How to go to hell … and win

Ante Covic won the Asian Champions League final with Western Sydney Wanderers in 2014. He reflects on that moment in a column for the launch of KEEPUP.

You can watch Australian Alex Grant play in this year’s final, tonight, on 10play, from 3am AEDT, when Pohang Steelers take on Al Hilal.

It’s when you get close to the stadium that the noise hits you – and the insults, and the missiles, as the team bus inches through the traffic and through the fans.

An Asian Champions League final will always be special, but playing it in Riyadh is an experience that never leaves you. Seven years after I was part of the Western Sydney Wanderers team that won the ACL, getting a draw against Al Hilal in Saudi Arabia to win on aggregate, I am so pleased to see my old teammate Alex Grant heading there later this month with Pohang Steelers.

I saw how exhilarated Granty was at scoring the equaliser in the semifinal, but a very different experience awaits him in Saudi – a final in front of a ferociously passionate home crowd, with so much at stake.

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Ante Covic stands defiant in the 2014 Asian Champions League final

There’s so much money behind Al Hilal, and with that comes pressure and expectation. The fans, as well as the club owners, demand success – to be honest, I think they expected to just turn up and collect the trophy when we played the second leg in 2014, after we had won the first leg 1-0.

But we had already been through the most testing experience possible in the quarterfinal away to Guangzhou, with people banging on our hotel room doors and calling our rooms in the night, and then our team bus getting crashed into not once but twice on the way to the game. They were crazy times.

So the organisation and security for the final was superb by both our club and the AFC. As soon as we landed we were whisked away from any potential chaos and we simply stayed in the hotel. It was only as the bus drove to the stadium on game day that we saw and heard the hostility from Al Hilal’s fans.

Funnily enough, we got a vocal reception from supporters of Al Hilal’s bitter rivals, Al-Ittihad, too – vocal in their support of us, right through the game. But in the main it was a furnace literally and metaphorically – and that’s when you saw the leaders in our team stand up. It’s easy to melt in that high-octane kind of atmosphere, but the best players feed off it and get inspired. It was like the stadiums in Europe that declare “Welcome to hell”, but no one had stage fright that night, despite the intensity.

On a personal level, I felt at the absolute peak of my career. I knew that at my age I had to make the most of the opportunity, but there are occasions when your confidence is so absolute that you feel unbeatable. The team in front of me was so disciplined, and I was convinced that Al Hilal would never score past me.

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“As the game went on, the tackles got later and there were words exchanged.”

I think they started to fear that too as the game went on, and you could see their self-belief wilt. The tackles got later and there were plenty of words exchanged. In a situation like that, if you can demoralise the home team then the pressure starts to work against them. It spilled over into the after-match exchanges too; Matthew Spiranovic got spat at, and plenty more words were said.

Now, seven years later, Alex gets the chance to be part of the same spectacle. I had a year with him at Perth Glory and watched this kid come through with a first-class attitude, I’m so pleased for him to have reached this stage.

He’s what you’d call a traditional defender, his priority is the defending but he is reasonably comfortable with his feet. More important though is his absolute commitment and his temperament. He will be the sort of figure to stay calm in that environment, the sort of leader you need.

It’s great to see him on the cusp of winning the ACL, so few Australians can make that claim. He’s made a real success of himself in the K-League, such a tough competition to thrive in, and I would love to see him lift that trophy on November 23.