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
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.
¡¢£: 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.