“You really don’t know which way your career is going to go” – Aurelio Vidmar on Asian football exploits

Aurelio Vidmar

Aurelio Vidmar sees the impending reduction of Australian qualifying slots in the Asian Champions League as a ‘real disappointment’, but still believes Aussie sides can have a big impact on the competition.

Vidmar is as qualified to speak on the ACL as anyone in Australia, and to the shifting face of football in the region broadly; manager of Adelaide United’s ground-breaking run to the final in 2008 and follow-up trip to the Round of 16 in 2010, he more recently helped Thailand’s BG Pathum United to the knockout stage for the first time in their history in 2021.

13 wins from 25 matches has him only behind Tony Popovic as the most successful Australian in Asian football’s pinnacle club tournament, but chances for compatriots to replicate their feats appear bleak. From 2024/25 the ACL’s two-tier structure will split into three, with participants at the top level cut from 40 to 24. At most, Australia will have just one guaranteed top-flight entrant, as the AFC looks to redistribute revenue among participant clubs.

“It’s disappointing. I think Australian teams can still go there and have a big impact, but losing the second automatic spot and a playoff spot is not ideal. Results over the past three-to-four years haven’t been great and that’s probably why they’ve reduced our slots,” Vidmar told Soccerscene from his home in Adelaide, where he’s returned since leaving True Bangkok United in December.

“For a country like Australia, we should have two automatic slots. Our league needs to grow – if you look at Thailand they have four divisions, with 16-18 teams in each. So there’s competition for places, within the league itself, and we need to grow to that stage.”

Vidmar is well placed to give credence or otherwise to the general Australian notion that nations such as Thailand or Vietnam, sometimes patronised as ‘developing’ or ‘second-tier’ regarding football, are set to grow and engulf the stagnant Australian system.

The expansion of the World Cup means this is now unlikely to play out in the international arena. But Vidmar believes the shift is undeniably afoot in club football; through two stints as manager of BG Pathum (formerly Bangkok Glass) and one with Singapore’s Lion City Sailors, he’s seen how investment can accelerate a club, while watching Australian club performances wane from afar.

The Champions League has changed a lot. In 2007/08 only the top team qualified [from the group], most teams were only getting $25,000 to help with travel on away legs. Prize Money was not much for the winner or runners up, but that’s increased as well ($US600,000 in 2008 to $US4million in 2023),” he explained.

“Now the top two sides qualify [until the change from 2024/25], not that it makes it easier – I was at Melbourne City when they played Pathum and didn’t qualify with a very good team. That tells you the strength of the competition now.”

Vidmar’s introduction to Asian football came late in his playing career, aged 31. In mid-1998 he became the third Australian to sign at Sanfrecce Hiroshima under the man who’d managed him through the bulk of his Socceroos career, Scottish manager Eddie Thomson.

A hardened attacker who graduated through a golden age at Adelaide City, Vidmar carved a highly-successful career in Belgium, that peaked in winning the 1994/95 League golden boot with Standard Liége. But stints in Switzerland and Spain didn’t bring the same rewards, and he was only too happy to draw the curtain on Europe.

“At the time I was in Spain at Tenerife, but hadn’t been playing in my second year there. I got a call from the late Eddie Thomson and it wasn’t long before I said yes. Sanfrecce were a great club and Japanese football at that stage had boomed, with the J1 League starting in 1993,” he shared.

“But by 1997-99 it was in a bit of a lull. We were playing at the Arch Stadium, a 36,000 seater with only 15-16,000 there, so it had dropped off a hell of a lot. At the time Tony Popovic and Hayden Foxe were the two Aussies there, two top guys and top athletes, so we had a great time.”

A return to Adelaide followed as his career wound down in the dying days of the NSL, firstly with City and finally in the foundation years of United. By the time Vidmar ascended to the managerial top job after a year as John Kosmina’s assistant, Australia had achieved its long-held goal of shifting federations from Oceania to Asia.

The Socceroos had the first opportunity to make a mark for Australian football in its new home, but disappointed in exiting the 2007 Asian Cup at the quarter-final stage. Instead it was Vidmar’s Reds, in driving to the final of the 2008 Champions League, that made the first big inroads.

“It was an awesome period for the club. The first year we were in it, 2007 under Kossie, we didn’t qualify [out of the group stage], although we did well and learnt a hell of a lot from that first foray. No one, including supporters, really knew too much about it, but it really grew legs the following year because we did so well.”

Hindmarsh routinely drew sell-out crowds of 17,000 as Cassio, Travis Dodd & Sasa Ognenovski et al. topped their group, moved past Kashima Antlers and Karavchi (now Bunyodkor) through the knockouts, and ultimately met Gamba Osaka in the final. Few remember the 5-0 aggregate scoreline by which they lost, but many remember what a rollicking, if somewhat naïve, run it was.

“Every game was the old cliche, one at a time. We played against top quality opposition, had a little bit of luck, had good structures. We did the damage at the right time and got there in the end,” Vidmar said.

But for all this, Vidmar still didn’t envision he’d go on to spend the majority of his managerial career to this point in the eclectic environment of Asian football.

“It wasn’t a love of the region. We loved what we were doing, the profession is very difficult as we know, so just being involved in it and trying to give some sort of impact was really why we are in it  – the impact of doing well as a club or helping player’s careers, that’s why we’re in it. But you really don’t know which way your career is going to go.”

Vidmar managed United until the end of the 2011/12, before moving back to the familiarity of the national team as boss of the Under 20’s and senior assistant to Holger Osiek. Incidentally, he oversaw a 3-0 win over Canada between Osiek’s sacking and Ange Postecoglou’s appointment, in October 2013.

Vidmar was 46 and had spent his life in Australian football. A 53-cap Socceroo who’d lived the heartbreak of repeated World-Cup near-misses, he’d finished playing as a well-travelled professional and had grown into an experienced domestic manager.

But you never stop learning, and ahead was a plunge back into the unknown. Vidmar had seen the pinnacle of Asian football as a player and manager, but now loomed an education in the unpredictability and politics of the game further down the chain. 

“I’d finished with the national team and got a call from Bangkok Glass one day and to be honest, I didn’t know much about them. We knew Thailand had some talented national players but I didn’t know much about the Thai First Division,” he reflected.

“I went there, met them, and… it was very strange. As I’m talking to the owners and the board, the Chairman steps up and says to my agent he wanted to speak to him outside. The interview had only been going five minutes, so I thought ‘s**t, this has either gone very well or very poorly!’

“So I’m sitting there with the rest of the board, s**t talking, small talk, they come back in within two minutes and the Chairman taps his hand on the table and says ‘let’s just get this deal done.

“I had a really good time there but learnt very quickly that, especially in Thailand, they’re very passionate but also emotional and sometimes irrational – and that’s exactly how it panned out. I finished the last ten games of 2016/17 and went back for 2017/18, but it ended poorly.

“We had not a bad team, but weren’t the best because we were spending significantly less than Muangthong, Buriram, Chiangrai… when I got sacked we were sitting third. I was sacked as I wasn’t listening to what the Chairman wanted, doing my own thing. They couldn’t accept that, so I was shown the door.”

18 months later he signed as manager of one of Asia’s most ambitious clubs, Singapore’s Home United, on the verge of an influx of funding from incoming Chairman and Singaporean billionaire Forrest Li.

“I had no interest in going to Singapore but sometimes, right from the beginning, it’s what you’re looking for. There was synergy, people with the same ideas, the same direction. Within a week we’d agreed on a deal,” he explained.

“I knew the competition wasn’t the highest standard in South-East Asia, but they were just about to be bought by Li. We played one season, then he changed the name to Lion City Sailors. Not just the colours, but the whole fabric shifted; he spent over $15 million on buying a first team, academy, training centre. They’re miles and miles ahead of the rest in Singapore. 

“I was happy, doing our thing… and then out of the blue the Bangkok Glass Chairman rings me. He starts chatting away and says ‘look, I made a mistake, you’re the best coach we’ve had and I shouldn’t have done what I did. We want you back.’ I thought ‘Jesus Christ’, given the timing of everything!

“I was very honest with Forrest Li. He said he’d never stand in the way of me wanting to improve myself and coaching at a higher level. The Champions League was also very attractive to me – it was the first time Pathum United (rebranded from Bangkok Glass), as they were now called, had been there.”

Vidmar picked up where he’d left off, helping the side through a group that included the formidable Ulsan Hyundai, and onto a Round of 16 clash with Jeonbuk Motors. Domestically the side also lifted the Thailand Champions Cup, but Covid-complications meant Vidmar handed the reins to an assistant for the trip to South Korea.

“They did really well, got knocked out on penalties, the club never expected them to get that far. I do love the Champions League, it’s a great competition and I’ve had a great deal of fortune.”

If Australian sides are to return to the halcyon days of Adelaide’s 2008 run to the finals, or the Wanderers 2014 triumph, Vidmar sees the development of the domestic league, and an increase in competitiveness, as the means.

“I don’t know the mechanics of a ‘B-League’… but even in smaller South-East Asian leagues, it’s not a given that you’re in the top division. We really need to get to that stage.”

Football Australia’s progress towards a National Second Division continues gradually, and whether that will be stitched into the A-League remains a far-flung reality – ‘although it’s romantic, if I was an owner or chair I wouldn’t rush to jump in’, but there really is no time to delay as investment continues to flood into the broader region. In the short-term, increasing familiarity remains an option.

“I think the player market is still untapped. We’ve got a couple of good Japanese players in the League but places like Vietnam, Thailand… There are a hell of a lot of good players out there. They earn good money at home and that’s probably part of the reason why they won’t come out, but those sorts of regions need to be looked at.”

Next season Melbourne City will play in the Champions League, with no Australian sides afforded a play-off spot; by comparison, Japan and South Korea each have three sides guaranteed and one play-off spot, Thailand and China two and two. That the Central Coast Mariners and Macarthur Bulls will play in the second-tier AFC Cup says much about Australia’s slide in the region.

Unless changes are made, these nations will continue to shine on the Champions League stage at Australia’s expense. The trend is not irreversible, but the task needs to be fully embraced – take it from someone who knows what it is to break new ground in the region.


Canberra United A-League Men’s debut delayed to 2025/26 season

Canberra have been dealt a cruel blow in their bid to have an A-League Men’s side, with the A-League confirming that the expansion bid wouldn’t be viable for season 2024/25.

A-Leagues commissioner Nick Garcia has however backed Canberra United to join as the 14th team in the league for the 2025/26 season, following the announcement of Auckland FC as the 13th.

Initially, the goal was to have a 14 team league for 2024/25 to avoid any fixture difficulties with a bye, however the lack of movement surrounding funding for a team in the capital halted those ideas.

The group behind an expansion bid “aren’t able to stand up a team in time for season 2024-25” and frustratingly, fans in the ACT are made to wait another 12 months to see a team they were promised a long time ago.

A-Leagues commissioner Nick Garcia discussed the next steps the league will take to ensure the team stands up and is sustainable long term.

“We are still in discussion with a preferred consortium for an A-League licence in Canberra, but they aren’t able to stand up a team in time for season 2024-25,” he said in a press conference confirming the news.

“The ACT has a fantastic football fanbase, and we remain committed to Canberra and a 14th A-League team. We want to give new owners the proper runway to set up a team to ensure long-term success.

“The preferred consortium has the right capability – a mix of European top-flight experience, and local Canberra knowledge and relationships – and we continue to work with them.”

The APL had hoped to raise $100m in franchise fees – $25m per club – from Canberra, Auckland and two other sides by the start of the 2025-26 season.

This news comes not long after Canberra United Women’s team were saved by a crucial $200,000 investment by the ACT government and Capital Football were confirmed to be owning the team for the next season.

It is all a bit unorganised from the A-Leagues and the failure to start this Canberra Men’s team will create a bit of fixture difficulty with a bye that compromises the schedule.

The success of Auckland FC is vital for the A-League to be correct in their decision to delay Canberra United and both teams will need to hit the ground running on and off the field to save any embarrassment.

Recent data shows huge growth in the A-Leagues

Recent data has come out of Australia’s top leagues for both men’s and women’s to show a huge increase in support and viewership.

The Isuzu UTE A-League has built on a three-year continuous growth with 1.44 million fans attending the 2023-24 season. The highest number since the 2018-19 season.

This has resulted in a 33% increase in club memberships and a 36% increase in consideration for purchasing membership.

This has also followed a trend of increasing interest in the younger age group with 18-25 marking a 38% increase in fan interest.

This is evident that there is growth in support of the sport and investors and stakeholders should consider this positive data.

The final series is a prime example with the highest numbers of fans since 2009-10 with 138,000 attending. Also, on Channel 10 alone, 1.2 million people watched the finals.

The digital and broadcast viewership has also indicated a year-by-year growth with a 53% increase in Paramount+ viewership and a 16% increase in free-to-air viewership.

This comes in unison with social media which has developed staggeringly the most. On the social and digital channels, there were 530 million video views up 210%, 1.9 million followers which reached a 44% increase and 1.2 billion impressions which is up a significant 70% from last season.

These results indicate that a strong digital and social media presence is key for the A-League’s popularity.

Not just with the fans and supporters the league itself crossed some milestones with record transfer fees and 3.92 goals a game (most in any league worldwide).

Also, it continues to be a league that supports the Australian footballing system and future stars with 15 A-League players called up to the Socceroos squad and a 46% increase in minutes for under 23 players.

This proves the league is not only still supporting the growth and opportunity for young Australian players, but also continues to be expanding and competitive, which are key goals to achieve for any footballing league, especially one that is continuing to try and develop every season.

The Liberty Women’s A-League on the back of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup has shown promising growth in similar sectors as well, indicating that there is a flow-on effect between international support and an embracing of the local national game.

19 players who played in the 2023 Women’s FIFA World Cup played in the Liberty A-League, showing worldwide talent presides and is attracted to this league.

The 2023-24 season ended with the highest attendance ever with 312,176 patrons a 123% increase. This goes in hand with the huge 611% increase in club-specific memberships.

There was also the highest attendance of any women’s club sports match this season at 11,475.

Broadcasting viewership has also had massive growth. There was a 53% increase in average 10Bold FTA audiences and a 68% increase in 10play minutes viewed. The Grand Final itself got 279,000 views up by 64%.

The social media of the Liberty A-League has followed the trend with a community size increase of 32%, impressions up 64%, engagement increased by 80% and a huge 192% increase in videos viewed.

These numbers are a telling sign that these leagues are growing in popularity and have all the support needed for more future success if they are further invested in and supported with long-term strategies and goals. The fans want to maintain support the game and they need the necessary investment to deliver it.

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