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.