Beckham, Viduka & an underrated Aussie career fuelling Macarthur’s AFC Cup tilt

Daniel Penha is back in the Isuzu UTE A-League

Mile Sterjovski learnt from facing some of Europe’s finest, and wants Macarthur to benefit from AFC clashes.

Mile Sterjovski understands why these games are different, and why they can be transformational for a player.

The crowds can be different, the opposition players and their football, the pitches, the refereeing – elite matches against top teams from across your continent are a unique challenge for the Isuzu UTE A-League teams.

As a player, Sterjovski thrived on the drama and intensity of the Champions League and Europa League in Europe – now he wants his players to go on an AFC Cup journey, and make a statement about this season.

Sterjovski’s manner is so understated that the calibre of his European career is sometimes overlooked; it included trips with Lille and FC Basel to places like Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund, Red Star Belgrade and plenty more.

Those games pushed him hard, made him – in his own estimation – a more rounded player. Now Macarthur host Dynamic Herb Cebu FC a fortnight after navigating a potentially unnerving trip to Myanmar, under heavy security, and returning with a 3-0 win over Shan United to open their AFC Cup campaign.

All of those experiences benefit players and coaches, Sterjovski says, recalling vividly his very first Champions League game for Lille away to Manchester United, some 14 months after moving from Parramatta Power in the NSL.

“You’re talking about my team, the one that I supported as a kid,” Sterjovski says of Sir Alex Ferguson’s United side which 18 months earlier had won the Champions League.

“Literally I was watching matches (on TV) a year or two before I went over (to Europe), looking at players like (David) Beckham and (Ryan) Giggs and (Paul) Scholes and all these guys.

“Then fast forward to a year or two later, I’m in a tunnel about to walk out in a Champions League match at Old Trafford. So that was pretty surreal.

Sterjovski takes on Mikael Silvestre, Wes Brown and Roy Keane of Manchester United in 2001.

“You get nervous lining up in the tunnel, but as soon as the whistle goes, you just forget about it. You just play well, that’s how I was.

“Beckham scored a last-minute winner in the game – we performed really well in the game until he got the winner there and then in the return leg, we had a 1-1 draw and probably had a few chances where we could have won the game.

“I think at the time you don’t realise how big these occasions are until you sit and reflect on your career.

“Learning something new and experiencing something new is going to benefit any player and coach for that matter, you know, coming up against different teams of different styles or playing overseas in, in difficult conditions.

“It’s always beneficial, coming up against these kind of things. We can do all the analysis, all the preparation, but until you experience it, that’s the only time you’re really going to learn from it.”

It still pains Sterjovski slightly to recall how close he came to European silverware with FC Basel in 2006, a UEFA Cup run that reached the quarterfinals and a two-legged tie with Middlesbrough – including his national teammates Mark Schwarzer and Mark Viduka.

“I was very fortunate to be a part of some big games in the Champions League and the UEFA Cup,” he says. “I remember playing in the quarterfinal against Middlesbrough when we thought we were going through to the semis.

“We had a good game at home where we won (2-0) and then we were a goal up in the second leg. But then Viduka absolutely tore us to shreds, he was on fire that night and in the end they went through (4-3 on aggregate). Again, though, such a great experience to be involved in such a big match like that.

Sterjovski battles with Mark Viduka of Middlesbrough in a UEFA Cup Quarter-Final in 2006.

“Those games in the Champions League and the Europa League are up there with the World Cup with the support, the crowd, the vibe.

“Players want to be part of something special, and for us it’s as one of the first Australian teams to be part of the AFC Cup. We want to try and create history for our club.

“The timing of when the cup has started has been good, it’s been a long preseason so to have some meaningful games before the A-League starts, I think it’s beneficial.

“There’s competition for places, which is great. Players want to be part of it so the standards in training have lifted because of that.”