x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Ognenovski is caught up in a whirlwind

Few players have enjoyed a week like the one Sasa Ognenovski, the Australian defender, has, who will be part of the Seongnam squad at the Club World Cup.

Sasa Ognenovski has enjoyed a whirlwind week in which he scored to help Seongnam win the Asian Champions League and then received his first call-up to the Australia squad to face Egypt tonight.
Sasa Ognenovski has enjoyed a whirlwind week in which he scored to help Seongnam win the Asian Champions League and then received his first call-up to the Australia squad to face Egypt tonight.

Few players have enjoyed a week like the one Sasa Ognenovski, the Australian defender, just experienced.

It started with a first call by the Australian national team for an international friendly against Egypt in Cairo, whom they play tonight, and ended with the 31-year-old leading Seongnam of South Korea to a 3-1 victory over Zob Ahan of Iran in Tokyo in the final of the Asian Champions League. The win gave Seongnam a berth in the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi next month, where on December 11 they will face the winner of the Al Wahda-Hekari United match, three days before.

Against Zob Ahan, Ognenovski scored the opening goal, was man of the match and then, just before receiving the trophy from Mohammed bin Hammam, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president, he was also named player of the tournament, a rare accolade for a defender.

He is the first Australian to win the Asian Champions League and he has a chance of becoming the first from Down Under to pick up the AFC's Player of the Year prize.

The fact that he could be in K-League championship play-off action with Seongnam on the same night as the Kuala Lumpur ceremony could cost him that particular award.

But the Club World Cup, and a chance to play against Inter Milan, the champions of Europe, would be ample consolation for a man who a few months ago was devastated at being overlooked for Australia's World Cup squad.

After arriving in Korea at the start of 2009 from Adelaide United in the A-League, Ognenovski needed time to settle in against the speedier and more technical strikers in action in the K-League. Slowly, though, he started to become a key member of Korea's most successful club, the one with seven league championships.

Earlier this year, he was named captain, most unusual for an overseas player, especially one who does not speak Korean, but his leadership qualities have shone through.

Prior to the World Cup, the Australian media started to champion his cause, but then-coach Pim Verbeek was not interested. Ognenovski had to watch on television as Australia lost their opening game 4-0 at the hands of Germany before exiting at the group stage.

"I was utterly disappointed as I thought my form merited a chance," he said. "I think I could have helped at the World Cup, especially in the first game; they were pretty bad at the back line.

"And if you noticed, the boys that played regular football were the boys that performed the best at the World Cup with Australia. Before the World Cup they were harping on a bit about wanting to take players with experience. In Asia, I've experienced pretty much everything there is to experience and I think that last year I played more games than any Australian abroad."

He believes that playing in Korea should have helped his cause.

"A lot of Aussies I know move to eastern European countries to play but I don't think the football there is better than what it is in Korea, especially when you are playing for the top three or four teams here," he said. "I don't think it is anywhere near what is played in Japan or Korea. This is a tough league for anybody to play in. A lot of foreigners come here and a lot of them don't stay. They get here quickly and leave quickly."

He also believes that the game on the eastern edge of the continent is more rigorous than it is in western Asia. The Asian Champions League has been won by teams from Korea and Japan for the past five years and those two nations reached the last 16 of the World Cup.

Meanwhile, not a single nation from the west of the continent qualified for the 2010 World Cup.

"I think the players on this side of Asia are a lot more technical than those on the other side of Asia," Ognenovski said. "Not all the leagues are professional in west Asia and until that happens I don't think they'll compete with this side for a while."

He may get a chance to test that theory on the pitch once again before the end of the year. But at the moment, you would not choose against Ognenovski in anything.

 

sports@thenational.ae