Bring­ing the A-Game

AS IT AP­PROACHES ITS 14TH SEA­SON, AUS­TRALIA’S DO­MES­TIC FOOT­BALL LEAGUE FACES AN­OTHER DILEMMA: THE MAR­QUEE STARS AREN’T BRIGHT ENOUGH, YET TOO GOOD FOR THE LO­CALS OF THE FU­TURE, AND ALL BOUND UP IN THE WAIT­ING FOR THE NEXT ROUND OF EX­PAN­SION. BUT WE’LL GET

Inside Sport - - Contents - BY KEVIN AIRS

In our com­pre­hen­sive sea­son preview guide: how will the A-League face its next cross­roads mo­ment?

The A-League kicks off its new sea­son with foot­ball in Aus­tralia at yet an­other cross­roads. Last sea­son, en­nui with the cur­rent for­mat hit an all-time low. Rat­ings slumped ap­pallingly while the reg­u­larly wax­ing and wan­ing crowds ebbed dis­ap­point­ingly once more. The tired ten-team league has fi­nally out­grown Aus­tralia’s fans. Af­ter 13 years, there are too few new nar­ra­tives, too many ex­cuses, and too many pre­dictable games. Most im­por­tantly though, too many lo­cal play­ers have re­cy­cled their way through team af­ter team with too few new faces com­ing into the sys­tem.

Never was that more ap­par­ent than at the World Cup where Aus­tralia’s start­ing front four had an im­pres­sive 201 caps be­tween them – but shared only 28 goals in total. The end re­sult was in­evitable: an in­abil­ity to score from open play … and an­gry de­mands for the coach to play a 38-yearold up­front – which would be in­sane in al­most any other coun­try.

With the ex­cep­tion of for­mer Bris­bane Roar goal ma­chine Jamie Maclaren, who was over­looked at every turn for rea­sons best-known to the Soc­ceroos’ coach­ing staff, there was lit­er­ally no other op­tion worth con­sid­er­ing in at­tack.

Ul­ti­mately, the A-League has been a vic­tim of its own mid­dling suc­cess. De­ci­sions have been made for the good of foot­ball as an en­ter­tain­ment in Aus­tralia in­stead of for the good of foot­ball as a sport in Aus­tralia.

In­ter­na­tional im­ports take up the key strik­ers’ role at al­most every club in the com­pe­ti­tion. Goals are cru­cial to suc­cess, and with around $60m of TV deal money com­ing into the league every sea­son, bud­gets are now big enough to look over­seas for that tal­ent to en­sure max­i­mum bang for buck, rather than risk fail­ure by try­ing an untested (and less glam­orous) lo­cal op­tion.

The sheen of big-name stars helps bring in crowds, too – vi­tal af­ter last sea­son’s lack­lus­tre num­bers. But ul­ti­mately it sets back the course of foot­ball in this coun­try, with­out de­vel­op­ment pro­grams in place to bring through new young lo­cal tal­ent and give them an op­por­tu­nity to play.

Prior to the A-League, there was so lit­tle money in Aus­tralian foot­ball, clubs had no choice but to develop their own tal­ent. Many an NSL club’s busi­ness plan de­pended al­most en­tirely on be­ing able to spot and nur­ture young stars be­fore sell­ing them on to clubs over­seas, fund­ing the lo­cal club’s fu­ture and send­ing the young­ster on a school-of-hard-knocks jour­ney that ar­guably bred a higher cal­i­bre of Soc­ceroo.

To­day, trans­fer fees are banned be­tween Aus­tralian clubs, to­ken pay­ments are

made to grass­roots clubs who develop tal­ent, A-League clubs still have limited youth team set-ups, vir­tu­ally no youth league and first­team squads dom­i­nated more and more by ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers and im­ports.

It’s in­cred­i­bly hard for any Aus­tralian player to break through into the start­ing XI of an A-League team, never mind a striker.

Even teenage sen­sa­tion Daniel Arzani, one of the most ex­cit­ing young tal­ents to come through in re­cent years, started only 15 games in two sea­sons for Mel­bourne City. De­spite that, par­ent club Manch­ester City still saw enough to snap him up from their Aussie sub­sidiary and im­me­di­ately loaned him out to Celtic.

This was the game plan they used a cou­ple of years be­fore with Aaron Mooy, in a move that ul­ti­mately net­ted them a $10m trans­fer fee from Huddersfield Town … which es­sen­tially cov­ered the en­tire pur­chase price of the whole Mel­bourne City club a few years ear­lier.

City now ad­mits its Aus­tralian pres­ence here is to find tal­ent such as Arzani, develop it and sell it. They have all but aban­doned the con­cept of mar­quee sign­ings. In the past, they’ve signed Tim Cahill and had David Villa on their books briefly, but with­out mak­ing any sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on crowd num­bers or their bot­tom line.

For them now, it is a sim­ple busi­ness de­ci­sion. They have in­vested in a mas­sive and im­pres­sive youth struc­ture and trawl lo­cal clubs to scout for new tal­ent and bring them through their sys­tem. When the time is right, they will get a first team break and if they can shine, a path­way now ex­ists to take them to the UK, or through City’s other clubs in the US, Spain, Ja­pan or Uruguay.

It’s a model that once served Cen­tral Coast Mariners well, too. Starved of lo­cal pop­u­la­tion and fund­ing, their sur­vival strat­egy at one stage seemed to be to show­case lo­cal tal­ent in the first half of the sea­son be­fore sell­ing it over Christmas – and hope they had done enough in the early games to snatch a place in the fi­nals.

For the rest of the league though, suc­cess is the over-riding met­ric and that means both bums on seats and goals ga­lore to get them to a Grand Fi­nal.

Af­ter last sea­son’s low-key sign­ings, this sea­son is shap­ing up to be an­other big name sea­son, as FFA and Fox Sports des­per­ately try to re­vive in­ter­est lev­els ahead of next sea­son’s ex­pan­sion. At least two more clubs are due to join in 2019-20, open­ing up new op­por­tu­ni­ties for lower league Aus­tralian play­ers and

“Just d ays af­ter sign­ing for Vic­tory, Hond a also then an­nounced he would be the na tional team man­ager of C am­bo­dia t oo. At the s ame time.”

cre­at­ing new ri­val­ries and new in­ter­est.

In the mean­time though, foot­ball ad­min­is­tra­tors are re­ly­ing on the peren­nial favourite of mar­quee stars to sus­tain them for one more sea­son.

Mel­bourne Vic­tory have snapped up Ja­pan in­ter­na­tional Keisuke Honda, a veteran of (and scorer in) three World Cups and a leg­end in his home coun­try. Cu­ri­ously though, just days af­ter sign­ing for Vic­tory, he also then an­nounced he would be the na­tional team man­ager of Cam­bo­dia, too. At the same time. Yeah, us nei­ther …

Syd­ney FC came close – or not, de­pend­ing on who you lis­ten to – to sign­ing for­mer Liver­pool FC hero Fer­nando Tor­res, but was out­bid by one of the mi­nor Ja­panese J.League teams (which is also a re­flec­tion of the prob­lems A-League clubs have in com­pet­ing for star name sign­ings in to­day’s heated mar­ket).

And there is at least one more po­ten­tial mar­quee star cur­rently be­ing tracked by the FFA, clubs and Fox Sports (who have put up a $3m mar­quee fund to help pay the wage of suit­able stars).

The big­gest splash of all though in­volved a player who has never ac­tu­ally played pro­fes­sional foot­ball in his life. Cen­tral Coast Mariners have given Ja­maican sprint su­per­star Usain Bolt, 32, a trial with a view to earn­ing a full-time con­tract.

It is per­haps the epit­ome of the prob­lems fac­ing Aus­tralian foot­ball: how would you feel if you were an as­pir­ing Aussie foot­baller, and you saw one of only 99 Aus­tralian pro­fes­sional foot­ball start­ing spots be­ing handed to some­one who had never even played a com­pet­i­tive game be­fore?

Change is com­ing … but it re­ally can’t come soon enough af­ter six years of tread­ing wa­ter await­ing the next stage of ex­pan­sion.

š›œšžŸ¡¢£: Usain Bolt can run, but can he play?; Keisuke Honda adds star billing to the A-League; Many of the fans who have stuck around are an­gry; Young su­per­star Daniel Arzani strug­gled for game time Down Un­der.

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