In his second stint at the Waitakere United reins, Chris Milicich is set for his greatest challenge yet: to oversee the club's FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2007 campaign. The determined coach has a wealth of experience behind him at domestic level, and despite his side's hit-and-miss start to the latest edition of the New Zealand Football Championship, is convinced that they can cause a stir in the Far East.
Nevertheless, speaking just days before Waitakere take on Iranians Sepehan for a place in the quarter-finals, Milicich was fully aware that mixing it with fully-professional opponents will be a tough task for his part-timers. "Any team can get a hiding," he warned. "Even the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team can go away and beat teams by 100-0 and nobody seems to care. We're there, we have an opportunity - if we get hammered, we get hammered. So be it. If you get your tactics wrong, you can get beaten heavily."
Milicich, who led Waitakere to second place in the 2004/05 New Zealand Football Championship, re-assumed the hot-seat in the close season after the popular Steven Cain parted ways with the West Auckland club by mutual consent. He is now eager for his side to prove that they belong among the elite: "It's a big opportunity to prove Oceania deserves its place at the FIFA Club World Cup.
"It's a huge challenge but Oceania deserves its place. Waitakere United has won the right by winning our confederation's club competition. Now we've got to go there and prove we're worth it."
Upon his appointment, Milicich swiftly began the process of recruiting a squad capable of competing at Japan 2007. A spending spree ensued, with former English Premier League competitors Darren Bazeley and Neil Emblen arriving along with Solomon Islands forward Benjamin Totori. There was also room for United to raid their arch-rivals, with Jonathan Perry, Neil Sykes, Richard Gillespie and Jason Hayne - all members of Auckland City's FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2006 campaign - bolstering their ranks.
The addition of Bazeley and Emblen from the defunct New Zealand Knights Hyundai A-League franchise has added considerable experience to the Waitakere squad. "Darren and Neil have added a lot of experience," Milicich said. "Some of our younger players who are used to amateur club football are faced with a more professional environment. Darren and Neil have set a benchmark they expect and they don't accept anything less."
And with their input, Milicich believes his men can cause a stir in the Far East. "We're not Arsenal, Boca Juniors or Barcelona, and "
"I think for us we'll be very strong defensively. We have got to minimise opportunities for the opposition. If we minimise opportunities for our opponents, then we've got a chance. If we open up and look to push forward, we can get hurt. We have to keep the match close, tight, and even for as long as possible.
"I'm not saying we'll tuck off and defend - if you look at Argentina at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, they went man-for-man, none of this zonal marking - it was man-for-man across the board so I think what's right and what's wrong with our defending comes down to what you've got. I prefer not to be a direct, long-ball side, but if that's what you've got, that's what you've got."
Milicich's other headache is how to manage three campaigns with an amateur squad, where almost all of his players hold down Monday-to-Friday jobs and for whom football is very much a secondary source of income. "We'll get opportunities - but whether we take them or not comes down to the difference between being professional and being amateur. A professional side will score; an amateur side might miss one and go on to lose the match 1-0 or 2-0," he said.
The Waitakere gaffer will be hoping his team make the most of their chances when they face Sepahan in Friday's curtain-raiser. Victory over the Iranians and Oceania's representatives will have already exceeded expectations.