Opinion

Asia needs Wanderers to get back to the top

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Mention ‘Western Sydney Wanderers’ in Saudi Arabia and you will either be met by a big smile by fans delighted to see Al-Hilal lose the 2014 AFC Champions League final or a dark look. You don’t even need the ‘Western’ or ‘Wanderers’. Just ‘Sydney’ will suffice

It felt six years ago that it wouldn't be long before the entire continent felt the same. The new kids on the block were a breath of fresh air.  

It wasn’t about the run to the final and the AFC Champions League title, though that was a big part of it.

Here was a team that was participating in a first-ever continental campaign, a team that, in human terms, should have been barely able to walk but was instead running around the world’s largest continent and beating some big and established names.

And the final was epic too. The Wanderers rode their luck time and time again against the mighty Al-Hilal, the Saudi Arabian giants who had won two Asian championships before but were desperate for a first Champions League.

Doughty defending, clinical finishing and some favourable refereeing all combined to give Australia the Asian title.

There was plenty of other drama too and attending the AFC awards in Manila not long after, the final was still the main topic of conversation. 

That triumph, with coach Tony Popovic and his group of players, remains one of the single best achievements in Asian football history. 

After winning the group stage, the Aussies beat Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Guangzhou Evergrande and FC Seoul - big eastern names and big games that will live long in the memory, not least as classic examples of how to play knockout football. 

It should still be celebrated as such. 

Here was an Australian team that took Asia seriously - how could it triumph against the odds if that had not been the case?

A team that fought its way around the continent and had colourful support at home that just added to the freshness and excitement. 

The fact that Japanese legend Shinji Ono had been a major player in the early days just added to the feeling that Western Sydney Wanderers were going to be Australia’s Asian club. 

That feeling has long since dissipated. It was depressing to see coach Jean-Paul de Marigny, appointed as the permanent boss in mid-July, has left.

Since Popovic departed three years ago, there has not been much for fans to get excited about.

The latest season was the third in succession that the Wanderers missed out on the finals. 

While that must be depressing for the fans who watch the A-League week in, week out, it is also sad for Asian football too.  

Asia misses the Wanderers, misses the spiky champions from 2014 who loved nothing more than showing long-standing continental powers what they could do with their big-name stars and years of experience in the competition.

Asia misses heading down under to play in that noisy, passionate and intimate Parramatta Stadium; some players I talked to enjoyed it because it was so passionate, it was different to what they were used to. 

It wouldn’t be so bad if other Aussie teams had stepped in and picked up that red and black mantle in Asia but that has not been the case.

While Sydney FC have been impressive at home, that has not been the case on the continent. Melbourne Victory are another underachiever.  

The Wanderers showed that Australian teams can compete with the best of Asia, regardless of salary caps but more importantly they showed Asia that Australia not only could embrace the Champions League but also make it a better, more engaging and more exciting tournament for all. 

Only Al-Hilal fans will be enjoying the relative demise of the 2014 champions and maybe not even those as is still a desire for revenge. That is not going to happen anytime soon and Asian football is the poorer for it.

Source SBS The World Game