If Western Sydney Wanderers are world football’s fairytale of 2014, then coach Tony Popovic is the author of that unlikely Boy’s Own tale. Like all good writers, Popovic, renowned as an uncompromising but thoughtful central defender for club and country, started out with a blank page and a somewhat idealistic ambition.
Just two and half years ago Popovic stood watch over the club’s maiden training, a session that didn’t even have enough contracted players to make up two five-a-side teams. The players got changed in a nearby office. The facilities were spartan, and resembled a local club team, rather than a soon-to-be continental champion.
Yet fast-forward two years and the club have twice been A-League runners-up, seen off Asia's best to be crowned AFC Champions League winners, and are now set to feature among the world’s best clubs at the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2014. A meeting with Mexico powerhouse Cruz Azul awaits on Saturday, with the winner to face the storied might of Real Madrid. Despite the rarefied company Popovic and his side – perhaps partly due to their humble origins – are a group very much with their feet on the ground.
The hard road
“When you start a new club, it is as much trying to get the right characters as much as the right footballers, and having that go hand in hand,” Popovic told FIFA.com. “It has certainly been a great story so far.
“We could write a book about the challenges we went through,” continued Popovic. “But I knew what I was getting into, and I was excited about the prospect of starting with a blank canvas. We didn’t have a player, staff member or office (five months prior to our first competition game). It is not easy in Australia with a salary cap, and a very even competition.
“Together we started something with a blank piece of paper, but the challenge now is to sustain that and challenge for honours over a long period. But everyone is still as driven as ever, and I certainly am.”
Popovic has infused a blue-collar work ethic in his team. ‘Spirit’ and ‘belief’ were commonly phrases used by the 41-year-old coach throughout their Asian campaign. Indeed, the Wanderers continually defied the odds, despite the fact the hurdles they faced seemed to grow at every turn. They saw off Asian holders Guangzhou Evergrande, 2013 runners-up FC Seoul, J-League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima and finally Saudi Arabia aristocrats Al Hilal in the continental decider.
All the while the team clocked up a scarcely believable 200,000 kilometres of travel during 2014. The 30-hour journey from Sydney to Morocco was just another day’s work for the Wanderers.
*Learning on the job *Popovic’s coaching career commenced with a stint as assistant coach at English club Crystal Palace, before taking the same role at Sydney FC. The offer to take the reins at the A-League’s newest club in 2012 was too good to refuse.
It was a relatively rapid move since hanging up the boots in 2008. But is there a time in a player’s career when the idea of a coaching career starts to take root? “I think towards the end of your career, you start looking at the game a bit differently, in particular to the tactical side,” said the newly-crowned Asian Coach of the Year. “I have always had a keen interest in different types of training sessions and what you are getting out of them throughout my whole career.
“Even the ones (coaches) you think you didn’t like, you always learn from. I think you can learn from everyone, and that is my mantra. Every day you can get better and there is no one that you can’t learn from.”
While Popovic is reluctant to name any particular coaches as being a defining influence, he does reserve praise for one globally-recognised name at Morocco 2014; FIFA World Coach of the Year nominee and Real Madrid mentor Carlo Ancelotti.
Popovic takes up the unlikely story. “I was very fortunate through (former Australia goalkeeper) Zeljko Kalac, who was at AC Milan for five years, that every year I spent a couple of weeks at AC Milan observing their training. He (Ancelotti) was very good to me, and allowed me into their inner circle. Seeing the way he manages the players, and the way he works, was an eye-opener for me and I took a lot out of it. I tried to observe, not just the training sessions, but also all facets of managing a football club. I have a lot of respect for Carlo Ancelotti and how he works.”
With trademark pragmatism Popovic is reluctant to think beyond the upcoming meeting with Cruz Azul, but he does concede a sideline reunion with Ancelotti would be a special occasion. “This time I would be able to say hello as a coach on the opposite bench,” Popovic says with a smile. “He allowed me into the inner circle without any questions, and I have always been grateful for that.”