The Western Sydney Wanderers have set a thrilling new precedent for the rest of the Hyundai A-League, and indeed all of Australian football, to follow.
By defeating Al-Hilal in the Asian Champions League final, the newest club in Australia’s top flight raised the bar for everyone else.
After a 1-0 home leg win, the Wanderers hung on for an extremely lucky 0-0 draw in Saudi Arabia to claim the first continental club title for Australia.
A number of factors went Western Sydney’s way.
There were three, or perhaps four penalty decisions that should have been called against Tony Popovic’s team; goalkeeper Ante Covic played the match of his life; and Al-Hilal’s strikers seemed to be suffering from a massive case of stage-fright, missing a host of clear-cut chances over the 90 minutes.
All of that considered, the Wanderers couldn’t have been more deserving of the crown.
Al-Hilal has won 55 different titles in their 54 years of existence, including six Asian championships.
For a club that has only been around for three years to beat the Saudis over two legs was a remarkable achievement, regardless of some lucky breaks in the away fixture.
Not only that, the Wanderers had fought their way past some of the continent’s best sides just to make the final, including Sanfrecce Hiroshima, FC Seoul and Marcello Lippi’s Guangzhou Evergrande.
Repeatedly knocking over teams of that stature is what it takes to become champions of Asia, and that is exactly what Popovic’s men did.
With each passing year, Adelaide United’s run to the final of the tournament back in 2008 had seemed more of freak result. Australian sides continued to bomb out before getting to the business end of the competition.
The same excuses were wheeled out year after year. The long-distance travel was too taxing; A-League clubs suffered the massive disadvantage of playing in a salary-capped league and even if they were allowed to, they could not compete with the big East Asian and Middle Eastern clubs’ financial resources; away fixtures were played in a variety of trying conditions in front of hostile fans. And so on and so forth.
The Wanderers, and in particular their coach and spokesman Popovic, have been different.
Popovic refused to fall back on the tried and tested cop-outs, and simply concentrated on getting the best out of his squad. He only rested players for Champions League fixtures if he thought it would benefit the team to have fresher legs on the park.
He conducted himself with a quiet confidence that never came across as arrogance, and that attitude rubbed off on his players, who performed with the kind of self-belief that had been lacking in Australian club sides previously.
The rest of Asia will now be forced to take Australian clubs seriously, and the clubs must now take their chances in Asia seriously.
The Wanderers’ success should be celebrated as a remarkable achievement on the pitch, and also as a watershed moment for Aussie football.