‘We were pioneers and welcomed underdog label’: Costanzo

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Adelaide United’s current and past identity can be traced back to one of its earliest and greatest centre-backs, Angelo Costanzo.

Costanzo was United’s captain during the club’s maiden AFC Champions League voyage in 2007, which began one month after his side’s heavy Grand Final defeat to Melbourne Victory in the second season of the A-League competition.

In United’s 20th year, Costanzo still reflects with great nostalgia on a time of camaraderie in the way his men provided a benchmark for Australian teams entering the then relative unknown of the AFC Champions League.

The competition’s first representatives from Down Under following expansion were unable to escape their group despite gallant performances and close encounters, yet Costanzo was proud to lead his team on this new adventure.

“We didn’t know a lot about the AFC and what was ahead of us, but we had heard that these teams had big budgets and big players supposedly,” he reflected.

“But until we really played, we didn’t know the whole story and where we were at, and it was a great experience and we stuck together and improved as we went.

“We didn’t have big squads like the Asian teams, but it was a great experience, and I was fortunate and proud to lead my team despite perhaps a bit of hesitancy at the start with a bit of change happening at the time.

“We were the pioneers at the time in Australian football, and the first time that anyone had done it.”

The 2008 AFC campaign was even more difficult in terms of travel and foreign places, but the Reds did something remarkable – they made the Final of the competition against all odds.

It was a constant blur, and the Reds found themselves regularly spending long nights in airports sleeping on floors after multi-legged flights before sketchy bus trips into cauldron-like stadiums filled with 18-20 thousand fans standing close to the pitch and shouting.

They famously ventured to Uzbekistan via Malaysia and then India before eventually facing problems at customs when they landed, forced to pay hefty fees to be released.

Still, the group embraced it all and went on a dream run, topping Group E ahead of K-League Champions, Pohang Steelers, before progressing through to the competition’s pinnacle following those famous AFC Finals nights at Hindmarsh.

Long-time United fans will fondly remember a run home that featured the ‘Robbie Cornthwaite’ quarter-final tie against J-League giants, Kashima Antlers.

The imposing centre-back scored an own goal in the first leg in Japan, before returning home as a hero, heading home the winner in a tense 1-0 win to progress to the semis.

And the atmosphere of the second leg of the Champions League Final against Gamba Osaka at Hindmarsh Stadium is one of the most electric in its history.

Despite the fact the Reds were 3-0 down going into the home second leg, it had little effect on the buzz and optimism felt across the whole State.

And although Costanzo was unable to take the field through suspension, the memories of the night and that campaign will long remain.

Off the pitch Costanzo was a pioneer in his own right in terms of marshalling the Macchinetta –an Italian style percolator – on each trip, which also brought the team together.

“We would do anything for a good coffee at the time because it wasn’t very good over there and so we brought our own,” he laughed.

“They didn’t know how to use the Macchinetta so they would often cook the coffee in frying pans in the end and many other little things like that which were very interesting.

“We thrived on it all though being the underdogs in foreign conditions, and we have some good stories on and off the field that’s for sure.”

The South Australian native was at Marconi when Adelaide United was born, and it was when the two clashed at Hindmarsh Stadium late in the 2003-04 NSL season, that Costanzo knew that he had to be there for the first A-League season.

It was another famous summer night at Hindmarsh pushing a capacity crowd, setting the tone for what was to come with the start of the new competition.

“Coming back home with Marconi and seeing the crowd that was already building, it was a real vibe and knew I had to be back at Adelaide for the start of it all,” Costanzo said.

“Kossie (John Kosmina) built a team with a lot of South Australians in there and it was pretty much an ‘us’ against ‘them’ mentality from day one.

“Everyone thought that we wouldn’t succeed, but I can remember the very first game of the A-League against Newcastle and we were already all over the papers and written off before a ball was kicked.

“John was the right man at the time, and we played with a lot of passion, aggression and got in the face of our opponents.”

It’s an intriguing parallel to the United of today, again written off – like the season before – always fighting to prove critics and naysayers wrong, with a limited budget yet burgeoning South Australian talent.

Costanzo, an uncompromising defender, honed his craft and expert timing in the slide tackle alongside Adelaide City greats, Milan Ivanović and Alex Tobin, with ties that still remain to both the NSL and current National Premier League competition through son, Domenic.

The young attacker has played at Marconi in the NPL NSW over the last few seasons after previously holding a scholarship contract at United in what was the first father-son combination.

And much like the Costanzo family carpentry business, Angelo helped lay the foundations of what Adelaide United Football Club stands for today.

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