From $13k lobster & our ‘darkest day’ to the ultimate debut: Australia’s history in Asia

The trio of Melbourne City, Central Coast Mariners and Macarthur FC headline this years Australian contingent of teams looking for glory in Asia both in the AFC Champions League and AFC Cup.

A-Leagues representatives return to Asian competition tonight, with Melbourne City, Central Coast Mariners and Macarthur FC waving the flag for the country. Ahead of their return, KEEPUP looks at some of the famous moments involving Australian teams in the past.

A-Leagues outfits have a checkered history in Asia’s continental tournaments, since their first participation in 2007.

There has been a fair share of highs and lows, from Western Sydney Wanderers’ memorable Asian Champions League triumph in 2014 and Adelaide United’s run to the final in 2008, to the recent drop-off in form on Asia’s biggest stage over the last nine years.

But this year, Melbourne City, Central Coast Mariners and Macarthur FC will be hoping to write a new chapter in Australian football’s participation in Asia’s biggest club competitions, when they kick off their respective campaigns this week.

City are the sole representative in the AFC Champions League this season, while the Mariners and Bulls will be hoping to make their mark in the AFC Cup, being the first Aussie sides to ever compete in the tournament.

Before it all kicks off, let’s take a look back at some of the memorable – for better or for worse – moments during Australia’s participation in Asia.

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2007: Aussie teams make ACL bow

In 2007, Sydney FC and Adelaide United became the first two Australian sides to compete in Asia, following the country’s shift from Oceania.

The two sides qualified after winning the 2005-06 Championship and Premiership respectively, but had to wait until March 2007 to make their bow on Asia’s biggest club stage – a few weeks after the conclusion of the 2006-07 Isuzu UTE A-League season.

Sydney were drawn in Group E alongside Japanese giants Urawa Red Diamonds, Indonesian side Persik Kediri and Chinese outfit Shanghai Shenhua, and won their opening game away to the latter 2-1 – thanks to goals from now Sky Blues coach Steve Corica and Ufuk Talay.

The Sky Blues – who were helmed by Branko Culina at the time – defeated Persik at home, but suffered defeat to the Indonesian outfit on the road, along with draws at home to Urawa and Shanghai.

It meant Sydney had to win their final group game away to Urawa in order to advance to the quarter-finals ahead of the Japanese side, but were held to a 0-0 draw in Saitama.

Adelaide – on the other hand – were drawn in Group G alongside Korean side Seongnam FC, Chinese outfit Shandong Lunen and Vietnam’s Long An FC.

The Reds lost their opening game at home to Shandong after Michael Valkanis scored an own-goal in a 1-0 defeat, but bounced back to beat Long An on the road 2-0 with Fernando Rech and Travis Dodd hitting the scoreboard.

Adelaide would go on to drop points in their next three games, coughing up leads against Seongnam and Shandong, meaning they would fall short of progressing to the next round. They did, however, end their 2007 campaign with a 3-0 win, completing a clean sweep of Long An thanks to a Travis Dodd hat-trick.

2008: Adelaide’s incredible run to the Final

Adelaide United didn’t have to wait long for another crack at the Asian Champions League.

The Reds qualified for the 2008 iteration alongside tournament debutants Melbourne Victory, where they became not only the first Australian team to progress from the group stage, but the first to make it all the way to the final.

Aurelio Vidmar’s side came into the competition fresh off missing the Isuzu UTE A-League finals, but turned their form around just in time for the start of the Champions League. The Reds topped Group E, going undefeated in their six games with four wins and two draws, while Victory were bundled out in the group stage.

Adelaide were drawn against Japanese giants Kashima Antlers in the final eight and drew the first-leg 1-1 after a Robbie Cornthwaite own-goal cancelled out Travis Dodd’s opener.

However, Cornthwaite would turn from villain to hero in the second leg, when he scored the winner in the 72nd minute to send Adelaide into the final four.

The Reds came up against Bunyodkor and took a hefty lead in the tie, when they demolished the Uzbek side 3-0 at home – thanks to goals from Diego Walsh, Fabian Barbiero and Cristiano. Those goals proved to be the difference as Adelaide went on to progress 3-1 on aggregate, after losing the second-leg 1-0 in Tashkent.

Adelaide’s magical run came to a heartbreaking conclusion in the final to Japanese side Gamba Osaka, losing 5-0 on aggregate, ending a historic run that only one side has been able to equal or better since.

2014: Wanderers make Australian football history

The Western Sydney Wanderers did the unthinkable six years later.

The Wanderers became the first team in Australian football history to win the Asian Champions League in November 2014, when they defeated Al Hilal in an enthralling two-legged affair.

But their journey to the final was almost just as incredible as winning the final alone, having overcome the odds time and time again to do what no Aussie side had achieved before – on not only the first time of asking but two years after the club’s first-ever game.

Western Sydney’s campaign began in February 2014 in Group H, where they secured their place in the knockout stages and also top spot in the group in matchday six with a 5-0 victory over Guizhou Renhe.

Unlike Adelaide’s run in 2008, the Wanderers’ campaign was intertwined with league duties, meaning they had to balance their run to the Isuzu UTE A-League finals with Champions League fixtures.

After progressing, Western Sydney fielded almost a brand new team, as the break between group and knockout stage stretched into the A-Leagues off-season, meaning the likes of Aaron Mooy, Shinji Ono, Jerome Polenz, Adam D’Apuzzo and Youssouf Hersi all departed.

The Wanderers were drawn against Sanfrecee Hiroshima in the Round of 16, where they lost the away tie 3-1 on the road and faced an enormous hill to climb in order to secure a quarter-final birth.

Tony Popovic’s side, however, turned the tide in the second-leg at home as goals from Shannon Cole and Brenton Santalab saw them progress on away goals.

The Wanderers next faced Chinese giants Guangzhou Evengrande, who at the time boasted the likes of Alessandro Diamanti, Alberto Gilardino and 2006 FIFA World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi.

Western Sydney secured the advantage in the tie, after winning a fiery first-leg 1-0 at home, with Anthony Golec scoring the winner. Guangzhou ended the game with nine-men after Zeng Linpeng and Gao Lin were sent off.

The latter’s challenge on Wanderers debutant Vitor Saba left coach Lippi, who rushed onto the field to confront the referee, incensed. Later in the night, the legendary coach stormed out of his post-game press conference after some strong words.

“I’m not upset about the match that we lost,” he said through an interpreter.

“I know I wasn’t supposed to go on the field but you also watched the match and the two red cards. The first one I didn’t see very clearly but the second one was very close to me so I saw that it was not on purpose.

“I’ve been to all the biggest competitions like World Cups, Champions League and I know it was wrong to go in the field. But I just wanted to ask why he gave the second red card.

“After the match I went to see the referee to apologise and to ask more information about the decision but they didn’t let me speak to him.”

It set the scene for a huge second-leg in China, where Western Sydney were met by a far from hospitable reception.

Wanderers players and officials had to put up with people knocking on their doors and ringing their hotel room phones between 3am and 5am as they tried to sleep on the eve of the contest.

They were then involved in two traffic accidents on the way to the ground, when a car trying to slow them down scraped the side of their bus, forcing them to brake hard and a bus containing 20 tourists travelling behind rammed into them.

Players and officials had to get into a support bus, but two minutes later, two cars smashed into each other and caused further delay.

During the match, the Wanderers players had laser beams shot in their eyes and bottles thrown at them from the crowd, but Western Sydney overcame the odds to reach the final four on away goals – thanks to a Juric penalty either side of goals from Diamanti and Elkeson.

“For everything we’ve been through today, all the obstacles we’ve been through, to get to the semi-finals is a massive achievement,” Juric said.

Next up was Korean giants FC Seoul. The Wanderers were held to a 0-0 draw in the first-leg in the South Korean capital, but responded in a big way at home as Mateo Poljak and Cole fired the Wanderers booked their place in the final, in a stirring 2-0 win at Pirtek Stadium.

Their date with destiny was against Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal, who came into the contest as overwhelming favourites and with a bucketload more experience in the Champions League.

A raucous crowd at Paramatta welcomed the two sides for the first-leg, which the Wanderers won in stunning fashion as Juric was the hero once more, scoring the decisive goal to give them the advantage heading into the second-leg at the King Fahd Stadium.

In the second leg, Western Sydney hung on for dear life against a barrage of Al Hilal chances, but the home side quite simply couldn’t beat an inspired Ante Covic.

The Aussie keeper made a host of huge saves to preserve their one-goal advantage as the Wanderers hung on to cause one of the greatest upsets in Asian club football history.

“We were called a small club yesterday. Today we are the biggest in Asia,” Popovic said post-game.

“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.”

2016: Victory farewell a legend

Melbourne Victory fans said goodbye to legendary striker Archie Thompson in the 2016 Asian Champions League.

Thompson played his home game in Victory colours during the first leg of their Round of 16 tie against Korean side Jeonbuk Motors. The legend played the opening 67 minutes before being subbed off to a raucous ovation from the Victory faithful, as they went on to draw 1-1.

He was seen on camera shedding tears as the Victory fans chanted his name for five minutes.

“I was pretty emotional,” Thompson said post-game.

“It’s been a long two or three weeks and I tell you what the tear ducts are just about empty.

“But I tell you what, that chant the supporters gave me was something that will live with me for the rest of my life.

“It’s been a pleasure. I’ll always bleed blue. I love this club.”

Victory fans also farewelled Mathieu Delpierre and Kosta Barbarouses that evening, but the latter eventually returned to the club for a second stint the following year.

2017: The ‘darkest day’ in Australian club football

Unfortunately, things never really kicked on for Australian teams in Asia after the Wanderers’ success.

Three years later, the Wanderers and Brisbane Roar were on the end of 6-0 and 5-1 defeats respectively to Ulsan Hyundai and Shanghai SIPG, which now Western Sydney coach Marko Rudan labelled as the “darkest day in Australian football”.

“We have got so many issues that need to be addressed, that need to be spoken about, that need to be fixed. We want our game to flourish,” Rudan said in punditry duties on Fox Sports.

“We want to be not just the best in Asia, as Ange (Postecoglou) says, we want to be the best in the world one day.

“Right now, this is probably the darkest day in Australian club football.”

Mark Bosnich added: “When this goes around the world they’re going to go, ‘What’s going on with the A-League?’

“A lot of them did not look like they wanted to be out there.

“This is the end result of everything we’ve been talking over the last three years.

“This is Australian football’s brand … We’re going backwards.”

Incredibly, an Australian team has only progressed beyond the group stages of the tournament three times since the Wanderers’ success in 2014.

Melbourne Victory did it twice in 2016 and 2020, while Sydney FC also progressed to the knockout stages in 2016, but neither side made it past the Round of 16.

2017: Lobstergate

Lobster for $13,400?

That’s what Brisbane Roar were reportedly fined by the Asian Football Confederation for not providing “international buffet style” meals for a group of travelling match officials for their Champions League matches, which the club appealed at the time.

Former Roar managing director Mark Kingsman claimed the club were sanctioned because the six-man delegation was unable to eat lobster twice a day, where they were accused of a lack of respect for competition regulations.

It was Brisbane’s fifth such indiscretion in 2017 alone, with the club having to fork out $77,679 in total to the AFC, which included a $33,500 for not covering naming rights signage outside Suncorp Stadium at the AFC’s request.

Then Roar coach John Aloisi’s failure to attend an interview after a match cost the club and him $13,400 each.

Incredibly, they were fined the same amount of money Thai side Muangthong United were hit with for a goalpost that then Roar goalkeeper Jamie Young cut his arm open on a month earlier.

“They had lobster at night, they just didn’t have it at lunch time,” Kingsman said.

“The disappointing thing is the fact they could only have lobster once a day, they consider that as serious as Jamie Young coming away with 26 stitches.

“That’s a big concern. Where are their priorities?”

However, the AFC refuted Kinsgman’s claims.

“The club has regularly breached the AFC competition regulations despite attending the annual AFC club competitions workshop where the regulations are presented in detail,” an AFC spokesperson said at the time.

“The AFC has not had to issue a fine for not providing appropriate meals to the match officials before.”

2018: Roar’s numbers fall off

Brisbane Roar’s one and only game in their 2018 Asian Champions League campaign is remembered for all the wrong reasons.

The Roar fell to a humiliating 3-2 loss in qualifying to Filipino side Ceres-Negros at home, where the match is unfortunately remembered more for the sight of Ivan Franjic, Eric Bautheac and Jamie Young’s numbers peeling off the back of their jerseys.

Bautheac had to step off the pitch for several minutes due to the state of the jersey, and with the club seemingly lacking a second set of kits, he wasn’t permitted to take the field in a replacement No. 30 jersey – instead he was required to wear his original No. 22.

The numbers in the end had to be taped on for him to continue, as Roar fell to a disappointing defeat.

“First and foremost we have to say congratulations to Ceres-Negros, I thought they deserved their win,” Bosnich said on Fox Sports.

“They played really good football and you saw just how much it meant to them right at the end and we have to say congratulations to them.

“As for Brisbane Roar and what went on tonight, the only thing I can say is to anyone that was watching this is to say on behalf of Australian football I’d like to apologise because that was truly embarrassing.

“I just said then, congratulations to Ceres-Negros, we saw how much it meant to them to win this game. Well we saw how much that meant to Brisbane with that farcical episode about the jerseys.

“If you don’t want to be in the competition for whatever reason, just pull out of the competition rather than have to put us through that – that was just absolutely embarrassing.”

2023: A-Leagues clubs debut in the AFC Cup

This season, for the first time ever, Australian clubs will feature in the AFC Cup.

Central Coast Mariners and Macarthur FC will fly the flag for the A-Leagues as they plot domination in Asia.

For the Mariners, it marks a first Asian campaign since 2014, while Mile Sterjovski’s Bulls will play in continental competition for the first time in their short history.

“After 10 years of not playing in Asia, we are really proud to be in the AFC Cup this season,” Mariners interim boss Abbas Saad said ahead of an opening group stage clash against Malaysian outfit Terengganu FC.

“We are all guns blazing, ready to have a big game tomorrow night and we are looking forward to the challenge of facing Terengganu.

“We are not in this competition to make up the numbers, we are going into the AFC Cup with the full intention of winning it.

“We will not be happy just being a part of the competition, we want to finish on top in the group stage, progress through each of the finals and hopefully win it all. That is what we have in mind as our goal for this tournament, and I am sure that Terengganu do as well.

“We are here to fight; we are here to play and we are here to win. We will respect Terengganu as we do with every team, but we are certainly not scared, and we head into the match looking for three points.”


Melbourne City v Ventforet Kofu
Date: September 20, 2023
Kick-off: 8.00pm (AEST)
Venue: Melbourne Rectangular Stadium
Broadcast: Paramount+

Terengganu FC v Central Coast Mariners
Date: September 20, 2023
Kick-off: 10.00pm (AEST)
Venue: Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin Stadium, Terengganu
Broadcast: 10Play