A star on the rise
© AFP

Aurelio Vidmar achieved a lot during his 20-year playing career, and he has already tasted success as a coach, having led Adelaide United side to the AFC Champions League final and a berth at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2008.

It is something he describes as "right up there" alongside his greatest accomplishments in football, which is no mean feat considering Vidmar played 53 times for his country and was named Oceania Player of the Year in 1995, having finished as the Belgian top flight's top scorer.

Vidmar's glittering club career included spells at Standard Liege, Feyenoord, Sion and Tenerife in an era when Australians were infrequently based in Europe. He also spent a season with Japanese side Sanfrecce Hiroshima in a career that was book-ended with productive stints in his hometown of Adelaide.

The long and winding road
After three seasons as assistant coach at Adelaide United, Vidmar assumed the reins last year and after little more than 12 months in the role, achieved what no other Australian coach has managed by taking a side into the final of the Champions League.

United surpassed all expectations in seeing off the likes of Kashima Antlers and the Rivaldo-inspired Bunyodkor in the knockout phase to book a final date with Gamba Osaka. It was a marathon journey for the Australians, which began in March with a group stage featuring Chinese outfit Changchun Yatai, Korea Republic's Pohang Steelers and Becamex Binh Duong of Vietnam.

It is always a difficult game, the first match of any tournament. We will need to be on our game to get past the first stage.
Adelaide United coach is not taking a re-match with Gamba Osaka for granted.

Despite the 100,000 km Adelaide clocked up in the process, Vidmar would not have it any other way and is proud of his team's role as football ambassadors. "I wouldn't change it for the world," he said. "Not too many people locally knew just how prestigious the Champions League is, and certainly this year we have lifted that profile and people's thinking. It has been phenomenal, the greater attention that we have received and also an appreciation of what that competition stands for."

Gamba's victory in the final means Adelaide's first task in Japan will be to take on Oceania's champions, New Zealand's Waitakere United, in a play-off for a quarter-final place. If the Reds emerge victorious, they will have the opportunity to renew their rivalry with Gamba, with the winners facing Manchester United in the semi-finals.

Vidmar would relish the opportunity to face their Champions League conquerors, though the pragmatic United coach is focusing on the match against the Kiwi team first. "We have to get past Waitakere first," he affirmed.

"It is always a difficult game, the first match of any tournament. We will need to be on our game to get past the first stage. We are really looking forward to Japan, the first time we have been involved in such a prestigious tournament so it will be really good for us and another great experience."

Vidmar rightly takes great pride in his team's achievement in qualifying for Japan 2008, with the tournament set to be particularly special for him. The 41-year-old rates his season at Sanfrecce Hiroshima, where he played in the mid-1990s alongside fellow Socceroos Tony Popovic and Hayden Foxe, as "fantastic", and he is clearly looking forward to spending some time in Japan and perhaps catching up with some old friends.

"I had a great time in Japan, the people were fantastic, the club and everyone surrounding that club were tremendous," he enthused. "The Japanese people are some of the most generous people I have ever met."

The only Australian clubs to have previously competed at the FIFA Club World Cup are South Melbourne in 2000 and Sydney FC three years ago. However, they both qualified through Oceania rather than Asia, so United and Vidmar have already made history. "It's a new era and we have been pioneers in terms of the Asian CL and the Club World Cup," said Vidmar.

"We are slowly edging our way up the ladder. It's a real positive and shows that any A-League club can potentially progress to the top in Asia, and the world stage through the FIFA Club World Cup."