By Danny Norman @TLE_Sport @dannynormanCOYS
New boys Western Sydney Wanderers face Champions League destiny
The idea of forming a brand new football team in the modern era is accompanied by a cynical feeling that a big motivating factor is money, and the desire of wealthy individuals and corporations to muscle in on global economic juggernaut that ‘the beautiful game’ has become. Whether it’s MK Dons or New York City (or is it New York City Manchester City, I forget), the creation of an institution in this way is in many ways at odds with the deep rooted passions which most supporters have: passions based on a club’s rich and varied history.
Western Sydney Wanderers were formed in 2012 and joined the Australian ‘A-League’ in the 2012-13 season. Unlike the conglomerate induced birth of a club like New York City, Wanderers’ inception was a community affair with fan forums deciding on the kit colours, the badge, the name and even the playing style (I’m guessing no-one ticked the Wimbledon circa 1995 route 1 option).
This method of inclusion has engendered a passion in the fan-base that has taken Australia by storm, even by the fervent standards of this sport obsessed nation. The supporters’ wall of noise rarely fluctuates regardless of the score, a fact that has drawn criticism from some quarters. I spoke to Sydney resident Pete Rodgers who said, “The Western Sydney Wanderers’ fans here are similar to Boca Juniors in Argentina. I think it’s great but all you hear from fans of other teams is that they’re there just for the chanting and not the game itself . I’m sure you would prefer to be playing in front of them rather than hearing a chorus of grunts and moans.”
The root of this reaction could be put down to jealousy, born of the fact that in their first season WSW finished top of the A-League (losing the Grand Final to Central Coast Mariners), qualifying for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League. They finished second in the A-League in 2013-14, again losing in the Grand Final (this time to Brisbane Roar), but their progress in the AFC Champions League has been nothing short of astonishing.
The Aussie club are managed by former Crystal Palace player and assistant manager Tony Popovic, and their star players include Brazillian Vitor Saba (formerly of Flamengo and Brescia), Italian Iacopo La Rocca (signed from Grasshoppers of Zurich), and a strong Australian contingent including veteran goalkeeper Ante Covic, classy defender Matthew Spiranovic, and forward Labinot Haliti whose performances have seen scouts from across the continent flocking to watch them.
Saturday night sees the culmination of their Champions League odyssey with Wanderers facing their final test at Al-Hilal’s King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh for the second leg of the competitions’ final. Protecting a slender 1-0 lead from the first leg, they can expect a hostile atmosphere in the 65,000 seater stadium in which (due to various passport and financial constraints) only a handful of their supporters will be present. The Australian team will hope for a better foreign jaunt than the semi-final away leg against last year’s winner Guangzhou Evergrande, whose supporters harassed the players in their hotel, and were potentially responsible for an accident involving the Sydneysiders team bus.
And what of their Saudi Arabian counterparts? Al Hilal are arguably the best supported club in Asia, highlighted by the fact that so many supporters were present in the first leg in Sydney (despite the fact that Middle-Eastern supporters are notoriously lethargic in their attendance, even at home games). Another pointer to their status is the fact that they were voted as ‘Asian Club of the Century’ in the year 2000. There is a feeling in the Western Middle East that the Asian Champions League is formatted to suit Eastern Asian teams whose seasons run from March to December, rather than Western Asian clubs like Al Hilal whose season is from September to May: this means the Al Hilal squad which qualified for this tournament in 2013 has since gone through another close season cycle since the start of this years’ iteration.
The antipodean pretenders face a true footballing powerhouse according to Middle Eastern football expert Martyn Thomas of Abu Dhabi’s Sport 360. He gave me the lowdown on the key players for Al Hilal, “Yasser Al-Qahtani is an absolute god in the Middle East. He came to Al Ain for a season in the UAE while I was covering them, and is one of the laziest players I have ever seen. But he scores important goals by the hat full and the fans love him over there. Thiago Neves is the one player they have who is a bit special. I have no idea why he has spent so long in Saudi Arabia, but definitely a player who could overturn the 1-0 deficit.”
In the culture clash that is Asian continental football it would truly be a fairy tale for Popovic’s charges to triumph this weekend, but picture this; the competition winners will gain a free pass to the coveted World Club Cup, where they will face the champions of each continent, including European Champions Real Madrid. Now that really would be a story.