Team Wellington was the third team from New Zealand to win OFC Champions League in the 2018 edition – before, only the Auckland giants Waitakere United and Auckland City had the honours to claim the continental glory. Mario Ilich took an important role in the win of his former side in the regional tournament, eliminating Auckland City and beating the Fijian giants Lautoka in the finals. “It was an amazing feeling, one of the highlights of my career to date. We had such a special group of players and staff that year, we all got on so well on and off the field – it was a real family vibe which I thought gave us the edge over other teams“, says the midfielder.
Ilich is a 24-year old football player that has yet a lot to come, but we can surely say he is already a well experienced player. One of the most celebrated players of the winning team of Team Wellington in the 2018 edition of OFC Champions League had the chance alongside his teammates to be in one of the most important football tournaments worldwide: the FIFA Clubs World Cup, that was held in United Arab Emirates in 2018, where TeeDubs faced the local champions Al-Ain in the first stage of the tournament.
“It was an awesome experience one that I will never forget. The game was a roller coaster of emotions and was crazy when we went 3-0 up. I don’t think we could even believe it ourselves. My goal, well probably was one of the easiest tap-in goals to score but I can now say I have scored at the FIFA Clubs World Cup which not many people can say, I guess“. Ilich mentions his goal against Al-Ain after a corner where he was found free in the 6-yard box to score the third goal of Team Wellington against the local side. Unfortunately, the final result of the game was not in favour of the Oceania champions in that time. “I think we got caught out a few times by the pace of Al Ain’s play. Maybe a lack of focus defensively which let them back in the game. But we didn’t let their come back goals get the better of us, we kept fighting to the very end and even had a few good chances towards the end of extra time to win the game. Then to go and lose on penalties, it’s always tough losing like that but at the end of the day there can only be one winner“, tells Mario Ilich.
Team Wellington kept most of their players for the 2019 edition of the OFC Champions League but were beaten by current champions Hienghène Sport in Nouméa in the semifinal stage – a shocking result for the fans of Oceania football – “It was very disappointing to get so close once again and loose in the manner we did a year later“, shares Ilich that was one of the winners in 2018 that also played the last OFC Champions League. “That was a game which we dominated early on for long periods and had several chances in the first half that if we took on another could’ve been up by 2 or 3 goals at the break. Unfortunately we didn’t and all credit to Hienghène Sport as they came out hungrier in the second half and took the few chances that they had and put the game to bed“.
New Zealand is certainly the best developed football nation that takes part of the Oceania Football Confederation – this is the reason the fans were shocked with the elimination of both New Zealand powerhouses – Auckland City also lost in the semifinal for New Caledonian side AS Magenta – in OFC Champions League semifinals. Ilich says that “Yes, New Zealand is probably ahead of the other nations at this point in time, but I believe that this is only because there is more funding and backing behind football in New Zealand compared to these countries. But, as seen in the past few years, there are real quality teams and players that come out of these countries and with time hopefully these countries only become stronger“.
Before signing for Auckland City for the 2019/20 ISPS Handa Premiership season, Ilich had a very sucessful stint in Australia regional leagues: “The stint in Australia was enjoyable! I was playing for Bentleigh Greens located in Melbourne. It was cool exploring a new city and experiencing football over the ditch. The league was quite tough and physical so personally it was good to experience that type of football for a change. We actually ended up winning the grand final and becoming Champions of Victoria which put the icing on the cake for my few months in Australia!“. Ilich also added the he sees no much differences of the level of football played in ISPS Handa Premiership in comparison to what he played when in Bentleigh Greens – “I think the league over there is a lot more physical where as to in New Zealand it is more technical and tactical then anything“.
The coach responsible for the recent success of Team Wellington, José Figueira, decided to part ways from his former club at the end of the previous season; his new club is the biggest winner of football in New Zealand, Auckland City – also the new club of Mario Ilich for the season that just started in the country. “Auckland City is the most successful and historic club in the New Zealand league. Every player wants to be playing for the Navy Blues. So when the opportunity arose I wasn’t going to turn it down. Of course José has had an impact in my decision as well, after playing under him for so many years – I am a huge admirer of how he coaches and sees the game“.
Ilich is a declared fan of the Navy Blues new head coach: “The way José sees the game is very tactical where he tries to make his players feel comfortable and enjoy there football by having lots of possession of the football, which I am a huge fan of. His style of football in past years in New Zealand has been quite rare, but we are slowly starting to see more football teams from New Zealand try and play a possession based football game which is a big positive. I hope more coaches coming through follow the philosophies of Figuera for the good of the game in New Zealand“.
Auckland City started well its campaign in the season with already three victories in the run. As the most traditional club in the league, it is certain the fans will expect the Navy Blues to be in contention for the season honours. Mario Ilich sees a more balanced competiton than previous years and hopes for the best to his side: “I think this season is going to be very competitive. I don’t think I could tell you right now who would be the main contenders like recent years – which is real positive. After the first few rounds there have already been a few shock results which shows that any team on their day can beat anyone. We have a new young group and we are working hard every week on the track and hopefully we can continue to build stronger game by game and really push to cement that top spot!”
Time will say what will be the next chapters of the talented midfielder career. Auckland City is certainly a major club in the region and Ilich believes his hardwork will make him go steps higher in football – and he feels a spot in the All Whites is a possibility for a near future: “I am always hopeful for sure! Playing for the All Whites is every young kiwi footballers dream and has been for many years, all I can do is keep working hard and being successful on the football field and one day hopefully that call comes“, says Ilich.
Mario Ilich will have a great chance to impress the new All Whites coach Danny Hay in the upcoming months: he will be playing once again the OFC Champions League, this time for his new side Auckland City. Ilich and all Oceanian players know that winning this competition means a lot and, for a player who already touched that trophy once, the taste to do it again may be considerable better.