Western Sydney Wanderers goalkeeper Ante Covic thought he had seen it all in a football odyssey that spanned three decades, incorporated a FIFA World Cup™ and a club career across three countries. Now just as his football journey should be reaching its denouement, Covic’s career intersected with that of the Wanderers bringing a crucial sprinkling of magic dust to one of the world’s newest clubs.
Covic’s role in helping Western Sydney Wanderers achieve a maiden AFC Champions League crown will be one told by local fans for generations to come. The veteran shotstopper was in imperious form throughout the campaign helping the side achieve six successive cleansheets at home, and he was duly named player of the tournament. Yet for all that perfection, his greatest moment was yet to come.
The greatest save
Holding a tenuous 1-0 advantage over Saudi Arabia aristocrats Al Hilal, the Wanderers were under immense pressure in the cauldron of Riyadh’s King Fahd Stadium. With a mixture of luck, stout defending, and inspired goalkeeping from Covic, the Wanderers held firm until midway through the second half. A single goal for the home team would change the tie immeasurably.
Yasir Al Shamrani burst into the right side of the penalty area for the Blue Wave, teeing up perfectly for Saudi icon Yasser Al Qahtani waiting unmarked near the penalty spot. The Hilal captain received the ball and pulled the trigger, and with Covic still guarding the near post, the ball headed for the back of the net. But there was to be another twist in an epic tale. With the ball partly behind him Covic perfectly anticipated its path and flung out a hand, keeping his palm strong enough for the ball to inch miraculously around the far post.
If ever there was a moment that could deflate an opponent that was it. The Wanderers duly became Asian champions and Covic, at the ripe old age of 39, was suddenly enjoying more headlines in a week than seemingly had been the case during his entire 20-year career. Mark Bosnich, the former Manchester United goalkeeper, and arguably Australia’s finest-ever shotstopper, called it “the greatest save in the nation’s football history”.
Covic smiles with a mixture of modesty and pride at the idea. “To get the support and recognition of someone like Mark Bosnich is very humbling,” Covic told FIFA.com. “The save for me personally was fantastic. The moment made it even bigger. It basically, I could say, helped secure the trophy for us.”
Travel through Asia
To say Western Sydney Wanderers took the difficult route to the final would be an understatement. They clocked up an incredible 100,000 kilometres in seven away journeys. En route to the final they took on east Asia’s cream of the crop. In the knockout stage they eliminated J.League champions (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Asian champions (Guangzhou Evergrande) and the 2013 finalists (FC Seoul).
"There was only way we could get there, and it was a very hard road,” says Covic. “But everyone should be very proud of what we have achieved. After all I think we have put Australian football on the map internationally. We are one step away from playing the biggest club team in the world, and that gives the A-League and Australian football credibility.”
Just two years into their existence the Wanderers are now set to take on Mexico’s Cruz Azul at the FIFA Club World Cup, with the winner to tackle mighty Real Madrid. “It is very exciting,” said Covic. “With the best teams from each confederation, and the opportunity to play the likes of Real Madrid, it doesn’t get bigger than that. It is a competition that any player would love to be a part of.”
But how will the Wanderers handle being amid such rarefied company? “No Wanderers team will ever roll over and simply be satisfied with what we have done,” Covic says extolling an ethos that has been crucial to the Wanderers success. “We know that we are under strength financially and in other ways compared to clubs we play against, but that is an easy excuse.
"We believe in ourselves, and we think if we play at our best we can match anyone. The way we believed in ourselves when no one else did, that is something I have never experienced before. One day I will be able to tell my kids when I’m retired what a special time it was with the Wanderers.”