Football: Wellington Phoenix face difficult decisions over re-signing stars Oskar Zawada, Kosta Barbarouses

Wellington Phoenix face a potentially painful choice between two star players, as they try to extend contracts past the current A-League season.

While onfield, the Phoenix are enjoying a dream campaign, sitting two points clear atop the Aussie competition midseason, some difficult decisions loom over who will return next season.

The most intriguing of these may boil down to a choice between strikers Oskar Zawada and Kosta Barbarouses.

The Pole scored 15 goals for the club during his 2022/23 season, but has just returned from a six-week injury absence that saw Barbarouses find the net in five consecutive games, a tear that has him among the league's top scorers. 

Oskar Zawada and Kosta Barbarouses celebrate a Phoenix goal.
Oskar Zawada and Kosta Barbarouses celebrate a Phoenix goal. Photo credit: Getty Images

The All Whites veteran has won A-League titles with three different teams and hopes to make that four with the Phoenix this season, but beyond that, no-one really knows.

"We're only January," said Phoenix football director Shaun Gill. "We've still got another 4-5 months in the contract cycle and we've got the rest of this season to play out.

"Those conversations internally are going on all the time around what does it look like for next year, how does the budget look, how does recruitment align with budget.

"When you have a successful start to the season like we have, most people have more interest and it becomes a different discussion. There's no yes or no here at the moment, just ongoing dialogue and discussion internally with the players." 

Coach Giancarlo Italiano has hinted economics may make retaining both his marquee scorers difficult, but although he may now command big money in Europe, Zawada is adamant he's keen to stay in the capital.

"I'm very happy in Wellington," he said. "Actually, they are the best years of my life and also football, they are amazing years.

"My career has been getting better and better, and I have big respect for the club and this place.

"I don't know. That's the conversation between me and the club and my agent, and not a journalist. Football sometimes is complicated, it's not as simple as you think." 

Barbarourses' purple patch and Zawada's enforced absence has added an extra edge to comparisons between the two, although Zawada, who scored a matchwinner off the bench against Newcastle Jets last weekend, insists there is no rivalry.

"I don't compete with Kosta," he said. "He's my teammate, so I'm happy that he scores.

"I think there will be always someone who scores goals, either with me or without me.

"Kosta is an experienced player, he always have that quality and after his first goals, he has the confidence, which is maybe just something a striker needs." 

Phoenix general manager David Dome ties the contract negotiations closely to the need to attract big gates for the rest of the regular season and beyond. This week's addition of Costa Rican midfielder Youstin Salas represents an investment.

Oskar Zawada in action for the Phoenix.
Oskar Zawada in action for the Phoenix. Photo credit: Getty Images

"The game against Melbourne Victory was the first game we were in the black at Sky Stadium for over two seasons," he said. "It makes a huge difference - the difference between a 5000 and 9000 crowd on the bottom line is huge.

"It does allow us to re-sign players or sign players that are high quality, and that's what the owners are after.

"If we bring in a player from Costa Rica and push on to the finals, it's a massive gamechanger for this club. 

"A 25-30,000 crowd at Sky Stadium would fund this club for a year. That's the reality."

The Phoenix are eyeing their Waitangi Day home clash with defending champions Central Coast Mariners as another opportunity to make hay.