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 By Jason Dasey

Brendon Santalab says S.League spell was bridge to AFC CL success

Brendon Santalab was a member of the Western Sydney Wanderers side that conquered Asia two years ago and remains a match-winner off the bench in the A-League after successful stints in Europe and China. And, the striker credits much of his success to a formative, six-month spell in Singapore more than a decade ago.

Santalab, who has scored late goals as a super sub on six occasions this season for the top-of-the table Wanderers, was a little-known import to the S.League in 2003.

As a raw 20-year-old with bleached blonde hair, he was recruited mid-season by Geylang United. Riding a bicycle given to him by a fan to training and stopping to eat roti prata telur (flatbread with fried egg) along the way, he quickly became a cult figure as he scored 23 goals in just 22 games.

"Being my first time playing abroad, living alone and having to become an adult and take responsibility still helps me to this day," the now 33-year-old Santalab told ESPN FC.

Sydney United's Brendon Santalab in 2003
In 2003, Santalab played for both Sydney United in his native Australia and Geylang United in Singapore.

"A Geylang fan gave me the bike when I arrived so instantly I felt connected with the fans because they made me feel like I was home. I lived in Changi Village, would eat local food and then do my groceries, riding with my shopping bags hanging off my handle bars."

The compact and speedy Santalab would form a big man, little man partnership upfront with veteran Aleksandar Duric as Geylang finished second in the league and made the Singapore Cup final. Bosnian-born Duric played in Australia's National Soccer League in the 1990's before becoming a Singapore citizen, earning 53 caps and playing until the age of 44 before retiring at the end of 2014.

"Nobody could get the ball off Aleks, his height and strength were his advantage so I would just work around him with my pace," he said. "I've often thought of the days I trained and played with Aleks and how his power physically and mentally inspired me."

The following year, Santalab headed to Belgium, playing for three seasons with Pro League clubs K.V. Oostende and Sint-Truiden. But a career-defining period was in the Chinese Super League (CSL), scoring 33 goals in 75 games for Chengdu Blades and Chongqing Lifan between 2009-13.

That exposure helped Santalab become an integral member of the Western Sydney side who defied expectations, under coach Tony Popovic, to defeat the likes of Guangzhou Evergrande and Sanfrecce Hiroshima on the way to winning the 2014 AFC Champions League (ACL) by beating Al Hilal in the two-legged final.

In 2014, Santalab helped Western Sydney become the first Australian club to win the AFC Champions League.

"My experience in Singapore helped me while entering into the unknown elsewhere in Asia. Playing in China gave me confidence that we could defeat the Chinese teams because I knew our fitness would overpower them," he said.

"Lifting the trophy was the greatest feeling of all. It was a brave, courageous effort by every player in the squad, the coaching staff and the club as a whole."

Western Sydney aren't in the ACL this year after their ninth place finish in the 2015 A-League, but are on track to return to the regional competition next season.

While Santalab was a regular starter during the Wanderers' all-conquering ACL campaign, he's come off the bench in 14 of his 15 A-League matches this season, with some crucial goals. His audacious 85th minute volley, stretching out his right leg to connect with Mark Bridge's chip, gave Western Sydney a 2-1 victory over Perth Glory last Saturday.

WSW midfielder Brendon Santalab
Brendon Santalab has developed a knack of scoring crucial goals for 2014 Asian champions Western Sydney.

Last month, he was rewarded with a new, two-year contract that will take him close to his 36th birthday, thanks to his uncanny knack of getting into dangerous areas and scoring late goals.

"This season, my role off the bench is working. It may be different next year but for now I'm very happy playing a role that is fitting for the team," he said.

"The way Tony Popovic manages me, along with the rest of the squad, is something that has helped with both the team's and my individual success."

Like ex-Crystal Palace and Australia defender Popovic, Santalab has a Croatian background. Both of his parents are immigrants and he grew up in Wollongong, just south of Sydney. The Croatian connection runs deep in Australian football, with the likes of Mark Viduka, Josip Skoko and Jason Culina all prominent ex-Socceroos. Culina's father, Branko, coached Santalab at both Sydney United and Sydney FC.

Western Sydney Wanderers midfielder Brendon Santalab
Santalab, who signed a two-year contract extension last month, remains a crowd favourite at Pirtek Stadium.

With the likes of Viduka, Josh Kennedy and Scott McDonald ahead of him in the pecking order, Santalab never really came close to Socceroos' selection. His path to success has been an unorthodox one, hampered in recent seasons by two serious shoulder injuries.

He also endured a miserable spell on-loan in Hungary with Újpest FC where he sat on the sidelines for six months without playing a single game, and was also frozen out, at times, in Belgium.

"Injuries, limited game time and adapting to life in Europe was very difficult and something young players need to think carefully about," he said. "If you're not physically and mentally prepared, it can be destructive to your development as a player and person.

"But it's been an incredible journey, one I dreamed of when I was a kid, and the time in Singapore really helped. Adapting to a different way of life, with an open mind was a real eye opener but it taught me to accept other people's ways and their beliefs."

Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. An ex-World Cup & EPL host with Astro, he has also been a CNN and BBC broadcaster. @JasonDasey


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