result. For example, with their 3-1 loss to Hiroshima Sanfrecce, their 2-1 loss to Guangzhou Evergrande and their 0-0 draw to FC Seoul the Wanderers have either built upon or set the stage for the needed result from back home (such as the respective 2-0, 1-0 and 2-0 wins in order against the same teams at Wanderland), and it is this ability to deter the opposition’s attack from overwhelming the Wanderers with goals that will be needed again for this final match against Al Hilal.

Wanderers V Hilal 2 Preview

The impregnanble defence of Ante Covic in front of the Wanderers goal against Al Hilal

Defensively the Wanderers are extremely good, and of course so much of this is built upon the two key players Nikolai Topor Stanley and Ante Covic. Having said that Mullen, Golec and Hamill have each made their presence felt, and in front of them Iaccopo La Rocca and recently Matteo Poljak have also helped keep down the oppositions’ chances for goals through the midfield. There is the possibility that Matthew Spiranovic may return for some game time however if last week’s match is any guide it won’t be too early and it may well be in a central midfielder’s role. However it will be Topor Stanley and Covic who will need to be at their best, and I would suggest they would do well to adjust slightly the emphasis on ball clearances from the back third of the field. The ‘if in doubt hoof it out’ system did the job at Wanderland however I would like to think that in Riyadh there will be more controlled disposal of dangerous balls.

As for the contrary aspect of attack, there is no need (unless they go down 2 early goals) for the Wanderers to chase the game. If they can stay compact and ride out the inevitable pressure from Al Hial they can hopefully do again what was achieved last week via Tomi Juric’s goal. Counter-punches are a frequent route for Wanderers success and with hopefully Labinot Haliti, Brendan Santalab and Tomi Juric all possible goal raiders there is every reason to believe that at least one goal can come to the red and black. If that happens then the task for Al Hilal becomes even more onerous.

4. Harness Vitor’s Frustration and Use It Intelligently

He has been portrayed as a genius and as a villain and yet he only has two full starst with the Wanderers in any competitive match so far. Vitor Saba has had a sizable impact off the bench thanks to his work during the 1-0 win over Guangzhou, and whilst he had only a few minutes on the pitch at Wanderland against Al Hilal last Saturday his class was obvious. Now there are stories like this coming out of the Wanderers’ camp:

Vitor Saba is unhappy starting games from the bench but is prepared to sacrifice minutes on the field if it means Western Sydney Wanderers return to Australia with the Asian Champions League trophy.

The Brazilian playmaker is not satisfied with a role as a substitute, having moved to Australia with the hope of playing regular football. Saba has started just one game in the Asian Champions League campaign and watched the bulk of the first leg of the final against Al-Hilal from the bench before entering as an 83rd-minute substitute.

He is eager to establish himself as a first-team player but admits it is difficult to argue against the selection policy due to the team’s performance and results in Asia. In the best interests of the team, Saba is prepared to bide his time and take his chances when they arrive.

“Of course I am not satisfied, but I respect his [coach Tony Popovic’s] decision because we are winning. I think every time that I am coming from the bench, I am coming for a purpose and my purpose is to help the team, and I think I am doing a good job. But, if you ask me if I want to sit on the bench? No, I do not want to. But now I have to think about what is most important and that’s the trophy … If I have to come five minutes, or 10 or 45, I have to be humble, stay on the bench and then come and do my best.”  (source)

Arguably somewhat volatile, I would suggest that Popa can and should keep Saba on the bench and then bring him into the match sometime in the second half to either give a tired Al Hilal more concerns in the midfield, plus relieve pressure on the Wanderers players in a similar role or out the back. Additionally, as a true no.10 he can act as a distributor for the likes of Juric, Santalab, Haliti or maybe even Mark Bridge. His eagerness to do well and his freshness, combined with the obvious talent his possesses will give Al Hilal some major food for thought.

Vitor Saba; the Wanderers midfielder who makes everyone pay attention

5. Keep The Ball Longer

One of the less impressive aspects of the Wanderers’ play in recent weeks has been their inability to retain the ball for long stretches and retain possession. In the match against Al Hilal last Saturday that issue reared its ugly head again and whilst possession for its own sake is not a match winner, denying the opposition a chance to use the ball to score goals is. In what could be very warm conditions having to chase turnovers could quickly erode the Wanderers’ fitness, vaunted as it is, and so making sure that al Hilal are not given any chance to intercept or steal loose balls particularly in the Wanderers’ half is of paramount concern.

6. When does Tomi Come On?

With injury worries over both Brendon Santalab (shoulder dislocation) and Tomi Juric (groin) the question is not will one be subbed off for the other, but when. Assuming that Santalab is able to start (and he himself has very confidence he can at least play) then I would think he would be the better option at the beginning, with Tomi to come on after him. I know that there have been several media pundits and experts who have said that Tomi needs to start, however I don’t believe he will be most effective from the get go right now. If he remains benched until at least the first half ends, or in a worse case scenario the Wanderers ship two goals without answer, then Popovic has the luxury of bringing him on with fresh legs and the ability to hopefully repeat his intimidating runs from last week. It may well be in fact that Juric will not be able to or need to score, and I would not be surprised if someone like Bridge or Haliti earns that distinctive honour. Popovic has a gun striker he can use when he believes he will have the most impact, and those who are probably going to line up won’t be that much less dangerous.

Tomi Juric: Wanderers striker and the man who gives Al Hilal nightmares

7. Shannon Cole: Mr Ubiquitous

An unsung hero of the Wanderers, Shannon Cole has been one of the best performers for the Wanderers in the Champions’ League tournament, and I expect him to start yet again as a right attacking midfielder. He was not embarrassed by his opposition last week, and in previous games has scored goals when needed. Whilst he may find himself at some stage of the game is either subbed for Spiranovic or Saba, I am certain he will be the Wanderers own ‘mini Phillip Lahm’. If defensive support is needed he should also be able to shore up his flank as well.

Shannon Cole: unsung hero for the Wanderers in ACL 2014

8. Watch for a change in style and new players from Al Hilal

Last week Al Hilal were nominally playing a style of match they were arguably unsuited to, looking to maximise speed, width and attack instead of their more traditional possession based game. Additionally their usual skipper, striker Yasser Al Qahtani is back after a suspension which meant he missed the first leg of the final in Wanderland. Thus Tony Popovic and the Wanderers on the pitch will need to be aware of actual and potential changes to the line up and style they will confront in the upcoming away leg. It will be interesting to see if Reghecampf tries to vary things a bit, as what was put on the field last Saturday night wasn’t bad. Either way there are some unknowns yet to be verified to come out of Al Hilal.

There are lots of other aspects of the match that bear some degree of examination when trying to work out how the Wanderers can win tonight. Discipline, interaction with the referee and other officials, the potential influence of one of the Wanderers’ squaddies (e.g. Jason Trifiro) or a younger player (Daniel Alessi perhaps, or Kwabena Appiah). The burden of two losses in A-League grand finals must be acknowledged and the mental or psychological ability of the players to get past those results will also go some way in determining if they can snatch the trophy in Riyadh. Finally, you are only as good as your opposition allows you to be, and in the case of al Hilal they have shown both a susceptibility of not being able to finish against the Wanderers, and letting the A-League team get one over them. The result is too hard to pick, but my heart is where it should be;

Come on you Wanderers!

On The Cusp Of Greatness (or Fortress Wanderland Claims Another Asian Giant)

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration, even though I am as biased as all hell, to say that the 1-0 win over Al Hilal on Saturday night was probably one of the top two or three moments not just for the Wanderers, but for Australian club football since at least the foundation of the A-League, if not in the entire history of domestic football in this country. Don’t get me wrong; it was hardly the most beautiful of games. It wasn’t a display of Joga Bonita, with flurries of goals, incisive incursions from fleet-footed strikers, creative midfielders using repeated pin-point passes to split the opposition defence, dazzling their markers with sublime skill and vision. Some more envious and less successful fans from the eastern side of Sydney may have called the Wanderers “jammy c-nts”. I’m sure Al Hilal fans will have left Wanderland wondering how they couldn’t score, and there have been stories like Seb Hassett’s in the Sydney Morning Herald that talked about luck and the Wanderers being outplayed. There’s also been the likes of Damien Lovelock who in the most recent ‘Top of the League’ podcast was disdainful and dismissive of the Wanderers’ playing style.

Having said all that if even the most vexatious and unsympathetic viewers of the Wanderers efforts in first leg of the AFC Champions’ League could, nay should, cede anything  when reviewing what transpired last Saturday night (and indeed beforehand) it is that in their campaign for Asian glory the relative new boys of the A-League have demonstrated a determination and self-belief that are the true hallmarks of great achievements in football. Arguably more importantly they are the qualities that gel admirably with the wider Australian community and culture, beyond the ‘sheilas, wogs and pooftas’ world of Australian soccer. They are attributes that mix well with the narrative of the underdog battling against a far wealthier and arguably more skillful opponent, taking the game right up to them and beating them not just on the score line but also in the stands. Saturday night’s win sits quite nicely alongside other Australian sporting episodes of a similar ilk, such as the successful 1974 and 2006 World Cup qualification final matches for the Socceroos, or perhaps in other athletic endeavours the Olympic gold medals for Jon Sieben and Duncan Armstrong at the 1984 and 1988 Summer Olympics, or the 1997 grand final win for the Newcastle Knights in the ARL premiership. Perhaps it could be seen as a parallel to Steve Waugh’s century against the English in the 2002/2003 Ashes test played at the SCG. I’m sure there are plenty of similar stories both from Australia’s sporting history and beyond that similarly rely upon elements such as grit, such as passion, such as an unwillingness to concede even when battered and arguably bettered. From a personal and prejudiced perspective the achievements of the Wanderers in the Asian Champions’ League including the pinnacle of last Saturday’s home win puts them into the same echelon of come from behind, battling against the odds victories such as the one I saw back in 1983, when Australia II came up trumps in the America’s Cup after being three races down in a best of seven regatta. It’s possibly in the same realm as Steve Bradbury’s short track speed skating gold medal in the Salt Lke City Winter Olympics of 2002, though I don’t believe the likes of Hiroshima Sanfrecce, Guangzhou Evergrande, FC Seoul or so far Al Hilal have fallen down as badly as Bradbury’s opponents did.

I know; the hyperbole is pretty full-on so I will try and inject a modicum of reality. There is no way I cannot ignore the speed and quality of the Saudi team’s players when they took on my beloved Wanderers at Parramatta. From the get-go there was plenty to trouble the home team, with Daniel Mullen and Anthony Golec particularly under the pump. There was a hunkered down, weather the storm feel to the Wanderers’ playing style and tactics that was ugly at times, worrisome at others. It was very easy to lapse into waves of angst with each Al Hilal attack in those first forty-five minutes, dreading the almost certain goal that never actually came. Thankfully the home crowd was in full voice (in fact I would suggest the RBB and other stands were in Spinal Tap parlance turned up to 11), and the manner in which the usual medley of chants and singing maintained spirits was vital. The reputation of the supporters at Wanderland being the twelfth man for the team was well and truly earned that night.

My personal experience of the game was a little different than usual insofar as I was in the western stand, directly opposite my usual lair of Bay 65, and my hopes of mixing with numerous kameraden at the Bavarian Bier Cafe pre-kick-off had been scuppered by a dose of lurgi. The spectacle and sound coming from a sizable contingent of away fans was impressive and generally speaking good natured from my point of view. I must say that before the RBB found its voice the Al Hilal support was easily a match for most of the A-League non-Wanderers supporters I have seen both at Wanderland or away (excluding the Cove at Allianz Stadium for a derby). They did seem to lose their way a little with Mexican waves and energetic flag waving, instead of the more creative chanting and call and response work from the RBB. However even if a good percentage of the Saudi support were either flown in by the clubs’ royal backers or were young men (and some women) culled from the local Saudi student community, there was a loud enough welter of chanting, singing and old fashioned barracking to keep Al Hilal’s players aware of the importance of their efforts on the pitch.

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I think it would be a disservice to those who played in the red and black last Saturday to consign their first half performance down to the simplistic stylings of ‘if in doubt, hoof it out’. Yet there was a degree of desperation and dare I say a bit of the park football feel to the structures and systems of the Wanderers in the first 45 minutes plus injury time. Passes went astray more often they should have, however the basic reason for this was that Al Hilal played a high and energetic press. Perhaps due to nerves, perhaps due to the lack of time, the Wanderers were slow to release their attack to such an extent they had no real open play shots on goal, and defensively there was a lot of scrambling, mostly on the wings. Al Dossary and Al Shamrani certainly asked a few interesting questions, though it has to be said that for the most part Mullen, Topor-Stanley, Hamill and Golec had the right answers In fact, for all the talk of how hard pressed the Wanderers were Ante Covic was barely called upon to make any meaningful saves.

The second half saw more of the same for the first 15 minutes or so, with Al Hilal owning the ball and pressing frequently, however their attempts to pierce the Wanderers’ defence was usually beaten back or sent askew through some mistakes from the visitors. It’s a hoary old argument, about possession and shots on goal determining who is the better side in a football match, and on strict numbers alone yes the Saudi team was more successful that the Wanderers. However having watched the game both live and on TV for all the possession, for all the shots Al Hilal on reflection were not as imposing as the statistics suggest. There were occasions even in the first half where Bridge or Haliti looked to be on the verge of cracking the visitor’s defence, and so when Tomi Juric came on in the 58th minute it could be argued that home coach Tony Popovic injected the right player at the right time.

From thereon the match pendulum swung sharply back towards the Wanderers, and the proof of the wisdom in the substitution of Santalab for Tomi came in the 64th minute. Golec’s left wing cross into the box was a pearler, curling in with the best placement for it to be met by Juric. His rampaging run and thrust out foot connected sweetly, sending the ball between the Al Hilal goalie’s legs and into the net. It was without doubt against the run of play, yet as the Wanderers have shown in the past they can and will hit teams on the counter. Golec’s cross was not entirely dissimilar to the ball he helped put into the back of Guangzhou Evergrande’s net in the home leg of the quarter finals, so for Al Hilal to concede on a play that had been profitable for the Wanderers in a previous match indicates that they were not entirely aware of the quality of their opposition.

A second goal from Juric was cruelly denied by the woodwork in the 72nd minute, and this wasn’t the last testing of the Al Hilal defences. The substitution of Matteo Poljak by Matthew Spiranovic was a welcome one for the home club and fans, especially considering Spira’s long break due to injury before this match. Slotting into the unfamiliar territory of the midfield he could’ve scored an unlikely goal when he was positioned sweetly for a shot near the Al Hilal goal’s left post, only for his reactive shot to be stopped by their goalie Al Sdairy. However the Al Hila goal keeper’s efforts were dwarfed before the end of the match, when home goal keeper Ante Covic kept out a couple of efforts from Al Hilal. In fact whilst Tomi Juric won the game for the Wanderers because of his goal, it was Ante Covic who secured the victory thanks to his usually high standards in front of the net. It’s possible to see Covic and his work on the pitch as the perfect metaphor for the entire Wanderers’ experience during this AFC Champions’ League; indomitable, fiercely protective of the goal with a defensive skill far beyond an accurate reckoning by those who come up against him, and most importantly unwilling to cede anything to any opposition no matter their previous track record in the competition or the dollar value of their squads.

So the famous victory at Wanderland was secured and yet again a record chapter was written anew in the history of football in Australia. Popvic’s coaching systems and tactics again blunted an Asian rival with a many-fold advantage in resources against the Wanderers. The home crowd of over 20,000 was a new benchmark for the club and the ground, and most importantly for the sport as a whole in Australia the Wanderers are now focusing the nation’s attention in a way that hasn’t been seen in football since the 2005 World Cup qualifier won by the Socceroos over Uruguay. Supporters from other clubs are starting to grudgingly respect not just what happens on the field but also the cultural and community value of the Wanderers. Immediately before the match there were headlines like Sydney Wanderers Have Done What No Pollie has Done and since the victory even that paragon of the arch-conservative, anti-soccer Anglo-Saxon Rugger Bugger world, Alan Jones has tried to get on the bandwagon. It has been a moment in football’s history in Australia that some would consider a mad fantasy based on the preceding elements. A perfect storm of support, of determination, of sporting prowess and perhaps most importantly integration into the Australian popular psyche celebrated by a once disdainful media; this is the narrative, the record, the fairy tale that has been the Western Sydney Wanderers and their AFC Champions’ League campaign.

Here’s hoping that by 7.00 am Sunday 2nd November Parramatta time the red and black and all faithful to the vision they have expanded upon for football in Australia get their just rewards, and finish off the job.

Come on you Wanderers!

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Wandering Into Asia: The AFC Champions’ League Saga Out West

This evening the Wanderers play Saudi and AFC powerhouse Al-Hilal FC in the first league of the finals of the 2014 AFC Champions’ League, and I don’t consider it to be an exaggeration for me to call it the biggest club football match played in football in this country since at least the beginning of the A-League, if not since the sport actually kicked off here. Please understand I mean this as no disrespect to other clubs who have made forays either in continental or international tournaments, such as Adealide’s run to the same stage of the 2008 championship and their subsequent travel to the 2008 FIFA Club World Cup. Nor is this a sleight on the South Melbourne Hellas team that went to the 2000 edition of the CWC. Both those efforts deserve respect and the trailblazing effort through such clubs need to be remembered.

However the reason that I consider tonight’s match to be so significant is for the first time in this country we are seeing an unfolding story of international club football create a dialogue and a public consciousness about the sport and the Wanderers that has never been matched before. For all the wonder and excellence that led to the experiences of the Reds and Hellas and preceding years they were dare I say under the shadow of either a stumbling and fumbling football administration, connected with all the old prejudices and problems of ‘old Soccer’, whilst the latter was at a time when the A-League and football in general was still emerging from the periphery. Hellas did very well to get to the 2000 CWC however this was in the days of Soccer Australia and the NSL, where a significant but still small band of welded on fans and participants had to battle for every achievement, every dollar, every skerrick of public recognition. Unfortunately as the old world of football not long thereafter came crumbling down, as revealed and hastened through the Crawford Report, the basic structures of the sport in those days meant that any club (let alone Hellas) could never really propagate football’s identity, extending the lustre of the CWC participation beyond the club’s own record books. As for Adelaide, as much as they did achieve wonders in 2008 they were doing so in a smaller, less football conscious market domestically (both in terms of their home city and Australia as a whole), during a period when the A-League was still in its infancy (and soon lost much of its starting impetus thanks to the elusive hunt by the FFA for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosting rights), and when truth be told the public in general and the local clubs specifically failed to really recognise or understand the AFC Champions League’s importance.

What has been truly exciting and ground-breaking is that the Wanderers have made it to this stage of the AFC Champions’ League in conjunction with the outstanding growth of popularity for the club and the sport in Australia, joined with a wider and more nuanced appreciation of what this means for the club, the west of Sydney, the sport and even the country as reflected in both mainstream and peripheral media. Only last week a derby was played between Sydney FC and the Western Sydney Wanderers in front of over 41,000 fans which was the largest crowd for any regular season game for any football code at Allianz Stadium since it opened. The Wanderers have over 18,000 members who each in one way or another, to differing degrees of appreciation, been engaged with a competition that has struggled for a hold on the Australian sports-loving populace. There have been stories such as this from the local media (Seb Hassett SMH article) and mainstream TV news media have been focusing on the Wanderers in ways not usually seen before:

Then there has been the attention focused on this match from outside the Wanderers’ supporter base or mainstream media. Ranging from an explosion of Saudi-based social media followers (where Al Hilal’s rival supporters have attached themselves to the Wanderers), through the events of previous qualifiers (such as the controversial events surrounding the games played between the Wanderers and Marcello Lippi’s Guangzhou Evergrande), and even with the arguments over where the first leg match should have been played (with many latecomers and neutrals upset that the club and core fan base have preferred to play at Wanderland). These kinds of events, of stories are more often the framework or issues which feature in non-football codes in this country, or are the norm when people look at the UEFA Champions League or the Copa Libertadores. There has been disquiet over the schedule clash between the Wanderers versus Al Hilal fxiture against the Melbourne derby in the A-League. There has even been pseudo-sociological assessments of the Wanderers and their achievements from fans of opposition clubs .

Now I’m coming at this with some degree of bias, and I’ve not got the academic credentials to back all these assertions up with nuanced research. However as someone who has been following the sport of football in Australia for well nigh on forty years, I can remember no other moment in the history of club football that has placed the sport on such a huge pedestal. I know there have been exhibition matches such as those played between Victory and Liverpool, and I have already referred to Adelaide FC and South Melbourne Hellas. However there is a fundamental groundswell shift in this saga of the Wanderers in their hunt for AFC Champions’ League glory that has a broader appeal, a more significant potential impact. It’s partly as a result of the matches themselves and the manner in which they were won or lost (e.g. the first match against Ulsan Hyundai with flares and a 1-3 drubbing, the 2-0 win over Hiroshima Sanfrecce with its attendant farewell to several key foundation Wanderers players after their loss to Brisbane in the 2013/14 A-League Grand Final, the 1-2 loss to Guangzhou Evergrande that saw the Wanderers progress to the semis on away goals). There is also the manner in which several of the club’s “squaddies” have performed, like Shannon Cole, Labinot Haliti and Jason Trifiro. Dare I say it the blue-collar determination to win against bigger, more famous, wealthier Asian clubs ties in with the Australian mythos of the battler, the underdog, the working man hero. Taking on the best of the overseas world and beating them is very much part of the Australian ego, and the Wanderers tilt at AFC Champions League glory is very much in harmony with this.

Now I am about to leave for the game and I know that this will not be an easy task for the Wanderers. In fcat this will be the stiffest challenge ever faced by the club, beyond those previous matches played both in the A-League or against other Asian clubs. Expectations are high as are the demands. However the significance of what has transpired so far and the possibilities of what lies ahead make tonight’s match one of those defining moments not just in the club’s history, but I would argue for the sport of of football in Australia as a whole, and perhaps even for the folk of this area, this city, this country.

Les Nails It (Or How Blatter & The AFC Bend Over for Oil)

I have been a fan of the work of Les Murray (to varying degrees) for years now, because alongside the late and much lamented Johnny Warren he has been the most consistent, the most persistent, the most omnipresent advocate for football in this country. I will admit he has sometimes got it wrong (e.g. the discredited Socceroo/Pim rift), however when Les talks usually I listen. So when I saw the following article, ‘Time to Put The Heat on Saudis’ I was rather keen to both support and expand upon his words.

I won’t quote the whole article, however the first paragraph or so is worth citing as it sets out the problem at hand quite nicely:

According to a Fairfax Media report, if you are a woman unaccompanied by a male, a Jew or a homosexual, there is no guarantee you will be able to gain a visa to enter Saudi Arabia to attend the second leg of the AFC Champions League final between Al Hilal and Western Sydney Wanderers.

Since that report surfaced a solution may have been found for female fans to enter Saudi Arabia. The fans will be domiciled in nearby United Arab Emirates and fly in and out of Riyadh on the day of the game and will be chaperoned by Saudi guides. However, it is still unclear whether or not female fans will be segregated at the stadium from their husbands or male companions, as is the custom under Saudi law.

And the restriction on Jewish visitors or people with an Israeli stamp in their passports as well as homosexuals remains a problem.

Paul Lederer, the chairman of the Wanderers, is Jewish.

Now before anyone gets their knickers in a knot I am not going to wind up and have a big spray just at those ‘bad old Arabs’ nor am I going in on this issue because there is a specific Wanderers angle. I am coming at this story from the standpoint of someone who finds that hoary old myth of ‘politics and sport don’t mix’ to be just that…a big fucking myth. It’s a flag of convenience for whatever bullshit sports administrators (most notably in the world of the IOC as well as FIFA)  want to slip through when cultivating the rich and powerful in those governments looking to gain credibility off something like an Olympics or a World Cup. Additionally, whilst the specific context of Les’ article is about Saudi Arabia and Qatar, I think it’s fair to say that the likes of FIFA and the IOC have been just as keen to sweep egregious acts of political or discriminatory bastardry under the carpet in places like North Korea, China, Russia and even arguably in the west. The hypocritical nature of sports administrators when it comes to political repression or discrimination has been around for a long, long time (as seen pre-World War Two with the relationship between the IOC and Nazi Germany or FIFA with Fascist Italy), and it ain’t getting better.

Now, sticking to the specific issue at hand identified by Les, it is simply unacceptable that FIFA and the AFC will not address the obvious discrimination inherent in the Saudi policies towards anyone coming to their nation for an international football match under their aegis. After all, isn’t the peak body of world football dedicated to eradicating racism:

Now of course the comeback from those in high places within football’s regional or international body is that they can only address racism as it affects the sport, with most of the crusade against racism on the pitch or in the stands. Yet with the Saudi government banning all Jews (except those that have a ‘special’ status, which sounds remarkably like exceptions applied under the race laws of the Third Reich) or those who have been to Israel from entering their country for a majorinternational football match, they are effectively telling FIFA that football’s ideals mean jack shit. And FIFA’s response?

Sepp leading the charge against discrimination

How about the medieval attitudes of the Saudi government vis-a-vis women and gays? Just a reminder, here is what FIFA  have as Article Three of their charter:

Discrimination of any kind against a Country, private person or group of people on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion. (source)

Again, the response from football’s governing bodies will be they can only tackle discrimination, sexism, bigotry etc as long as its specifically related to the sport. Then you get statements like this:

‘One revolutionary decision is to play the Under 17 Women’s World Cup in 2016 in the middle of the Arabic World in Jordan. And this will be, when you look at just not the international map that we are going to play a women’s competition, it will have a big impact on the region and the development of women in the Islamic world. (Interview with Sepp Blatter, 8th September 2014)

So it’s perfectly acceptable for the mandarins of FIFA to try and provoke political and social change in and via an Arabic state with no oil, yet they will shy away from addressing obvious political repression or discrimination contrary to their charter if it was to take place in a major OPEC power such as Saudi Arabia or Qatar? Football is only an agent for change and betterment for society when the local government doesn’t have the petrodollars and/or the political clout to make FIFA nervous about their bottom line or Sepp’s prestige.

Just so that this isn’t seen as a ‘bash the Arabs’ exercise I think it is only fair to point out that FIFA has been just as egregiously wrong about how they perceive their own charter and then bending over backwards for powerful repressive regimes when the situation with Russia 2018 is examined. The policies of Vladimir Putin and his cronies, acolytes and minions in the United Russia controlled government has seen personal liberties curtailed, freedom of the press imperiled, gay rights trampled upon, a dirty war fought in Chechnya and surrounding Caucasus republics, annexation of parts of sovereign nations (i.e. Abkhazia in Georgia and the Crimea in Ukraine), and at best sponsorship of separatist movements (and at worst supplying weapons to terrorists). In many circles both in Russia and abroad the Putin regime has been likened to a reversion to old style Soviet cult of personality government. And whilst all these elements of Putin’s regime have eroded most of the admittedly limited freedoms won by ordinary Russians after the collapse of the USSR, what has FIFA done to indicate to the world that football is a beacon for equality, for tolerance, for respecting individuals and societies as a whole through its positive influence on and off the field?

Sepp Blatter announcing the host nation for the 2018 World Cup

Then, to highlight the shameful hypocrisy of Blatter’s FIFA kowtowing and their ego-massaging of regime’s such as Putin’s Russia, when the British media uncovered evidence relating to corruption that led to Qatar winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup what was the perpetual President’s response?

“Once again there is a sort of storm against FIFA relating to the Qatar World Cup. Sadly there’s a great deal of discrimination and racism and this hurts me. It really makes me sad…We have seen what the British press has published, I don’t know what the reasoning is behind this but we must maintain unity.” (source)

To throw charges of racism and discrimination at the British media, who for all their flaws are part of a free, liberal and democratic western European nation’s society, when state run media in countries such as Russia and Qatar operate in a vacuum of responsible and impartial journalism, often doing little more than trumpeting the merits of their autocratic governments is the height of Kafka-esque hypocrisy. It is even more shameful, more ridiculous that Sepp Blatter and his empire of Pecksniffs refuse to tackle the racism embodied in (for example) the Saudi unwillingness to allow Jews into their country. Yet when it comes to Blatter’s desire to stay in the presidency, contravening FIFA’s own policies on age limits and term limits, he considers this ‘a form of discrimination’ (source).

I could trawl through all manner of examples, cite historical precedents, go on long discursive attacks on the moral and political humbug of Sepp Blatter’s FIFA re racism, discrimination and ignoring blatant degradation of human rights. However other far better, more scholarly writers with closer knowledge of the murky, seedy underbelly of world football’s administration can do a more successful job than I. It must be said that kicking FIFA (and by association the AFC) is not too hard in this area of their political and administrative responsibilities. What is however particularly germane to myself and my fellow members and fans of the Wanderers is that our club, our community, our compatriots who wish to travel to Saudi Arabia to see the away leg of the AFC Champion’s League final will be subjected to racist policies and dare I say medieval-era discrimination.

What is so utterly galling about the scenario that Les focuses on is that a club that represents some of the most pluralistic, most diverse and most liberal aspects of Australian society, let alone the football culture here, is beholden by FIFA and the AFC to effectively ignore these bodies’ own charter when it comes to respecting those values all in the name of having respect shown to a society that cannot escape racist, sexist and homophobic stereotypes. And that respect is nothing to do with propagating amity through football; it is all about bending over for one of several regimes who have not met the same levels of liberal society that FIFA itself espouses. The chasm between what the AFC and FIFA put out in feel-good PR statements and what they actually abide by when faced with having football of the highest international level played in a semi-feudal oil state beggars belief.

Take as further proof to support my disdain for this so-called august group of football administrators, the membership of AFC’s Executive Committee. Among the luminaries are:

  • Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa (AFC President and Member of the Bahraini Royal Family): al-Khalifa has been accused of being involved in the torture of Bahraini footballers, officials and referees during the 2011 protests in his country (source)
  • Yousuf Yaqoob Al Serkal (AFC Vice President, UAE): a backer of Sepp Blatter in his desire to become FIFA President for a fifth term
  • Zaw Zaw (AFC Exco member from Myanmar): A businessman with a record of having a close association with the repressive Burmese military junta that until recently ruled Myanmar, and has been blacklisted by the US treasury for such this relationship (source)
  • Worawi Makudi (AFC Exco member of FIFA and Thai Federation president since 2007): Accused of corruption in terms of misusing funds for Thai football development, plus demanding broadcast rights from the English FA in exchange for his vote for England’s 2018 World Cip bid (source)
  • Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat (AFC Exco member from Pakistan): A successful politician in Pakistan, Hayat has been accused of cronyism in his regional electorate and was once disqualified from participating in an election on a charge of stealing irrigation water (source)
  • Ganesh Thapa (AFC Vice President form Nepal): recipient of an alleged corrupt payment (via his son) from discredited ex-AFC president Qatari Sheik Mohammed Bin Hamman (source)

Is it any wonder that with such figures being responsible for the administration of football in Asia that the discriminatory practices of the Saudis are being ignored, if not tacitly approved? The cancer of corruption, of dubious personalities and suspect links with those who do not subscribe to the values expressed in FIFA’s own charter gives oxygen to those who would look at Wanderers owner Paul Lederer as someone to be discriminated against. There is no way that the Asian Football Confederation can live up to their own propaganda let alone that issued from Sepp Blatter’s supreme world football body, when it comes to respecting human rights, basic qualities, rejecting racism, sexism etc.

In an ideal world the pontiffs of pretension in the AFC and FIFA would actually take a pro-active stance when it comes to pushing member federations to either get their respective national governments to abide by the principles of FIFA’s own charter or face suspension or even expulsion. Boycotts and bans should also be used as a tool, as was correctly applied by FIFA against the states of Rhodesia and South Africa during their respective eras of repression in the last 30 odd years of the twentieth century. It must also be said that for any delusion about the majority of football associations in both the AFC and more broadly in FIFA being separate from the respective national government need to be exposed. For countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE etc etc their rulers are both part and parcel of the leading domestic clubs, the national football bodies and the AFC committee membership. So is it any wonder that they will not address their own issues of discrimination and political repression whilst mouthing platitudes about equality?

Les Murray has written a very solid piece regarding the hypocrisy, the lies and the corrupt discriminatory practices of member states of the AFC and FIFA. Unfortunately like so much of the commentary and beliefs that emanate from liberal democratic countries who actually endeavour to live up to those values expressed in FIFA’s charter, or perhaps even more importantly in the spirit of football, it will be ignored as an inconvenient truth. The FFA and other associations that tacitly agree to football being  used by the corrupt and repressive regimes in the Gulf States, in Africa, parts of Asia, even in Europe and the Americas as a tool of rich despots are never going to be in a position to make FIFA and the respective continental confederations live up to their own standards