It is the final that former Socceroo Mile Sterjovski hoped would happen, and it’s not an understatement to say the Australia Cup decider will be a milestone for Australian football. When Macarthur FC meet Sydney United at Commbank Stadium on Saturday night, not only will a trophy be on the line but it will, for the very first time, be within the grasp of a team from outside the A-Leagues. Never before has a National Premier Leagues outfit been so close to a piece of national silverware and a place in Asia’s continental competition.
When Football Australia launched the Australia Cup – previously known as the FFA Cup – in 2014, it was an acknowledgment by the game’s administrators that there still existed a valuable footballing resource outside the professional tier. The A-Leagues had previously positioned itself as ‘new football’, in a break from the ‘old soccer’ of the National Soccer League. Now, as Sydney United – a former NSL club of repute once called Sydney Croatia – prepare for their date with destiny, old soccer is very much a part of new football.
The decision to create a competition that brings Australia in alignment with many countries around the world may seem a relatively benign step. But for a local, multicultural football ecosystem which has for decades grappled with questions around its identity and place in broader Australian society – long before the A-Leagues was a concept – it was an important act of inclusion. United may be the first, but their progression speaks to broader themes of ambition, aspiration and connection.
In keeping with these themes of reintegration, it is also fitting that this symbolic run has led them to a fixture against a young Macarthur outfit who have adopted some key figures from United’s past in their quest to begin to establish a legacy.
Take Macarthur chief executive, Sam Krslovic. Before becoming one of the drivers behind the Bulls’ push for, and eventual entrance, to the A-Leagues, Krslovic helped steward United during the tough period following the end of the NSL and their return to the state leagues, serving in roles including but not limited to president, vice-president, treasurer and head of football. He also helped recruit former United player and coach Ante Milicic to lead the new A-League Men’s team in their first two seasons.
The same can be said of Anthony Crea, Macarthur’s head of high performance who was in the United dugout as an interim boss when they defeated Rockdale Ilinden in a dramatic penalty shootout to become 2020 champions of New South Wales. United centre-back Jacob Poscoliero, who will miss the final through injury, works as a community officer for the Bulls, heading out to schools and clubs throughout the region to win hearts and minds for the very club his teammates will seek to vanquish on Saturday.
Sterjovski, the Bulls’ A-League Youth and NPL coach, scored 20 goals across two seasons with United, including a strike in their 3-2 loss to South Melbourne in the 1999 NSL grand final (Australian Professional Leagues chief executive Danny Townsend was United’s other scorer that day). He knows his employers will need to be on the front foot against a side with few expectations and even less to lose, but is still relishing the occasion.
“It was a final that I was hoping would happen,” says Sterjovski, whose playing career featured 43 appearances for the Socceroos. “I’ve been part of both clubs and my time at Sydney United was a special one, it was my first time in senior football when I got out of the AIS. It was a club that gave me an opportunity to play at a higher level. I have very good memories of playing for Sydney United.
“So, definitely got a soft spot in my heart for them, but now being at Macarthur, we are trying to create some memories of our own.”
There are on-field connections as well. Macarthur’s Tomislav Uskok, Nicholas Suman, Ivan Vujica will all be playing against their former club. Vujica, the 25-year-old defender, was effectively ensconced at Edensor Park as soon as he could walk, and played for the club’s academy before moving to Croatia as a teenager.
“My first ever game was in a Sydney United shirt,” Vujica says. “I was playing in my older brother’s team. I was three and a half and he was six. My mother used to work in the canteen and my father was on the board. So, the ties with Sydney United are endless. It’s almost like I’m facing friends and family.
“I knew what the stance was all along for my father and the rest of my family. I’d say the ideal scenario is that I score a hat-trick but United win 4-3. Maybe my mother’s going for me, but that’s about it.
“Everyone else has made it very clear that they’d rather Sydney United wins – and I can’t blame them in that regard.”