Few players at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ will have experienced a rollercoaster career on par with that of Australia defender Sasa Ognenovski. Seven years ago, the-then 27-year-old was working on a building site and playing semi-professional football at a stage in his life when most players would expect to be approaching their peak.
Fast forward to the present day and the strapping centre-back seems a certainty to feature prominently for the Socceroos in Brazil, rubbing shoulders with the best footballers on the planet. It is in every sense a world away from attempting to stay warm outdoors during Melbourne’s chilly winters, and weekends spent competing on rustic pitches in the city’s suburbs.
Ognenovski has packed more into the past few years than most condense into an entire career. Indeed, within the space of one glorious November fortnight during 2010, he made his national team debut, captained Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma to a maiden AFC Champions League crown, and was named the continent’s best player. He immediately showed his qualities at international level, playing every match at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup two months later as Australia fell narrowly short of their first Asian silverware. Clearly, Ognenovski is a man predisposed to taking every opportunity that comes his way.
The road less travelled
Ognenovski’s Brazil-bound career trajectory is nothing short of meteoric, and it could all have been so different but for a left-field offer from Brisbane Roar in the second season of the A-League. “I was actually thinking of giving up football and playing AFL (Australian Rules football), especially when I didn’t get a contract when the A-League started; that hurt a bit,” Ognenovski told FIFA.com in a hushed, considered tone that belies his imposing 195cm broad-shouldered frame.
Indeed, while Ognenovski might be deemed a late bloomer, the central defender says opportunity can sometimes be down to luck. “You see talented players who just haven’t had the chance,” he said. “A lot of the time it is about getting the opportunity, and also taking that opportunity.”
Ognenovski, whose physique has been described as "scary" by national team coach Holger Osieck, displays a rare level of persistence and doggedness on the field, and in a sense that mirrors his ability to achieve in a career that once seemed on an inexorable slide. “I haven’t had it handed to me on a silver platter,” he said. “And it probably does it make you mentally stronger.”
One shot at glory
Australia’s hopes for an unprecedented third successive FIFA World Cup qualification were on shaky ground following a home draw against Oman in March; a match for which Ognenovski was omitted. Recalled by Osieck for a pivotal trio of games in June, the centre-half played a vital role as Australia claimed seven points from a possible nine to secure their ticket to Brazil.
Now 34, Ognenovski will almost certainly only have one opportunity to feature at a FIFA World Cup. Briefly though, it appeared as if he would represent the country of his parents’ birth - FYR Macedonia - after being courted by then coach Srecko Katanec. In hindsight, it was yet another major fork in the road on the player's football journey.
Australia now must await their Brazil 2014 route in December’s draw, but is Ognenovski hoping to been drawn against any particular opponent? “Not especially,” he says with an air of casualness in keeping for a man familiar with the vagaries of fate. “Every team is going to have high quality, and provide a major team and personal challenge.
“I think the Socceroos have always had a kind of mental strength, even against big teams,” he says of his team’s key assets. “I recall a friendly when we beat Germany a couple of years ago after being down, and last year against Japan when we were a goal down and a man down, but our mental toughness got us through.”
Ognenovski has another year on his contract at Umm Salal in Qatar, hosts of the FIFA World Cup in nine years’ time. Now in the twilight years of an atypical career, he naturally has one eye on the grandest of football stages. “Being held in South America and in Brazil, it will be a very special World Cup."