WHEN Zeljko Kalac followed Tony Popovic to Turkey as his trusted lieutenant, he could have never imagined what was about to hit.
The former Socceroos goalkeeper followed Popovic out of Western Sydney Wanderers on the eve of the A-League season in a bombshell announcement. A move to Turkey’s Super League to coach Karabukspor had been presented as a gateway to Europe, and an opportunity that had to be snapped up immediately, at the expense of a Wanderers squad he had spent pre-season assembling.
Instead, what they walked into was a political maelstrom they were not expecting.
And now, Kalac has revealed, the long-time friends turned to each other after watching one training session and immediately said: let’s ring the Wanderers, and tell them it was all a joke!
Speaking on Fox Sports News’ Bill and Boz program, Kalac admitted they arrived at a club that was even more dysfunctional than it has been depicted in the media.
FEATURE FROM TURKEY: What really happened in Popa’s Turkey disaster
“They were probably worse,” Kalac said.
“We didn’t know the full details, it was very political. It came down to a political fight: who was going to control the place?
“The president that brought us in was ousted after one week of us being there. It wasn’t looking good after one week.
“The reason we got through to two months was there was no replacement president. As soon as the replacement president came in, we were ousted.”
Kalac believes the team eventually improved, got fit, adapted to a regime and played some decent football but were blown away by the structures and tasks presented by Popovic and his coaching team. Until then, Kalac says “they were doing what they wanted”.
“Our first day that we arrived, they were seven-eight games into the season, we watched a friendly game, and we said to each other: ‘let’s ring John Tsatsimas at Wanderers and say it was a joke! We didn’t really want to go!’
“They were in the worst condition we’ve ever seen, it was like they’d turned up for the first day of pre-season … unbelievable. It was scary.”
In hindsight, what would they have done differently?
“We would find out the total situation of the club before we went there,” he admitted.
“This club has never had financial problems. Ever. It was a political fight that was going on that we as outsiders don’t understand – when you walk into it, it was like the Hiroshima Bomb was thrown and we walked straight into it.”
Kalac is unsure what his next move will be and admits that Popovic has “knocked back offers”.
Opportunities will beckon in Australia, but the man known as ‘Spider’ says his “boss” is capable of cutting it on the biggest stages, if someone is “game enough to give … an opportunity”.
“He’s a winner … I don’t really think the opportunity here is big enough for him. He’s already won the Asian Champions League.
“My opinion, yes, not in a detrimental way to the A-League but he’s destined for bigger things.
“One problem for us: we’re Australian. If he was Tony Popovic born in England … he’d be coaching in the Premier League right now.”
The football wasn’t even the worst part for Kalac, though, who can now joke about the experience.
The worst part?