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Western Sydney Wanderers

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PRETTY GREEN - FOOTBALL'S HOMECOMING

Sometimes you have to go home in order to grow up.

For Australian football, the creation of the FFA Cup has reconnected the game to its heartland.

It's been a reconciliation of sorts, a celebration of a shared passion and a belated recognition that the game's heart beats strongest in the streets and suburbs where it is played far away from the bright lights of The A League.

Front row seat - Steve Horval and I with Perth Glory's Dino Djulbic after the match.

Front row seat - Steve Horval and I with Perth Glory's Dino Djulbic after the match.

Over 3000 people packed into The Kingston Heath Soccer Complex in Melbourne's southern suburbs to watch local heroes, Bentleigh Greens S.C. take on A League leaders Perth Glory in the very first FFA Cup Semi-Final.

Sadly for the home fans, the fairytale run came to an end as an inform Glory found the moments of quality required to progress to the final.

A 3-0 result keeps Kenny Lowe's side brilliant start to the season rolling. For their opponents - a team of highly talented and committed part time pros - it brought to an end a rollicking ride through a cup competition that has caught the imagination of the football public.

 

Bentleigh Greens Under 14's represet! 

Bentleigh Greens Under 14's represet! 

 

The sight of the game's top team turning out a near full strength side in the suburbs to take on a team of carpenters,teachers, students and bricklayers for a spot in a major cup final is the stuff of dreams for every player kicking a ball in parks and paddocks across the country.

The FFA Cup has quickly become the envy other football codes.

No other game offers its true believers a shot at glory quite like this.

As professional football of every hue struggles to reconcile commerce and community, the FFA Cup has given football back to the people.

Coupled with the success of The Western Sydney Wanderers in connecting with those living in Sydney's sprawling west and their success in The Asian Champions League, football in Australia may be finally joining all the dots.

Just as importantly, by taking the game to the towns and suburbs, it has allowed the distinct character and culture of those communities to be expressed and celebrated in all their diversity.

Fence sitters..

Fence sitters..

For Australian football it has been a chance to salve the wounds that were yet to heal following the demise of the old NSL.

"New Football" promised a shinny future when it arrived in the guise of the A League a decade ago. In doing so, it turned its back on the enormous contribution to the game made by the old NSL clubs.

There's no question that at the time of its demise, the old NSL was moribund. Soccer Australia was an organisation riven with self interest and petty politics and needed to be levelled. Football needed to start again, and thankfully it did.

Sadly, this came at a cost to some of the game's best people.

The ethnic heritage of these clubs, so much a part of the strength and diversity of the Australian game, was seen as a liability. Australian football underwent a form of ethnic cleansing as it fought to rewrite the narrative of the game as an Australian experience.

It was a cruel conceit that denied some of our most important clubs their rightful place in the history of the game.

Tuesday night lights in Cheltenham.

Tuesday night lights in Cheltenham.


Virtually every Socceroo team that every graced a football field owed its debt of gratitude to these football nurseries. 

Whilst the A League has steadily built a bridge to an entirely new audience, Australian football has been slow to reconcile it's hunger for a successful future with its responsibility to acknowledge its past.

Ten years on, it may be finally ready to truly embrace its history.

There's a long way to go, but with the success of the FFA Cup it feels like football's coming home.





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How The West Has Won. Wanderers Kings Of Asia.

Yes they can.

Yes they did.

Western Sydney Wanderers planted their red and black flag on the summit of Asian football this morning by winning The Asian Champions League.

It is the single greatest achievement in the history of Australian football and the most important moment in Australian sport for 2014.

Bossin' it. Tony Popovic celebrates a famous win.

Bossin' it. Tony Popovic celebrates a famous win.

With a scoreless draw against Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal in Riyadh overnight, The Wanderers were crowned Kings of Asian club football on the back of Tommy Juric's precious goal in their 1-0 win in the first leg of the final at Paramatta last weekend.

In the space of 4 short years The Wanderers have gone from a club that was a dream waiting to be realised for the people of Western Sydney to becoming a regional football powerhouse.

And they've had to do it the hard way.

Last night's battling performance was trademark Wanderers.

Away from home, in a stadium salivating at the prospect of their demise, Popovic's men were calm, organised, determined, focussed and resilient. Their reward was the sweetest scoreless draw they will ever play.

   There it is...  welcome to Wanderland

 

There it is...  welcome to Wanderland


Up until now, The Asian Champions League has seemed a bridge too far for Australia's A League teams.

Adelaide United had made the greatest inroads in the competition, contesting the final against Japan's Gamba Osaka in 2008.

Otherwise, it's been all too hard.

Big Asian clubs like Al Hilal are cashed up and resource rich. The Western Sydney Wanderers still train out of a modest sports complex in Blacktown that most private schools in Australia would blanch at.

Consider this. Tony Popovic's squad that qualified The Western Sydney Wanderers for the Champions League said goodbye to 8 players before the start of the knock out phase of the competition.

That sort of player churn would ruin even the best laid plans by the finest clubs in the world.

Added to squad restrictions, a salary cap and a season out of sync with the rest of Asia, Australian teams have found the competition to be more of a distraction than an opportunity.

Not any more.

With this victory, The Western Sydney Wanderers have completed Australian football's integration into Asia. Coupled with hosting The AFC Asian Cup in January, Australian football has truly found its home in the region.

   Shout it out loud. Tony Popovic and his players celebrate.

 

Shout it out loud. Tony Popovic and his players celebrate.

The win also underlines one of the games greatest assets - its ability to reach beyond these shores in a meaningful and substantial manner. 

Whilst Rugby League trundles on with an anaemic 4 Nations tournament and the AFL continues to pursue its farcical International Rules series with a game no one plays and fewer people care about, Australian football is taking to the world stage.

Closer to home, the battle of the codes in Sydney's western suburbs may be over.

Todays' win ensures it's Wanderers territory - at least for now. 

And having won a berth at the FIFA Club World Championship in Morocco in December, the world awaits.

From Rooty Hill to Riyadh and beyond.

Wanderland indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Kevin Muscat's Total Make Over.

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Kevin Muscat's Total Make Over.

Melbourne Victory coach Kevin Muscat wears his reputation like a tattoo.

Bald ambition. Muscat in full flight.

Bald ambition. Muscat in full flight.

Loved and loathed with equal passion as a player, he's carving out a reputation as canny operator as coach.

This season is an enormous challenge - and opportunity - for Melbourne Victory's gaffer.

To read my column click the link above.

 

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Wild At Heart - Berisha's Grand Final Goodbye.

 

Signing off. Besart Berisha's big day out.

Signing off. Besart Berisha's big day out.

 

 Some footballers need a little madness to be free.

Brisbane Roar's Albanian ace Besart Berisha is one of them.

Just how deep he is prepared to travel to the far side of crazy in today's A League Grand Final could decide the outcome of the game.

If Thomas Broich is the General in Mike Mulvey's team, Besart Berisha is its wild heart. 

Berisha plays with the skill of an artist, the potency of a snipper and the emotional range of a 10 year old.

Wide eyed, gesticulating, smiling, laughing, pleading and crying, Berisha's heart is worn on his sleeve like a Dane Swan tattoo.

There's something beautiful about a player giving themselves so utterly to the moment and the game that they ride every moment of magic and misfortune on the pitch like a child on a playground swing.

 As he lines up in his final game for Brisbane Roar before an off season move to Melbourne Victory, Berisha is sure to be feeling a torrent of mixed emotions. 

The Albanian's time at The Roar has been momentous. It has made for him a career in the most unlikely of settings and circumstances. He has given himself heart and soul to the Brisbane cause in return it has made him its rock star striker.

Alongside duel Johnny Warren medallist Thomas Broich, Berisha has given the A League it's most alluring double act.

 Broich is the supreme technician, a gifted player with the ability to conduct the game on his terms like it were an orchestra. Berisha is a storm rather than a symphony. Thunder and lightning. Spectacular and chaotic.

This will be the last time they play together. 

His departure is a product of brutal football economics rather than a schism between player and club. Make no mistake, this is the most bittersweet of occasions for Besart Berisha.

 In last week's cut throat semi final against his future employers at Melbourne Victory he handled the moment well. He carried out his mission to perfection, careering past a couple of defenders before lashing the ball passed Nathan Coe for the only goal of the game. 

Mindful of the traveling fans who will be chanting his name next campaign, there were no wild celebrations, just a sense of relief and quiet pride that his professionalism carried the day. 

Will he be able to show a similar restraint on Grand Final day when everything is on the line and there is no tomorrow in Brisbane orange to face?

Certainly this year Berisha has sailed choppy waters. 

Besart has picked up 3 red cards in this campaign. It speaks of a player who needs to walk the fine line between magic and madness.

This season, his uncanny ability to find trouble on the pitch seemed to had gotten the better of him. At times he's played as though he were being stalked by dark clouds. 

Recently the skies have cleared and Berisha is back to something like his best form. 

Grand Finals are all about drama, and just what the football gods have in store for The Western Sydney Wanderers and The Brisbane Roar only time will tell.

One thing is certain.

However the script reads, they'll have reserved a starring role for Besart Berisha.




 

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