Opinion

Aussie Asia Legends: Sasa Ognenovski - Iconic 'colossus'

Sasa Ognenovski receiving the AFC Champions League trophy Source: Getty Images

Sasa Ognenovski did almost everything right during his time with Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma (now known as Seongnam FC) in Korea Republic from 2009 to 2012.

There were not that many Aussie defenders in Asia before the centre-back left South Australia for just south of Seoul.

That was soon to change thanks to the player known as ‘Sasa’ throughout his time on the peninsula.

Some credit should also go to Shin Tae-yong. ‘Mr Seongnam’ spent a short and injury hit spell with Queensland Roar back in 2005 and then went on to become assistant coach at the club.

The tough-tackling midfielder took control of Seongnam at the end of 2008 when Korea’s most successful club was already slipping from its peak.

Ognenovski was an early signing: “I remember that there was an interview with Shin,” Tom Seungmin Lee, a leading Seongnam fan, told The World Game.

“He promised that none in K League could be superior in terms of physical presence.

"That brought a certain expectation to the fans and when everybody saw him first at the stadium we were excited that we would never let anyone win the ball from us in the air.”

Those hopes were soon a reality.

“He looked like a colossus, both in good and bad ways. As we all expected, he dominated in the air but couldn’t cope with the fast through passes and runners when he left any space behind him due to his slow pace.

"He soon settled down and performed well as the team started to understand him. Defensive partner Cho Byung-kuk was a smart centre-half who knew where to go depending on how Sasa positioned himself in various situations.”

While slower than the average Korean defender, Ognenovski made it up for it elsewhere.

“He always gave 100 percent, one of the reasons why he is still regarded as one of all-time favourites by fans.

"I remember the game against FC Seoul back in 2010 which we lost 4-0 in front of 60,000 fans. When they scored the third after 75 minutes, it was clear that Sasa was the only Seongnam player who didn’t give up and tried to get at least a consolation goal for us. He proved why he was made captain, he encouraged players to not to give up.”

He earned his own song, one which Lee came up with.

“There was a famous song for him and I am the one who made it as a version of the Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink song by Celtic fans. I made it both in Korean and English: Sasa Ognenovski, Sasa Ognenovski, he’s a big Aussie, his surname is too long, Sasa Ognenovski!"

The highlight was that famous AFC Champions League win in 2010. Ognenovski was not just named as the tournament MVP but the Asian Player of the Year, the first Australian to receive either accolade.

“He was the most experienced player in Seongnam’s ACL squad as he played for Adelaide United when they reached the final in 2008.

"His consistency was the key for Seongnam and it was well recognised when he was announced as the Most Valuable Player of the competition in front of joyous Seongnam fans in that unforgettable night in Tokyo.”

As often happens, such performances mean international interest and Qatar team Umm Salal came calling.

Fans were sad to see him go: “He is the icon of the Shin era. He joined the team soon after Shin started his coaching career in Seongnam, he became the first international captain for Seongnam, played a pivotal role for all of Shin’s success in Seongnam and he left the club just before Shin resigned.”

At least he went to Doha and did not join hated rivals FC Seoul.

“There was a bitter moment when he was linked with Seoul back in 2011 and some fans, admittedly including me, were upset with him but it didn’t last long. Any Seongnam fan who watched him play still misses him and his legacy is still living on at the Tancheon Stadium.

"Since his departure, it’s hard to say that Seongnam fans have witnessed an international player that matches him in terms of his influence, diligence and dedication on the field.

"I know that he started his coaching career in Danenong City and wish him a return to Seongnam as our head coach one day.”