It’s taken Ante Covic 20 years to go from Hurstville Zagreb to the cauldron of Riyadh and an AFC Asian Champions League final. In between times, he’s toiled largely in the shadows of bigger names in the Aussie keeper’s union. But now, you sense the Wanderers keeper has finally got the respect and credit he richly deserves.
After a colossal display against a rampant Al-Hilal on Saturday night, the 39-year-old helped put Western Sydney Wanderers FC within touching distance of Asia’s Holy Grail, an ACL crown.
Tomi Juric may’ve stolen the headlines by sliding home the only goal at 'Wanderland' in the first leg of the final, but the vital away goal never materialised for the Saudis, despite a desperate late charge.
Standing in their way was Covic. In the big games the big players stand up and that's exactly what he did. It was Schwarzer-esque.
Covic was immense. Imperious. Impenetrable.
For someone who’s been in the background for most of his career, the timing’s just right for Covic to take centre stage and help the boys from western Sydney steal the headlines and win a Continental crown in Riyadh this Sunday morning (AEDT).
It’s taken some time but Covic finally has the accolades he deserves. And not just on Saturday.
His penalty save away to Guangzhou in the ACL quarter-finals was equally important on the journey to Riyadh. In fact over the last two seasons he has arguably been one of the best keepers in the Hyundai A-League.
Not only Wanderers, but Melbourne Victory fans will tell you how good Covic is. He was one of the few shining lights in the disastrous Durakovic then Magilton era at Victory in 2011/12, winning player of the year before the club, surprisingly, let him go.
Tony Popovic subsequently snapped him up for the red and black in 2012; one of his best signings.
Likewise Jets fans, who won a Championship with Covic as the last line of defence, remember him fondly from their 2008 triumph where they conceded just 21 times in the regular season – the equal best defence in that year’s Hyundai A-League.
And he’s still a favourite in the Swedish Allsvenskan where he made almost 200 appearances for Hammarby and Elfsborg over the last decade.
But for timing and the cycle of keeper talent, he could’ve already played at three World Cups and become a household name in Australia.
Covic’s career arc mirrored that of Schwarzer’s – Covic played second fiddle in the national team from 2005 as he quietly went about his business in the largely unknown Swedish league in-between stints back in the Hyundai A-League.
Just two caps for his nation - the last in 2008 - does not reflect the quality of the man, it merely reflects the depth Farina, Hiddink and Verbeek had at their disposal.
If Covic was 10 years younger, he may’ve played in Brazil this year.
Sadly for him, after Schwarzer’s international retirement a year ago, the Socceroo renewal process resulted in talented next-gen keepers Mat Ryan and Mitch Langerak becoming first choice.
Footballers will tell you, timing’s everything.
After a World Cup as a squaddie in 2006, there wouldn’t be another chance on the biggest stage in 2010 with Adam Federici and Eugene Galekovic getting their chance behind Schwarzer.
By 2014, Covic was out of the picture as the new-look Socceroos ventured forward after Ange Postecoglou took over in late 2013.
After debuting for Hurstville Zagreb in the mid-90s, Covic made it to the NSL where he learnt his trade at Marconi Stallions.
It was the launching pad for his overseas adventure in Croatia, Greece then Sweden before three separate stints back home.
He’s still going strong and in clearly in the prime of his career. Now Covic is on the cusp of making history with his Wanderers.
You sense the big man will play a big role in this final when Wanderers walk into the lion’s den of the King Fahd.
Luckily for the red and black, they have the best keeper in the ACL 2014. And you sense Al-Hilal know that, too.