Mar­quee At­trac­tion

The wan­ing of star power in the A-League had be­come a com­monly heard crit­i­cism in re­cent years. But with the likes of Keisuke Honda on board, plus a host of other arrivals, there’s still a case that Aus­tralia’s foot­ball com­pe­ti­tion can lure global-level

Inside Sport - - Contents - BY CLEMENT TITO, BEN SOMERFORD & K ATHY S TONE

The A-League had lost its ca­chet with over­seas names, the grum­bling went. Keisuke Honda and this year’s for­eign wave will look to change that.

Crit­ics ar­gue the A-League mar­quee sys­tem is a re­tire­ment home for for­mer play­ers – and in the case of Mel­bourne Vic­tory’s star sign­ing for this sea­son, it’s al­most lit­er­ally true. Im­me­di­ately af­ter sign­ing with the Mel­bourne Vic­tory, Keisuke Honda ad­mit­ted he was ready to hang up his boots for good af­ter Ja­pan’s cam­paign at the 2018 World Cup. Then Vic­tory coach Kevin Mus­cat per­suaded him to come Down Un­der and have one last sea­son.

From giv­ing up the game one minute, Honda has now be­come the big­gest sign­ing in Mel­bourne Vic­tory’s his­tory, ac­cord­ing to chair­man An­thony Di Pi­etro. And de­spite ap­par­ently be­ing ready just a few weeks ago to wind down and in­evitably “spend more time with his fam­ily”, Honda will in­stead be the fo­cal point for the A-League this sea­son.

His cap­ture is the big­gest since Alessan­dro Del Piero signed for Syd­ney FC in 2012. Since then, though, the sheen of the star mar­quee has faded in the face of ever-in­creas­ing fi­nan­cial com­pe­ti­tion from the MLS in the US and the Chi­nese Su­per League. For the last few years, clubs have looked for tech­ni­cal qual­ity over star qual­ity and reaped re­wards with play­ers like Syd­ney FC’s Mi­los Ninkovic and Adrian Mierze­jew­ski, among oth­ers.

But the lack of big names has seen crowds and TV rat­ings fall off, forc­ing a re­think among the game’s big­wigs. At­tempts have been made to lure other in­ter­na­tional stars, such as Fer­nando Tor­res and Mathieu Flamini, us­ing club funds and a cen­tral fund pro­vided by Fox Sports.

But still, so far, Honda is the only one to take the bait. That said though, de­spite the lack of other big names, there is no lack of skill or qual­ity in the big­gest new sign­ings of the sea­son.

Honda is un­doubt­edly the big­gest coup. He has been there and done it all: World Cups, UEFA Cham­pi­ons Leagues and Asian Cups, and al­though ready to

re­tire, he is still only 32. He showed no sign of weari­ness at Rus­sia 2018, where he scored for the third con­sec­u­tive time at a World Cup.

“I’m a Mel­bourne Vic­tory player now,” he said af­ter sign­ing. “Play­ing well for the fans is my fo­cus and also for my team-mates.”

Al­ready, the Honda fac­tor has seen hordes of fans turn out for his first train­ing ses­sion at Mel­bourne’s Gosch’s Pad­dock. His play­ing de­but had to wait un­til the open­ing game of the sea­son, the Mel­bourne Derby, af­ter the Vic­tory was knocked out of the FFA Cup be­fore he could get his boots on.

“I can’t wait and I look for­ward to play­ing as soon as pos­si­ble,” Honda added, who is also, bizarrely, coach­ing the Cam­bo­dian na­tional team by Skype from Aus­tralia. “I’m do­ing things out­side of soc­cer, but that’s not a big is­sue. My col­leagues in Ja­pan and the US are help­ing me, so it helps me fo­cus on my game here. I feel pres­sure as I’m jug­gling a lot of re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, so I un­der­stand I need to play and train well.”

The Vic­tory may have won the Cham­pi­onship with a nar­row (and con­tro­ver­sial) 1-0 Grand Fi­nal win over New­cas­tle Jets last sea­son, but the club un­der­per­formed in the league and has been ripped apart and re­built in the off-sea­son, los­ing leg­endary tal­is­manic striker Be­sart Ber­isha to J.League side San­frecce Hiroshima along the way.

But new faces in­clude Raul Baena, Ge­org Nie­der­meier and Swedish World Cup player Ola Toivo­nen – and Toivo­nen is the man Vic­tory will be re­ly­ing on to bang in the goals, just as he did for his coun­try against Ger­many at Rus­sia a few months ago.

The tall 32-year-old brings ver­sa­til­ity to Vic­tory as a play­maker or striker and is ready to roll into ac­tion af­ter a pre-sea­son camp in Queens­land.

”We look good so far and it’s the first time we’ve met each other,” Toivo­nen tells In­side Sport. “We need to work a bit more tac­ti­cally and we’re all look­ing for­ward to it, so I’m ex­cited.

“Kevin’s more like a Bri­tish coach in his style and men­tal­ity, but he knows what he wants and I look for­ward to work­ing with him.”

Toivo­nen has played in Europe through­out his ca­reer, no­tably at PSV Eind­hoven, Rennes, Sun­der­land and ar­rived at Vic­tory from Toulouse via the World Cup.

“It’s pretty spe­cial to look back on. When you’re go­ing into the Euros or the World Cup, you know you’ll have mas­sive sup­port from the Swedish fans,” Toivo­nen adds. “They al­ways travel all over Europe and turn up in num­bers wher­ever we are. If we are in Rus­sia, France or Ukraine, they show up and sup­port us.”

Toivo­nen con­sid­ered re­turn­ing home or try­ing his luck in the Mid­dle East, but the lure of Aus­tralia was that it seemed like a coun­try where he’d like to live. A chat about life Down Un­der with for­mer PSV team­mate Or­lando En­ge­laar – who played for Mel­bourne Heart in 2013-14 – per­suaded him to make the move.

“He asked me if I was in­ter­ested and I said yes,” Toivo­nen says. “It took me a long time to be sure about this and also for my wife. In the end we made a de­ci­sion to come here and it’s also an ad­ven­ture for my wife and the kids.

“I’m 32 now, so I might have three or four years left in my body, so we wanted to do some­thing ex­tra in my last year of my ca­reer.”

Toivo­nen is al­ready en­joy­ing life in Mel­bourne. “It is an amaz­ing city and we al­ready speak English, so that helps a lot,” he says. “Nor­mally when we move to a new coun­try, we have a chal­lenge and that’s the lan­guage bar­rier.”

While Toivo­nen is re­lieved there is no lan­guage bar­rier, Honda’s English is less flu­ent. While many Aussies can un­der­stand him, he comes here de­ter­mined to im­prove his English. The Ja­panese star took the mickey out of him­self and his English skills on In­sta­gram.

“When I ar­rived at the air­port, I re­alised

“ITTOOKMEALONG TIME TO BE SURE ABOUT THIS … IN THE END WE MADE A DE­CI­SION TO COME HERE AND IT’S ALSOANADVENTURE FORMYWIFEAND THE KIDS.”

I’d never played in an English speak­ing coun­try, so it’s weird when I speak to some­one in English,” Honda ad­mits. “I’m so glad I can try a new chal­lenge in my ca­reer.”

Honda played most of his foot­ball in the Rus­sian league with CSKA Moscow, en­joy­ing five years there with 94 games and 20 goals, and Vic­tory’s cap­tain Carl Va­leri be­lieves he will bring the of­fen­sive flair which the league has lacked for the past four years.

Per­haps more im­por­tantly though, foot­ball’s bosses will be hop­ing Honda will drag TV rat­ings and at­ten­dances up, both home and away. Del Piero and ear­lier sign­ing, Liver­pool leg­end Rob­bie Fowler, brought in the crowds and view­ers wher­ever they played. Af­ter slid­ing fig­ures since a peak in 2012, it’s vi­tal the A-League re­cov­ers lost ground and earns its $60m a year TV deal once more.

Honda’s con­tract is es­ti­mated to be worth $3m with the ma­jor­ity of that footed by the club but topped up by Fox Sports to add star ap­peal to the league.

Honda says he ap­pre­ci­ates that Mel­bourne Vic­tory made an ef­fort to per­suade him to change his mind about quit­ting, and says he and his new gaffer Mus­cat share the same am­bi­tions. He says he also be­lieves Vic­tory are truly the big­gest foot­ball club in Aus­tralia.

“I changed my mind when I spoke to Kevin,” he said. “He told me in per­son and said he re­ally wants to suc­ceed as a club for the fans and the A-League. I was re­ally in­spired by him. Our first game is against Mel­bourne City and I want to train hard with the team.

“When I first heard Vic­tory were in­ter­ested in me, it was one week af­ter the World Cup ended. I re­ally wanted a new chal­lenge, so now I’m sat­is­fied. When my agent told me they were in­ter­ested it, I couldn’t be­lieve it be­cause I’m Ja­panese and I never thought I’d play in Aus­tralia.”

Toivo­nen is also keen to re­pay the fans’ faith in him and be­lieves he still has four years left in his body to per­form. He was named Swedish New­comer of the Year in 2006 and re­flect­ing on his jour­ney, he still pinches him­self.

“All my fam­ily were raised up with foot­ball,” he says. “When I turned six I started to train with the eight-year-old lads and that’s the way I was raised and I just kept go­ing that way. Foot­ball is a com­mon sport for kids to get into, but you also have ice hockey which is very big in Swe­den, so many choose from those two to play later on.”

Toivo­nen en­joyed suc­cess with PSV, nar­rowly miss­ing out on a league ti­tle, but won the KNVB Cup and Jo­han Cruyff Shield in 2012.

“I think I en­joyed my time at PSV the most,” Toivo­nen re­calls. “It was my first club out­side of Swe­den and I re­ally had a good time. It was a re­ally big club and of course there were dif­fi­cult times where you miss the fam­ily and friends, but I had re­ally good peo­ple around me in the club and they took good care of me.

“When I look back they were good mem­o­ries win­ning cup ti­tles over there. Un­for­tu­nately we didn’t win the cham­pi­onship – and I’m still an­gry and dis­ap­pointed – but it’s some­thing you look back on and you’re re­ally proud of.”

Both Honda and Toivo­nen have the A-League Cham­pi­onship as their tar­get and are full of belief they can put their hands on the A-League’s fa­mous toi­let seat-shaped sil­ver­ware.

“I’m here to win a tro­phy,” Honda added. “I re­mem­ber play­ing here in the 2015 Asian Cup and I’m very ex­cited. I have the ex­pe­ri­ence and I know how to win games and how to cre­ate re­sults, so I’m not wor­ried.”

Toivo­nen be­lieves ex­pe­ri­ence with the for­eign­ers in the team will be key to achiev­ing suc­cess this sea­son. “Our am­bi­tion is to go all the way,” Toivo­nen says. “You al­ways want to win and all the boys in the locker room want to win. We need to make sure we’re pre­pared 110 per­cent be­fore ev­ery game and when the game starts we need to make sure ev­ery­thing is in place.”

Time will tell if Vic­tory have in­vested in su­per this sea­son rather than re­tire­ment …

World class: Ola Toivo­nen scored at the last World Cup against the Ger­mans, as did Keisuke Honda against Sene­gal [ ].

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