Tony Popovic’s managerial feats with the Asian champions, the Western Sydney Wanderers, make him a worthy favorite to be named coach of the year at Sunday’s Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Annual Awards in Manila.
The former Crystal Palace and Australia defender masterminded Western Sydney’s unlikely road to regional success earlier this month. The fledgling club, founded less than three years ago, overcame seasoned Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Saudi Arabian sides in the knockout stages to become the first Australian outfit to win the AFC Champions League.
The A-League’s strict salary cap — around US$ 2.2 million per club — meant that Popovic had to work with a fraction of the budget of almost all of the sides that he defeated, including Marcelo Lippi’s 2013 winners, Guangzhou Evergrande, whom he overcame in the quarterfinals. Guangzhou’s Italian striker, Alberto Gilardino, is on a reported salary of around $ 3 million per year.
It has made the 41-year-old one of the hottest coaching properties in football, with offers flooding in from all over the world, including from England. Sources tell ESPN FC that English championship side Norwich City and Korean giants Ulsan Hyundai are among the clubs that he’s already turned down.
Popovic is a reluctant superstar, an intensely private man who’s known to shun the limelight. After Western Sydney’s one-nothing victory on aggregate in the final over the Saudi giants, Al Hilal, on Nov. 1, he praised his players rather than take the credit himself.
Just as Chelsea did in 2012 when they won the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Champions League, the Wanderers took a largely defensive approach and rode their luck. In many of the games, they were starved of possession and were largely outplayed. Yet, they found a way to win, often nicking an early goal and hanging on, with veteran keeper Ante Covic making a series of excellent saves.
But the foundations for their Asian glory were laid more than 12 months earlier when Popovic took the Wanderers on a pre-season tour of Japan and China ahead of their maiden AFC Champions League campaign. Replicating the travel and tight turnarounds for clubs in the regional competition, he shuttled his squad between Tokyo, Shizuoka and Guangzhou to give them a taste of things to come.
Of course, Popovic knows Japan well, having spent five seasons with Sanfrecce Hiroshima where he was one of the first Australians to play in the J-League. As fate would have it, Sanfrecce was the team that Western Sydney eliminated in the round of 16, as his late substitutions turned things around after his side trailed three-to-one after the first-leg away.
Insiders say that Popovic is a tough disciplinarian who pushes his players hard in terms of physical conditioning. He doesn’t mingle closely with his squad — more a teacher than a friend — but has their utmost respect.
As a player, Popovic was a no-nonsense defender who earned 58 international caps over 11 years and had many of the same gritty qualities that have become trademarks of his team.
Even so, he had more than his fair share of memorable moments: from heading in the opening goal as Australia spoiled Wayne Rooney’s 2003 England debut in a three-to-one victory in London, holding his own as he faced up to Brazil’s Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaká in the 2006 World Cup and captaining Crystal Palace in the English Premier League a decade ago.
He had his fair share of setbacks too, including missing the Germany 2006 game against Croatia — the nation of his parents’ birth — after injuring his calf muscle against Brazil. He also had to learn to jump off his left foot for 18 months after a bone in the big toe on his right foot was fused in a painful procedure.
Popovic grew up in Fairfield, a half-hour drive from the Wanderers’ base at Parramatta. But his connection to Crystal Palace remains strong. He was Palace assistant manager when he joined Western Sydney in 2012 and has been touted by UK newspapers as a possible successor to 65-year-old Neil Warnock as head coach.
As a lifelong Liverpool fan Popovic must have had mixed emotions as he watched Palace’s three-to-one victory over Brendan Rodgers’ side last Sunday. The third goal came from a dazzling free-kick scored by fellow Aussie and Eagles’ captain Mile Jedinak, a player that he alerted the club to.
In the third year of a four-year contract, Western Sydney could have a battle on their hands to hold onto Popovic if he’s named Asian coach of the year. The other nominees are Japanese women’s team boss Norio Sasaki and Jamal Mahmoud, the Jordanian manager who masterminded Palestine’s unlikely qualification for January’s AFC Asian Cup.
The irony is that Western Sydney hasn’t won a game since being crowned kings of Asia almost a month ago and sit at the bottom of the A-League table ahead of Saturday’s derby game against Sydney FC.
Success or setbacks, the man they call Popa doesn’t give much away. So, we probably won’t see any outpouring of emotion or colorful victory speech should he be honored in Manila on Sunday night at a ceremony that also marks the 60th anniversary of the Asian Football Confederation.
Jason Dasey is senior editor of ESPN FC, Indonesia’s most popular English-language soccer website with a new Southeast Asia edition and a daily Bahasa Indonesia TV show on NET. Twitter: @JasonDasey.
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