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Mar 25, 2008

Aurelio's appetite for Asia

They sat side-by-side, watching silently as Australia trained at Munich's Allianz Arena ahead of their historic meeting with Brazil almost two years ago. As fate turned out, neither was given the chance to appear in a World Cup game but the Socceroos' long and sometimes torturous road will always be smeared by the brothers' blood, sweat and tears.

Between them, Aurelio and Tony Vidmar earned 129 international caps, played under seven different national coaches and took Australia to the brink of four World Cups. Both were special guests at Germany 2006: so close to a lifetime dream they could almost touch it.

After helping the Central Coast Mariners into February's A-League Grand Final 37-year-old Tony is now retired from all football. Aurelio, 41, is head coach of Adelaide United, who are in their second straight Asian campaign in the AFC Champions League.

Tony's heartache - literal and metaphorical - was well documented ahead of the World Cup when he had to pull out of Guus Hiddink's squad after being diagnosed with an irregular heart rhythm in a routine FIFA test.

Three and a half years older than Tony, Aurelio exited international football in 2001. But his near misses before football's biggest stage were no less painful as the Socceroos repeatedly fell at the last hurdle.

In October 1993 in a World Cup playoff with Argentina, he exchanged goals with Diego Maradona in a 1-1 draw in Sydney, only for Australia to lose 2-1 on aggregate following the second-leg defeat in Buenos Aires.

Four years later in a tiebreaker with Iran for the 1998 World Cup, Aurelio, wearing the number-10 shirt, missed a couple of chances before scoring the second goal to give Australia a 2-0 lead in Melbourne before half-time. 'Australia are on their way to France!' the TV commentator declared as the camera cutaway to a smiling Terry Venables, the manager nodding his head on the Socceroos' bench.

History will remember how the Iranians scored twice in the last 20 minutes to advance on away goals and keep Venables, the Vidmars and the Socceroos far away from French soil.

Both Aurelio and Tony played in the 2002 World Cup campaign as Australia racked up cricket scores against the Oceania minnows - including the world record 31-0 extermination of American Samoa in which Aurelio picked up a brace - only to lose to Uruguay over two-legs with a place at Korea and Japan on the line. A famous photo of Tony sobbing uncontrollably as he's helped off the pitch in Montevideo still haunts Socceroo fans.

Lesser known is how Aurelio Vidmar grabbed two goals in the opening 11 minutes as Australia took a shock 2-0 lead over Spain in their final group game at the 1996 Olympic Games. Again, it all ended in aching disappointment when Real Madrid's Raul scored in injury-time for a 3-2 victory that saw the Spaniards advance to the quarter-finals at the Aussies' expense.

Aurelio's international travails - and a productive club career in Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland - have undoubtedly helped toughen him up for the pressures of coaching.

After working as an assistant for two seasons, he took over the top job at Adelaide United last year after John Kosmina resigned in the wake of the Reds' turbulent 6-0 defeat to Melbourne Victory in the 2007 Grand Final. He served in a caretaker capacity in Adelaide's 2007 AFC Champions League campaign before being officially appointed last May even though reports suggested that he wasn't the club's first choice.

Almost a year on, Vidmar is gauging how far he and the club have come as the Reds aim for a quarter-final spot in the 2008 AFC Champions League. And Adelaide have made a good start to lead Group E after two matches: following up an excellent 2-0 victory in the Korean Republic against the Pohang Steelers with a 0-0 home draw against Chinese champions Changchun Yatai.

Vidmar said: 'Australian football is gradually improving. These results can give Australian football momentum and help it find authority in Asia in the future.'

The 2007-2008 A-League campaign under Vidmar also started brightly with the Reds topping the table after 10 rounds and playing enterprising football with exciting attacking players like Nathan Burns, Travis Dodd and Bruce Djite.

But, struck down by a brutal injury toll, the Reds ran out of puff like a stationary sailboat stuck in a pocket of dead air as the likes of Newcastle United and Sydney FC cruised home on speedy spinnaker runs. Adelaide finished sixth, five points out of the top four.

During his early playing days, Vidmar had a pop-star like image with his long, flowing locks and trendy wardrobe. Today, his hair is cut short and he wears a sensible suit and tie to look more like a sober businessman on the sidelines at Hindmarsh Stadium.

There's no doubt that Vidmar is taking his coaching career very seriously and, along with fellow Aussie-born coaches like Gary van Egmond, may share ambitions to work overseas. Certainly, being part of the Socceroo set-up is one of his long-term goals.

The highlight of Vidmar's career as a player were his four years with three clubs in Belgium during the early to mid 1990's. Following in the footsteps of Eddie Krncevic and Frank Farina, he was the Belgian league's top scorer in the 1994-1995 season, producing a remarkable 22 goals in 32 games for Standard Liege.

Spending that warm, summer afternoon two years ago with his brother in the stands of Munich's Allianz arena as Australia rubbed shoulders with Ronaldinho, Kaka and Brazil would have certainly whetted Vidmar's appetite for the bigger stage.

And if he can coach the Reds into the knockout phase of the AFC Champions League against better resourced clubs not shackled by the A-League's strict salary cap, the elder Vidmar may well catch the attention of Adelaide's cashed-up Asian rivals.

Q: Aurelio, congratulations on starting off the AFC Champions League campaign so well. How important were those three points away from home in Korea, playing with just 10 men for much of the game?

A: Extremely important because what we found last year was if that if you start slowly, it's very hard to catch up.

Q: You were acting manager when the Reds were knocked out in the first round of the AFC Champions League last season. What have you learnt from last year and what should be Adelaide's goal this time?

A: Last year we learnt that there's not much between us and the best Asian teams. We missed out by few points. Two of our defeats we lost 1-0. We also had two draws and in both games we were in winning positions.

This year, we hope to get to the next round and we now know the standard we have to reach in this competition to top the group.

Q: Your brother Tony said recently that you just have to take one look at your face and you can see the pressures and stresses of being a manager. How have you enjoyed the job so far and how do you rate your performance to date?

A: I love my job, love going out to training. I am young but learning as I go. Couldn't think of a better job to have, it is a real challenge for me which I relish.

Q: Being Adelaide-born and bred, have you been surprised by the way the A-League has taken off and the size of the crowds around the country? Is the Adelaide market growing as it might?

A: No, not surprised at all. I always knew that if they could get it right at the top then it would all fall into place. The market is growing all the time and the state of South Australia is now getting behind the team. We now get recognised wherever we go, which would never happen before.

Q: As a Socceroo, two of your most memorable matches came in dramatic draws in World Cup qualifiers. What do you remember now about scoring against Diego Maradona's Argentina in 1993 and the night Iran came back to win on away goals in 1997?

A. It was a memorable night back in 1993. At that stage, it wasn't every year that you'd face Argentina. To play against some of the best players in the world was brilliant. And scoring the goal was great, with my brother setting it up, was a dream for us on such a big stage.

Iran was the flipside in 1997. We were in a great position to win the game but it went pear-shaped. It was heartbreaking.

Q: Do you regret, like younger brother Tony, that you got so close to playing in a World Cup but missed out?

A. It was disappointing not to represent your country on the big stage but that's how it panned out. It wasn't meant to be. The same with Tony with his heart problems. You've just got to roll with the punches. Who knows? One day, we may be there as coaches.

Sydney-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is a host for Soccernet SportsCenter and SportsCenter. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.


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