Western Sydney Wanderers coach Tony Popovic directs traffic at training.Western Sydney Wanderers fingered as Sydney United in disguise? You have to be kidding. Sadly, people who should know better, among them former Socceroo Ray Richards, seem all too ready to peddle the myth. Normally it wouldn’t matter too much. This, after all, is a game built on conspiracy theories. And there have been no more enduring conspiracy theories than those mired in Balkan politics. For more than three decades, this has been the hotspot for the game.
So here’s the rub. The Wanderers are taking their first tentative steps as the A-League’s newest team. Their selling point is to become the sum of the parts of the entire Western Sydney region. That includes all sides of the Balkan divide. Being put only in the Croatian corner isn’t just wrong, it hurts. Hurts the Wanderers, hurts the A-League. Those pushing that barrow need to take a long, hard, look in the mirror. In this case, the idle gossip is doing far more damage than it’s worth.
So what’s brought it about? The coaching appointments, fundamentally. Head coach Tony Popovic and his assistant, brother-in-law Ante Milicic, played for Sydney United, and have Croatian heritage. Does it matter they were born here, and played for the Socceroos? It does, and it should. The same goes for goalkeeper Ante Covic – another fall guy for the Chinese whisperers.
True enough, the first two imports signed by the Wanderers (Dino Kresinger and Mateo Poljak) came from Croatia. So what? Does the fact that John van’t Schip once signed Rutger Worm make Melbourne Heart a Dutch club? Was Rini Coolen guilty of the same charge because he signed Andy Slory for Adelaide United? Are Perth Glory a Scottish club because Ian Ferguson signed countrymen Steve McGarry and Liam Miller? What about Sydney FC, when former Czech coach Vitezslav Lavicka signed Karol Kisel not once, but on two occasions? Popovic went to Croatia for his first two foreigners because he knows the league, and the players were available at the right price. His judgment should stand or fall on their performance, not their passport.
Sadly, just as the steam was going out of the rumour mill, the Wanderers turned up to play at Sydney United, and there was trouble. Not the level of trouble portrayed by the usual couple of media outlets, but enough to put some heat back into the discussion. Starting off the back foot, Wanderers boss Lyall Gorman has since been telling everyone that by the time his operation is bedded down, there will be just five employees from about 80 who have a Croatian background. It’s a telling fact, but the hard part is to get people to listen.
Why all this matters is because sooner rather than later, the game needs to leave this baggage behind. There was a time when nationalists used clubs like Sydney United, like Footscray, like Preston, like Sydney Olympic, as a forum for their grievances. It is a part of the game’s history, and can’t, and shouldn’t, be whitewashed. But where it counts – on the ground in the old Yugoslavia – things have moved on.
Just recently, I was in Montenegro. Every second car had a Croatian number plate. The owner of my hotel in Kotor, a Serb, crosses the border to have lunch in Dubrovnik at least once a week. You can have adult conversations about culture, religion and politics, and nobody pulls a knife, or a gun. You can even talk about the war if you want to, but everyone would rather leave that at the door. I’ve also been to Slovenia, and to Croatia, and I’ve seen this level of maturity evolve as the conflict becomes more distant. And yet in a corner of south-western Sydney, there are still some morons – and I only use that term because this is a family newspaper – who prefer to hold a grudge, and ambush football matches to make their point.
That is manna from heaven for hair-trigger police and flash-happy photographers, as we’ve seen, once again. True enough, Sydney United should have got rid of their hooligan fringe a long time ago. That apathy has come at an enormous cost. And it is a sad fact that even in the NSW Premier League, games between Sydney United and Serbian-backed Bonnyrigg White Eagles still have to be held behind closed doors. Not that long ago, Mark Rudan, a former Sydney United player, was abused by supporters when he ventured to Bonnyrigg as coach of the visiting team. It wasn’t Sydney United, but Rockdale City. Some people just don’t want to let go.
Eventually they will, given time, and space. Which is why resurrecting old prejudices by pointing the finger at the Wanderers needs to stop. The club doesn’t need it, or deserve it. In the meantime, I’ll give the final word to Alex Kennedy, who sent me this email in the wake of the so-called “riot” at Edensor Park. It makes more sense than I ever could.
I read with great interest your article on Sydney United mainly because I have had the honour to be associated over the last year with many of the real members of this club. Prior to this year I have been pretty much a rugby union supporter and had not taken much interest in the round ball game…there is a good deal of very talented, well-behaved young men coming through the ranks of Sydney soccer and in particular Sydney United. The players from under 13 and up clearly demonstrate high respect for their coaches, managers, the patrons and the club itself. Therefore it is such a shame to see the ill disciplined, non-membered rabble attend games for the sole purpose of creating upset. The behaviour of the rabble is so divorced from that of the true membership. I have come to know many of the Croatian and other nationality members of this club and can attest to their wonderful character and behaviour. Many residents of greater Sydney could learn a lot from them. Every code has or has had this problem so the soccer officials could learn from the experiences of the other codes. The ball is now at the feet of the clubs and the association to fix this problem, so I wish them the very best to ensure the world game is as appreciated in Australia as it is in the rest of the world.”
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