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Apr 20

Western Sydney Wanderers’ Tony Popovic favourite to win Asian coach of the year

Fresh from guiding Western Sydney Wanderers to glory in the Asian Champions League, Tony Popovic may be about to cap the most dramatic rise by a coach in Australian sport should he be named as the Asian Football Confederation’s coach of the year.
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The Wanderers are also a chance to claim a unique double – goalkeeper Ante Covic’s extraordinary tournament has catapulted the 39-year old into contention for the Asian player of the year award.

Popovic is the raging hot favourite to take out the title, which will be announced at a special edition of the AFC Awards night in Manila, the original home of Asian football’s governing body, on November 30, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the confederation’s commencement.

If he takes out the gong, he will become the first Australian football coach to be honoured with an international award of this magnitude.

South Korean and Japanese coaches have dominated the award since it was first handed out in 1994. Overall, the Koreans have produced six winners, two more than Japan. Globally known victors include Philippe Troussier (who coached Japan in 2000) and then-South Korean boss Guus Hiddink for his deeds with the South Korean national team in 2002.

However, winning the Asian Champions League is hardly a magic ticket to claiming the award. Last year, Guangzhou Evergrande’s World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi was overlooked in favour of FC Seoul boss Choi Yong-Soo.

Ulsan Hyundai coach Kim Ho-Gon claimed the top prize in the previous year as his team emerged victors, but one must go back to 2008 to find a similar instance, when Gamba Osaka boss Akira Nishino took the honours. Before then, most awards were given out on the strength of national rather than club-based performances.

However, with Asian teams flopping at the World Cup, with none (including Australia) managing to make it out of the group stages, the winner appears more likely to come from one of the clubs.

The governing body is also keen to reinforce the value of the Champions League, and may look favourably upon the fairytale run of the Wanderers as reason enough to give Popovic the nod. In becoming champions, they had to see off the reigning victors of Japan (Sanfrecce Hiroshima) and China (Guangzhou Evergrande), and the 2012 Korean champions (FC Seoul) just to make the final against Saudi Arabian giants and two-time Asian champions Al-Hilal.

Al-Hilal boss Laurențiu Reghecampf might have seen his side dominate the Wanderers both home and away in the continental decider but the failure to come away with the trophy, and the fact that he joined the side only in late May, are likely to count against him.

If Popovic is to be usurped, however, it may well be by Norio Sasaki, who could become the award’s first two-time winner for his exploits with Japan’s women’s national team.

Sasaki was named Asian coach of the year in 2011 for taking Japan to the World Cup title and backed it up this year by leading Nadeshiko Japan to glory in the Asian Cup in May, where they went through the tournament unbeaten before defeating Australia 1-0 in the final.

The bolter for the trophy would be Spaniard Felix Sanchez, coach of Qatar’s all-conquering under-20 side – a generation being prepared for when Qatar hosts the World Cup in 2022 – who shocked the region by winning the AFC under-19 championships in Myanmar.

Covic may well a longer shot than Popovic to walk away with silverware, but the veteran goalkeeper’s incredible displays are likely to earn him a recall for the Socceroos’ tilt at January’s Asian Cup.

Covic still only has two international caps to his name, largely due to the presence of Mark Schwarzer in the past two decades.

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