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
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 [ ].