He’s a Melbourne Victory legend. Two-time Championship winner and team of the decade inductee at the Big V. A one-club A-League player, Rodrigo Vargas bleeds blue.
At 36 Vargas looks fitter than ever. The defender still plays, these days in the Victorian PS4 NPL, while keeping up with his young family.
The former Socceroo is also doing good work in the community with The Big Issue magazine and is regularly invited by Victory to attend functions and community events.
But on Sunday, he’ll be at AAMI hoping and praying Victory make home ground advantage count in the biggest game of the season.
We caught up with Vargas him for a coffee in South Yarra to quiz him on some of the pressing questions ahead of Sunday’s Championship decider between his Big V and their rivals from the Harbour City, the Sky Blues.
Grand final week, what was it like for you and what advice would you give the players?
I recall my finals in 2009 and 2007. My second final I recall vividly. I’d just met my now-wife and I was catching up with her for lunch. I was on such an adrenaline rush all week. My wife said to me, ‘you’re just buzzing, on a high’. I was so eager. And I remember getting to the Etihad changing rooms on grand final day two and half hours before kick off feeling I’d already played my game. I had to calm myself down. You can waste a lot of nervous energy. Try keeping that for the game. A lot of players play their final before they get on the park.
AAMI Park: much has been made of the venue. Do Victory have less of an advantage playing here? Is it a bonus for Sydney FC?
The one thing that’s so special about AAMI is the crowd will be right on top of the players. Having experienced it as a player, 25,000 at AAMI are the equivalent of 50,000 at Etihad. At Etihad you lose some of the noise, but at AAMI it will be felt by the players, it’ll lift them. The noise level at AAMI is way higher than Etihad. And it’s Victory’s home ground – they’re there Monday to Friday, it’s their change rooms, it’s familiar. They’ll love that feeling. I always felt at Etihad the change-rooms were massive because they were built for AFL, and it just didn’t quite feel home.
Where are Victory strongest?
Depth. A lot of people talk about their attack. A lot of clubs go to 13 or 14 [players]. Victory’s depth means they go right down to 16 players who can push for starting XI spots. Also, Victory are at their best when they counter. With the pace they have, one-on-ones and getting in behind. I’ve seen countless goals where they attack down a wing; a cross in to the 18-yard box and it’s a tap in. It’s not rocket science. It’s transitioning with speed.
Can you pinpoint weaker areas in Victory’s game?
[Pauses] Mmmm…. I wouldn’t say it’s a weakness but Arnie will be looking at getting in behind them. And maybe exploit the lack of experience there [the right and left sides of defence]. If I was Arnie it’d be one part of Victory I’d be looking at purely based on experience on finals football, though I’m confident the Victory full backs will do well.
Overall how do you best play Victory?
Well, you don’t want to sit back and absorb. You can’t hold out for 90 minutes against them.
Sydney FC, where are they strongest?
Their attacking three or four are similar to Victory. I guess Victory’s attacking trio are similar types of players while Sydney are a little more diverse with someone like Janko who can hold the ball up or allow Sydney to use an aerial game. Arnie can change his attacking trio and go long and have Janko hold it up if need be. And to have Smeltz on the bench is equivalent to having Archie Thompson on your bench; the two greatest A-League goal-scorers.
Arnie v Musky: how much will experience in the dugout tell on the big day?
Musky’s been exposed to some of the top coaches around so I don’t think that’ll be an issue. There’ll be times on Sunday when both coaches will need to make key decisions at key times, though. I’m sure both are well equipped to do that.
First 15 minutes of a Grand Final. What’s most important?
For us, in our two grand finals we wanted to establish our dominance. Be that physically or in the way we play attacking relentlessly. Under Ernie [Merrick] it was ‘attack, attack, attack’. That’ll be a key for both sides to establish what are we here to do.
Games are often won on big moments…
Yes, there were two red cards in both Grand Finals I played in. The reality is, they could be the difference. Let’s hope not with an offside or a sending off playing a part in the game. You’d want to see moments of individual brilliance and you’d hate to see such a game marred by a particular incident. But it is football and you have to be ready for anything.
Who will be the two most important players on Sunday?
When you talk about finals and match winners, it’d be remiss not to mention Archie. He’s a big game player but Mark Milligan will be the real key for Victory. He’s the engine, the heartbeat. He starts attacks and sits in front of the back and reassures them. His leadership and drive will be key in how Victory start this game. As for Sydney, FC, Alex Brosque, similarly giving him the captaincy has been a masterstroke. His leadership and passion, Sydney really feed off him. He’s a gentleman too. The players at Sydney have immense respect for him. Both are going to be hugely important players on Sunday.
How will this game play out?
I definitely think it’ll be an attacking game. We could see a 3-3. I can’t see Musky holding back. They won’t be cavalier and exposing themselves but nothing changes from the 27 rounds of the season. You have to stick to the game-plan. The team that sticks to their game-plan and do what they do best will get over the line. Both are attacking sides, and attack is the best form of defence, and they both do it so well. Both will come out and show their intent, and their intent is to score goals. I can see this possibly going down to the wire in extra time or even penalties. I think Victory will win.