One of the great Australian football stories happened 19 years ago in January when a young Aussie coach called Ange Postecoglou took his NSL players from South Melbourne to Rio to face, amongst others, Manchester United in a huge FIFA tournament.
It was the 2000 World Club Championships - now known as the FIFA Club World Cup - where the unknown Aussie part-timers represented Oceania back then (before FFA moved into AFC a few years later).
The wide-eyed South boys were pitted against Beckham’s Manchester United (also featuring new interim Red Devils boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and our own Bozza), Brazil’s Vasco Da Gama and Mexico’s Necaxa in the group stage.
Real Madrid, Corinthians, Al-Nassr and Raja Casablanca rounded out the global Rio extravaganza as champions from each confederation met.
It was another world for Australia’s part-time NSL champions, but a golden opportunity to show the football world we could hold our own. And we did. Just.
Beckham. Bosnich, Raul, Romario, Anelka, Panopoulos?
Steve Panopoulos, Michael Curcija, Chris Jones, Steve Iosifidis, South were hardly household names when they landed at Rio airport.
But the Aussies left with a modicum of respect after three battling performances at the legendary Maracana Stadium saw them lose three times but never by the cricket score some had predicted.
Postecoglou’s airtight five-man defensive bulwark held out Vasco De Gama for almost 70 minutes in the opener before Edmundo and Romario (who were feuding at the time) did the business in front of 66,000.
South Melbourne’s appearance came courtesy of being Oceania Champions – a title that saw them venture to the football wilds of Fiji to qualify.
But it was South’s passport to their biggest day in the sun – and they were there to enjoy it on and off the park.
One of the byproducts of this visit was that tenacious midfielder Steve Panopoulos (known by all as “Pana”), met a local girl, ended up moving to Rio – and he’s remained ever since.
He’s now become a well-respected agent who helped bring some of the best Brazilian talents to the A-League over the years (including Victory's Fred, an A-League player of the year).
Panopoulos, a part-time player at the time (he was working in a laboratory running blood tests) relived his memories of this once in a lifetime opportunity.
“For me, the memories are a little clouded because I live here now. So I see the Maracana Stadium every week,” he told FTBL.