Cruel irony of sliding doors moment that spoiled Wanderers recruit’s $4m EPL chance

'I can score a lot of goals in this league'- Marcus Antonsson

Western Sydney Wanderers striker Marcus Antonsson speaks to aleagues.com.au about his storied career in Europe and the pedigree he brings to Marko Rudan’s forward line this season.

Marcus Antonsson can still remember the noise above all. The cacophony of one of Europe’s most intense atmospheres, and the moment he brought that noise to a halt.

Western Sydney’s new striker has played on some prestigious stages, but none quite like the Tüpraş Stadyumu in Istanbul, where thousands of Besiktas supporters build an atmosphere so intense that opposition players have been known to ask for earplugs. 

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Former Chelsea star Timo Werner once asked to be substituted just minutes into a game there, literally left dizzy and unwell by the whistling of tens of thousands of Besiktas fans.

Some players, though, thrive on the physical buzz, especially when the stakes are at their highest. “One of my biggest, biggest moments as a footballer so far,” Antonsson recalls, staring into the middle distance with a smile.

The night Malmo travelled to Besiktas in the Europa League back in 2018, everything was on the line. The hosts were a point ahead of their Swedish rivals in the last game of the group stage; the winner of the game would qualify for the knockout stages, potentially in first place, with millions of euros at stake.

“It was like even starting in the warm up, there was such loud music from the speakers and when the game just was about to start, the fans had a song and it was so loud… you could actually feel how they were really behind the team,” Antonsson says.

“But our plan was also because the fans are like that – if they don’t do well, they can turn against their own team. So that was our plan really, to try to turn their fans against them.

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“We knew before that if we managed to do that, they would start to whistle and stuff and that’s exactly what happened and then we gained strength.”

For the first 50 minutes or so Malmo smothered the Besiktas attacks, and then launched one of their own. Meeting a forward pass in the centre circle, captain Markus Rosenberg hit a first time pass to send Antonsson clear. With his first touch he nudged the ball forward with his thigh; with his second, it was dispatched past former Liverpool goalkeeper Lorius Karius.

“This game was away from home and we needed to win – going out there with the fans they have and obviously playing against such a good players, we managed to do it really as a team, you know, and that I was the guy who scored the winner…. It was an unreal feeling afterwards for sure. Remember that for the rest of my life.

“It was about a good, good team who really did something together. I love that with football that if you’re going to be successful, you have to be a good group and you have to do it together.

“Then you can achieve great things. Even if you’re not the best team on paper, if you really could do it together, you can go a long way.”

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If that was the high point of Antonsson’s career, he’s just as quick to acknowledge the low points and the occasional missteps – though there weren’t many at first as he made a name in the lower reaches of Swedish football, to the degree that English side Leeds outlayed some $4m for him to lead their promotion push from the Championship to the Premier League. 

That was the plan, anyway, and he won Player of the Month at United in his first weeks at the club. Then a series of injuries, including broken ribs, sidelined him; in his absence, New Zealand striker Chris Wood, who played against the Socceroos on Wednesday morning, literally found the form of his life, scoring twice as many goals as he has in any other season.

“I felt like I was ahead of him before this injury, and then obviously, when I was out, he played and from that moment, he just smashed them in every game, I mean every game!” Antonsson says.

“So he was unbelievable at that time. But that’s something you have to handle that also, and don’t take it personal when you’re not playing because sometimes this can be because another guy is scoring.

“You also need a little bit of luck. The timing is crucial in football as well. To be honest, now I’m 32 years old and looking back, I think coming from a small club and going all the way to Leeds in one step is a big step because it’s so much difference.

“It’s a massive club, supporters from all over the world. That’s why I choose Leeds also, by the way, because I had a lot of options at the time in England, France and all over Europe.

“But I visited Leeds first. And then from that moment I just felt straight away that this is the club I want to be in. But looking back at it now, I wasn’t ready.

Antonsson celebrates scoring for Leeds United against Norwich City at Elland Road on October 25, 2016.

“I’ve learned through my career (since) to handle this because the career is always going up and going down, you know, and it’s about dealing with all this, a tough period and when life goes very, very well.”

Antonsson agreed to go on loan to Blackburn at the end of the season, having made just six starts; ironically, Wood then went on strike at Leeds to engineer a move to Newcastle. But Antonsson doesn’t regret the loan move, or the injury that killed hopes of a permanent move to Blackburn despite scoring regularly.

“If the injury didn’t happen, maybe I would have signed a two- or three-year deal with Blackburn, and then I wouldn’t have had the move to Malmo (in 2018). Then I never would have had a chance to do what I did in the Europa League and all this, (play in the) Round of 16 against Chelsea and score the winner against Besiktas.

Antonio Rudiger of Chelsea clears from Marcus Antonsson of Malmo during a Europa League game in 2019.

“The one career just takes different paths, like one door is closing and the next one is open. For almost all players, there’s always going to be a period when you have to take a step back and it’s not always easy to do because it’s also about your pride.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re better than going to this club, for example, like one division below or whatever. But if you don’t play games and if you get stuck where you are, nobody will see it from the bench.”

From the Wanderers’ perspective, the interesting thing is the similarities Antonsson can see between his new club and the success he enjoyed at Malmo.

“We had a really good group, similar to what I feel that we have here, and we did some really good things,” he said.

“Here we have a new team, a lot of new players. I feel that everything is very professional in this club as well.

“The way we train, the way we handle the games, even the friendlies we had, we try to really get the intensity up, to get the fitness, and that’s how we want to play really with high intensity.

“It feels really good because I believe in that type of type of football also and I think everybody does here, so just get some more time to, to work on that and hopefully we’ll have a really, really good season.

“There is a feeling about the whole project that western Sydney Wanderers this year really wants to achieve things, to win, to go for it.

“That drives me as well to really be part of a successful team, to make a difference.”

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