SYDNEY (AFP) – Western Sydney Wanderers’ triumph against the odds to become Asian club champions is seen as a game changer for football in Australia and how the nation is viewed within the region.
The Wanderers, formed less than three years ago, are the talk of the sports-mad nation after they defied Saudi Arabia’s lavishly-assembled Al Hilal before 65,000 fans in Riyadh to carry off a 1-0 aggregate win in the two-leg Asian Champions League final last weekend.
Tony Popovic’s doughty side became the first Australian team to win the football showpiece and will represent the region at next month’s FIFA Club World Cup where they could face Real Madrid.
It is the culmination of a football fairytale for a club cobbled together under the astute mentoring of former Socceroo defender Popovic to become an Australian sporting phenomenon.
Their emblematic ‘Red and Black Army’ of supporters have energised the A-League with their constant singing in support of their team — an ear-throbbing match-day experience in itself.
Drawn from the sprawling western suburbs of Sydney, the Wanderers were hailed for breaking new ground for football in Australia’s rugby-Aussie Rules dominated sports market.
“This triumph will resonate throughout the game and across our nation,” Football Federation Australia chief executive David Gallop proclaimed.
“The impact will be felt beyond sport and will speak to Australia’s future in the ‘Asian Century’ and football’s pivotal role.
“At the heart of this success is one of the most amazing sporting stories we’ve ever seen in Australian sport,” he added.
“It’s a start-up less than three years old that today stands proudly as the champion of Asia. That says it all.”
And that comes from a former powerbroker of the powerful National Rugby League.
The Wanderers’ victory comes just two months before Australia hosts its first Asian Cup, featuring 12 of the confederation’s top footballing nations.
“Western Sydney Wanderers have broken through the threshold, and things will never be the same again,” senior football writer Mike Cockerill wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.
“There’s a lesson in there for the Socceroos, who are about to host the Asian Cup. Success brings respect, however grudging, and for the first time Australia can start to feel it belongs in Asia.”
Australia had struggled to make an impact in the Asian Champions League and A-League clubs often failed to make it out of the group stage against the top clubs of Japan, South Korea and China.
“We were called a small club yesterday. Today we are the biggest in Asia. That’s the reality,” Popovic said.
“We have something that money can’t buy. That desire to win and a resilience and willingness to play for each other and do anything we can to win… and that’s what these players have in abundance.”
It is a boost for the A-League, now in its 10th season and punching above its weight with the signings of some of the world’s best-known players, including Alessandro Del Piero, Shinji Ono and more recently a loan spell by Spanish World Cup winner David Villa.