IN APRIL 2012 IN ENGLAND, Manchester City and Manchester United were gearing up for one of the best finales to a Premier League season, with Sergio Agüero’s famous last-minute goal eventually securing the title for the blue half of the city. Around the rest of Europe, Real Madrid were cruising to the LaLiga title, while Barcelona and Chelsea battled it out in a heated two-legged semi-final in the Champions League. Borussia Dortmund were on their way to defending the Bundesliga trophy, Paris Saint-Germain were preparing to dominate France’s Ligue 1 for years to come, and Juventus were on their way to winning their first Serie A title in six seasons.
But in Australia, it was the inaugural campaign for Western Sydney Wanderers (WSW), starting life in the fast lane in the country’s top flight, the A-League. What came in the next few years would have been unthinkable to most, but for WSW fans, it was fantasy land.
In their first two years of existence, the Wanderers were under the ownership of Football Federation Australia, allowed build itself with some security from the turmoil of private investors. Former Head of the A-League, Lyall Gorman, took on the role as the club’s first chairman, with ex-Australian international and local hero Tony Popovic becoming head coach.
The one-time Sydney FC and Crystal Palace defender was delving into his first permanent manager’s role, with a caretaker position at WSW’s local rivals his most notable coaching job prior to joining the Wanderers.
Despite having to put together an entire playing squad in under four months and his lack of managerial experience, Popovic’s side won Premiers Plate, awarded for finishing first in the league, in their debut season in 2013. The Wanderers had gone on a league record 10-match winning streak, part of 13 games unbeaten in a row, as they closed down the Mariners to take top spot.
A 2-0 victory over Brisbane Roar in the semi-finals saw them advance to the grand final where they would play Central Coast Mariners for the right to be called champions of Australia. Although they had reached this far and achieved an incredible feat in their winning run, there was still a sense of unfinished business, as they continued to show the passion, drive and determination of the newly-formed club, summed up none other than the man who was in the Wanderers dugout – Popovic.
“I’m not sure what is going through my head,” said the former Australia international, following victory over Brisbane. “Obviously I was pleased [to reach the final]. But I just feel like there’s still more to do next week. The Premiers Plate was different. When we won in Newcastle we knew we had won it and achieved something. But in this finals series we’ve achieved nothing yet. So come next Sunday we’ll do everything we can to hold up another trophy.”
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While the final ended in heartache, as the Wanderers lost 2-0 to the Mariners to finish the season in a disappointing manner, nothing can be taken away from WSW, who have risen from little but a name and a logo to the second-best team in Australia in 12 months.
Before the season had started, it was a stressful situation to build a squad from scratch with barely any time to sift through many proposed new recruits and see if they fit the club’s ideologies. Chief executive Lyall Gorman said following the Wanderers’ run to the final: “Time was not our friend but we were determined not to let it become our enemy. We had hundreds of potential players to think about, but we wanted the right ones. We had three criteria. What sort of person is he? Does he fit the culture and values of the club? What skills does he bring to our club? In that order.”
This was not a team that was just looking for the best players they could afford. They were looking for men that would create a positive atmosphere at the Wanderers and brought their talents with them to guide the side to heights that would be almost unimaginable to someone on the outside, echoed most by their CEO, Gorman. “In years to come, this club will be massive. This is not the end of the journey. It is just the beginning.”
Those words resonated across the entirety of Western Sydney, and it was not long before WSW were playing in the biggest game of its existence, on the greatest stage in the players’ careers to date. The achievements in the first 12 months had earned them a place among the top teams in Asia, as finishing the A-League at the summit gained them a ticket to the AFC Champions League for the 2013/14 season, their first such experience competitively outside of Australia.
This was a tournament that A-League sides didn’t have the best record in since teams became eligible to play in the competition in 2007 after the nation swapped confederations from Oceania’s OFC to AFC in Asia. Only three clubs had managed to get out of the group stages and into the knockout rounds. The best result was achieved by Adelaide United as losing finalists in 2008, but they couldn’t make it past the last 16 in 2010, while Newcastle Jets and Central Coast Mariners were stopped at the same stage in 2009 and 2013 respectively.
For the 2014 Champions League, WSW were joined in their group by two-time K-League winners Ulsan Hyundai, Japanese outfit Kawasaki Frontale and the reigning Chinese FA Cup champions Guizhou Renhe. It was going to be a daunting task to even get into the next round, especially with the Mariners finishing bottom of their group and Melbourne Victory missing out on progressing on goal difference.
But there were no such troubles for the Wanderers as they finished with four wins to their name to top the table on goal difference, largely helped by a 5-0 thrashing at home to Guizhou.
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Next up was the second round, a stage that was impassable on three occasions for Australian sides, and it was not going to be any easier for WSW. They were to face Sanfrecce Hiroshima, the two-time J League champions. They would need hard work, determination and talent to beat a side that were favourites to progress.
In the first leg in Japan, despite keeping the game level in the first half, WSW were taken apart, with a brace from Naoki Ishihara putting Sanfrecce 2-0 up. Tomi Juric pulled one back from the penalty spot but Kosei Shibasaki made it 3-1 in injury. The Wanderers were facing an uphill challenge as they headed home for the return match.
At the Parramatta Stadium, it was another goalless first half, but 10 minutes after the break, Shannon Cole struck to give WSW hope of an extraordinary comeback. With five minutes to go, star striker Brendon Santalab came rushing into the box, finding the loose ball and struck first time beyond the Sanfrecce goalkeeper. Full-time: 3-3 on aggregate – but it was the Wanderers who progressed on away goals.
Who came next? Chinese side Guangzhou Evergrande, a team that boasted Italian World Cup-winning striker Alberto Gilardino and the manager of that 2006 side, Marcello Lippi. Once again, WSW were the underdogs. Once again, they won on away goals.
A 1-0 victory at home meant they had a slight advantage heading to China and it was another Juric penalty that increased it in the second leg. Despite strikes from ex-West Ham and Bologna attacker Alessandro Diamanti and Elkeson, the Australian side scraped through. The semi-finals were not as close; a 0-0 draw at FC Seoul meant WSW had to produce at home. Mateo Poljak’s goal in the third minute set the tone, with Cole adding a second just after the hour mark to send the Wanderers to the final.
It would have seemed unthinkable two years beforehand and it would become a game that would mark the incredible rise of a side that had only been around for 30 months.
Saudi Arabia side Al-Hilal were their opponents in the two-legged finale. They had already won the competition twice in their history and are the most successful club from the Middle East nation. In the first match, in Australia, WSW came away victors with Juric once again the man of moment.
On to the second game and a trip to their Arabic opponent’s King Fahd International Stadium. As expected, Al-Hilal were on the attack from the off, but despite having 62 percent possession, they couldn’t find a way through the Wanderers defence. It was confirmed: Western Sydney Wanderers were Asian champions. In doing so, they became first Australian side to win the AFC Champions League. Cue euphoria and celebration.
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After lifting the trophy, manager Popovic, who had assembled a band of A-League misfits to win the most prestigious competition in Asia, said: “I’m very proud of the players and I think it will sink in once we get out of this stadium but it’s a marvellous achievement from the players, the club and Australian football.”
His quote underlines WSW’s ideology in building a side worthy of taking Australian football globally and showing that, for a nation more known for its cricket and rugby internationally, the game is growing and they deserve to be there.
Victory in the Champions League also meant entry into the upcoming Club World Cup that would take place just over a month later in 2014. It was a competition that could have seen them face the mighty Real Madrid. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, as a late goal from Mexican side Cruz Azul levelled the match at 1-1 before they scored twice in extra-time to finish the job and send the Australian side out of the running after the first game. Defeat on penalties in the match for fifth place meant that there wasn’t going to be any fairytales.
But nothing can be taken away from a miraculous journey which began with just a name on paper.
Prior to their famous victory, the club was sold by the FFA – as agreed after a two-year start-up period – to a consortium led by Primo Group owner Paul Lederer. Since their journey in Asia, the Wanderers have reached the A-League Grand Final twice more, losing on both occasions. While there have been no other trophies added to their collection, they moved from the Parramatta Stadium to the Sydney Showground to make way for a new 30,000-seater area, which is set to open in 2019.
Although results are not reaching the expectations that come with winning the AFC Champions League, as well as losing influential manager Popovic, this side will always be known for its history and meteoric rise to the top. They put Australia on the map in Asia.
It’s no surprise that people in Australia started turning their attention to the A-League after the historic win, even bettering viewing figures for the Premier League. In 2011, only 7.6 percent of the population watched the A-League, compared to 9.5 percent enjoying the English top flight. However, 12 months after WSW’s win, the Premier League viewership figures had dropped by 0.1 percent, while country’s domestic league was being seen by 11 percent of the population, which translates to over two million people, as detailed by Roy Morgan. Indeed, the most recent grand final was the most watched A-League match in its history, watched by over half a million people.
While the league itself has developed steadily since its inception in 2005, Western Sydney Wanderers’ story will remain in the memories of the players, staff and fans. It will be remembered for a team of notable rejects winning on the continent’s biggest stage just two years after the club’s inception and opening the eyes of many to Australian football