From Uruguay to Wanderland: Popovic & Aloisi face-off

Ten years and three weeks ago Australian football took a turn for the better.

Uruguay. 2005. Second leg, 32 years of wai exterminated once and for all. John Aloisi and Tony Popovic were integral parts of the group of men who rid the Socceroos of its curse.

Uruguay Tony Popovic

 
Tonight they are pitch-side in suits, trying to outsmart each other, the path taken since 10 years ago as different as their roles on that unforgettable night.
 
Aloisi, his golden left boot having made him the face of 10 years ago, has done incredibly well to bounce back from his first big job, which ended in disaster at Melbourne Heart. He has already won half the games in Brisbane as he did in Melbourne in a fraction of the time.
 
He is a football nut, fascinated with its workings. His coaching apprenticeship was spent all over Europe as a player, from Belgium to Italy to England and Spain. Learning from his then-managers, both what to do and what to avoid. Javier Aguirre, his former club boss in Spain, who was at the Asian Cup as Japan boss, played an early contributing role.

Uruguay John Aloisi

 
His Spanish connections also opened doors at Barcelona, a former team-mate now on the staff of this generation’s best club side. A recent trip to the Catalan giants emphasized what a lie it is to accuse Barcelona’s superstars of being effortlessly brilliant. They work harder than anyone, Leo Messi and his insatiable need to avoid failure a prime example.
 
His time spent away from the Hyundai A-League was spent soaking up information, tactics and traits, in a similar vein to Ange Postecoglou, who also waited on the Fox Sports couch before getting a call to take over in Brisbane.
 
Aloisi has been able to ride out the rumblings of discontent over Brisbane’s shoddy ownership, and still top up a good squad with good players. Fair comeback.

Uruguay John Alosis

 
Tony Popovic is also going through his reincarnation, though without having to go through the grim reaper of phone calls from the club chairman. The big question for Popovic this season was ‘he can build, but can he renovate?’ Five in a row has gone a long, long way to answering that question. Like Aloisi, just a start, but certainly better than the alternative.
 
Ten years ago, Popovic was meant to be no hope of being a part of the squad for Uruguay.
 
He copped a filthy tackle from Bastian Schweinsteiger at the Confederations Cup, wiping out his ankle.
 
Lesser beings would have accepted fate. Not Popovic. Tenacious desire to get us to a World Cup meant he put himself through months of rehabilitation, undertaken with a meticulous attention to detail. He wouldn’t accept being physically hindered.
 
A familiar trait when it comes to preparing his sides.

Tony Popovic fist pump

 
And he didn’t mind taking himself out of his comfort zone to be where he is, firstly leaving Sydney FC to be assistant at Crystal Palace. He will never forget his first day in London, arriving at Heathrow to go straight to the training ground. He sat in a meeting and bang, was hit with it – plan a part of that day’s session. Jetlag, Shmetlag. Be ready.
 
Then leaving Crystal Palace to set standards at a place that didn’t exist.
 
So many sporting clubs have popped up across Australia over the last decade. Few if any set non-negotiable standards and a threshold of success as quickly as Wanderers.
 
A decade on from Uruguay, both men have moved on, well beyond those unforgettable scenes as Aloisi sprinted, twirling his shirt down the Olympic Stadium touchline.
 
Both speak highly of the man who guided Australia to a World Cup, Guus Hiddink, in awe of his ability to man manage and manipulate a situation with a player to get what was required for the team.

Uruguay Guss Hiddink

 
When Hiddink realised Aloisi knew he’d be left out of the starting line up in Montevideo, he responded with a bet – hit the ball with the crossbar. Hiddink, freakishly won. Aloisi had to buy an expensive bottle of red wine. When he handed it over, Hiddink gave it back, and let the senior players have a glass each, 2 days before the first leg, totally taking any tension out of the situation.
 
And when Hiddink hauled Popovic off in the second leg in Sydney after 30 minutes, he didn’t care about his feelings. Sure he knew Popovic was cooking, but Hiddink knew the enormity of the situation far outweighed any sense of self-pity.
 
Popovic himself knew that minutes after sitting down.
 
Hiddink isn’t the messiah for either man. Both have crafted their own style. But they are the only two so far to have graduated from that squad to be senior club coaches. And maybe, tonight is the start of a wonderful rivalry.
 
Adam is the author of That Night: The story of Australian Football’s Greatest Night - Out now.