Ante Milicic: from A-League to World Cup

In the lead-up to Ante Milicic's final regular season home game we sit down with the Western Sydney legend to talk about his life in football.

As the opening of Australia-s FIFA World Cup campaign against Chile on 13 June looms ever closer, competition for a seat on the plane to Brazil is heating up. But there is one squad member who has truly earned his guaranteed call-up and he-s not part of the playing roster.

Ante Milicic was appointed Socceroos assistant coach almost two months ago - a position he-ll permanently occupy after his duties as assistant coach at NRMA Insurance Western Sydney Wanderers cease at season-s end.

Touted as one of the brightest future coaching prospects in Australia, Milicic will bring fresh ideas and a unique, personal approach to the Socceroos camp; traits that will no doubt be missed at the Wanderers.

Working alongside good friend Tony Popovic and cementing the Wanderers name into Australian football folklore is hard to walk away from but one simply cannot refuse an opportunity to be involved at the World Cup.

“It-s a huge honour for me to be selected to work with Ange [Postecoglou] and the staff and be part of the national team setup,” says Milicic.

“The opportunity to go to a World Cup - I am very proud and I look forward to the challenge ahead and to bring my coaching career again to the next level.

“For four years I-ve been in a constant system in the Hyundai A-League so to work with a different group of players and also opposition as well as different styles of play and learn more about the game at a worldwide scale is something that-s very appealing to me.”

Milicic, capped six times as striker for the Socceroos at a return of five goals, enjoyed a prolific career in Australia, Netherlands, Croatia and Malaysia before getting a taste of the Hyundai A-League during a year at Newcastle followed by two seasons with Queensland Roar.

But the dream began long before then, as Ante took to the field for his local club Strathfield at the age of six and would later team up with another Socceroos legend.

“Back in those days whenever it was raining you would pray that your home phone wouldn-t ring because that means you-re getting a call that your game is cancelled,” recalls Milicic.

“Australia was a different country back then. You did most of your training with your friends on the street, going to the parks and playing different sports.

“At 16 I went to the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra and Kevin Muscat was in that group and he was one that really kicked on; back then he was the first one to go overseas and play abroad.”

Milicic did not have to wait very long to venture abroad himself, making the move to Eredivisie side NAC Breda at the age of 23.

He would remain in the Netherlands for two seasons, during which he notched up ten goals in 47 appearances.

“Looking back now I think I went too late,” says Milicic.

“At the start in Holland I did really well, I would always be in the first 11 and I was playing comfortably but in the very first year I remember when the December snow came.

“With the heavy pitches my body couldn-t handle the loads. There would just be one injury after another and I couldn-t get a sustained run.

“I struggled to adapt to the conditions - not the pace of the game or training, it-s just that physically I wasn-t strong enough to deal with the demands.”

Milicic moved to the country of his ancestry, Croatia, to play for giants NK Rijeka. He also spent two years there, scoring 15 goals and gracing the UEFA Cup.

Although faced with the opportunity to prolong his stay on the Old Continent Milicic felt it was the right time to come home at 27.

“I said to myself that I-m not at the level to play English Premier League or Serie A so it was time to come to Australia,” remembers Milicic.

“I got a good offer from Sydney United and my future wife was with me.

“I thought I-d come and play in Australia. It-s better being back home where we could get married, maybe start a family, buy a unit.

“We could just start our lives together instead of being at mid-table clubs where the opportunities were to stay.

“In countries like Belgium and Portugal there were mid-table clubs where I could continue my adventure but I thought it was time to come home.”

His return was synonymous with a revolution in Australian football as the Hyundai A-League was launched five years later.

Having enjoyed a successful debut season with Newcastle Jets, scoring seven goals in 20 matches, Milicic made the move to Queensland Roar.

For the first time while playing in Australia Milicic struggled only managing to get on the scoresheet four times over two fruitless years.

Nonetheless, it seems the experience had just as crucial an impact on his future direction as his glory days at Sydney Olympic and Parramatta Power.

“At Queensland Roar it didn-t quite click,” explains Milicic.

“I went there to enjoy the last part of my career and there were a couple of reasons I-ll just keep to myself.

“It didn-t work out, I saw how the situation was going at the time there and after a while I made a decision that this is not how I want to end my career.

“I-m disappointed it didn-t work out for me at the Roar but even now the older I get and the more involved I am with coaching I can work out how and why it didn-t work out for me and that-s football.”

Milicic-s first stint in coaching began as player-coach of Sydney United in the NSW Premier League in 2009 before becoming assistant to Jan Versleijen with the U-20 national team.

Now returning to the national fold Milicic cannot help but look back with a tinge of regret on his own Socceroos career; not having made as big an impact as he-d hoped.

“To be honest it-s something that disappoints me still looking back on it,” says Milicic.

“I came through a generation where, no questions asked, Mark Viduka was a lot better than me at the time.

“Of course I look back and I think I could have done a bit better, made some different decisions at different times.

“That probably drives me now in my coaching career - to be more successful in my coaching career than my playing career, so you turn it into a positive.”

For a player that still holds the record transfer fee for a domestic transfer when he moved from Sydney United to Sydney Olympic for $110,000 in 2002, Milicic remains critical of himself although his footprint on the Australian team certainly has not set yet.

Having played in legendary arenas against the likes of Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord, the cauldrons in which Australia will do battle in June will not daunt Milicic, however he-ll always be lured back to Pirtek Stadium.

“I-ll miss the Wanderers but whenever possible I-ll attend the home games and watch very closely,” says Milicic.

“With the platform that-s there and the organisation I-m confident that Wanderers are not only going to finish this season well but the structures that are in place will set for a positive impact in the upcoming years.”

The Australian public will be hopeful Milicic will be able to have just as influential an impact on the future prospects of the Green and Gold as he has had on the Red and Black.

A billion eyes will be watching in a few months time - if ever, now is the time to shine.