Rise of the Underdog: From non-existent to Asian champions, Western Sydney Wanderers’ rapid rise

Wester Sydney Wanderers underdogs GFXGetty/ Goal

As far as rapid rises in football go, few compare to what Australian club Western Sydney Wanderers achieved in 2014 when they won the Asian Champions League. Only formed two years prior in early 2012 and operating on a shoe-string budget, the Red and Black found a way to do what no other Australian club has ever done.

Based in the working-class suburb of Parramatta, the Wanderers quickly connected with a fanbase that had been crying out for football and were ultimately rewarded for their early show of faith in the most spectacular way possible.

The initial signs were a bit worrying despite former Socceroo and Crystal Palace assistant Tony Popovic assembling a side that featured a young Aaron Mooy and Japanese star Shinji Ono.

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After failing to score in their first three games, the Red and Black finally got their first goal and win against reigning A-League champions Brisbane Roar and they wouldn’t look back.

After finishing the regular 2012-13 season top of the table and securing silverware at their first chance, the Wanderers would be brought down to earth in the league’s final as they lost 2-0 against Central Coast Mariners, but they had still done enough to book their place in the Asian Champions League.

Once again, Popovic’s side hit the ground running in the continental competition, scoring after just one minute in their first group game against Ulsan Hyundai, only to end up losing 3-1 at home. That poor defensive performance was a crucial learning curve for the Wanderers, who would remarkably not concede again at home in the competition that season.

A 5-0 win at Parramatta in their final group game against Beijing Renhe sealed top spot as the side exceeded all expectations by simply qualifying for the next stage.

In the round of 16, the Wanderers faced Japanese side Sanfrecce Hiroshima, who looked set to swiftly end the Australian fairytale after claiming a 3-1 first-leg win at home. But Popovic’s side refused to give up, with an 85th-minute strike securing a 2-0 win in the second leg which saw them progress on away goals.

Ante Covic Western Sydney Wanderers AFC Champions League 2014

As the Wanderers looked to continue their stunning first foray into Asia, they had to contend with some domestic heartbreak as they once again lost the A-League grand final in extra-time against Brisbane before also being knocked out of the FFA Cup by semi-professional outfit Adelaide City.

Trying to put those struggles to one side, Chinese giants Guangzhou Evergrande loomed next in the quarter-finals and despite boasting in-form Brazilian striker Elkeson, they couldn’t break down the Wanderers’ defence in the first leg in Sydney as the hosts pinched a 1-0 win.

Evergrande would then claim a late 2-1 win in China but once again Popovic’s men benefited from the away goal rule to progress to the semi-finals.

South Korean club FC Seoul failed to find the back of the net at home in a goalless first leg before the Wanderers claimed a 2-0 victory in front of their delirious fans.

In the final, Saudi Arabian heavyweights Al-Hilal licked their lips at the prospect of dismantling a ‘small’ Australian club but found themselves on the back foot after losing the first leg 1-0 in Parramatta with Tomi Juric firing home what will long be the considered the club’s most iconic goal.

Returning to Riyadh for the decider, Al-Hilal remained confident they could still comfortably claim the title as 60,000 home fans left the handful of Wanderers’ fans that managed to make the trip realise just how hard it would be for their side to hold out on enemy territory.

From the opening whistle, the Australians found themselves on the back foot as Al-Hilal relentlessly pressed forward in search of a goal. In their way however was then 39-year-old keeper, Ante Covic, who was refusing to be beaten. Despite being the victim of laser pointers from the stands throughout the match, Covic held firm in front of his goal and produced a stunning late save to ensure the second leg ended goalless and the Wanderers claimed a shock ACL title less than three years after being formed.

As Popovic’s side struggled to comprehend what they had achieved at full-time, their opponents' frustration boiled over with one player even guilty of spitting, but there was no tainting one of the most pure sporting triumphs in recent history.

"We were called a small club yesterday. Today we are the biggest in Asia," Popovic said. "It is still a little surreal for me as a coach. I am sure it will hit home in the next few days when we reflect.

"I am just proud for these players and our club. The first time in the competition, to win it, I think in the future we will really understand how special this run has been.

"We don't have the resources or the funds that some of these other teams have but we have something that money can't buy, the desire to win, the resilience to play for each other and do anything we can to win. No money can buy that."