Australian sports writer Kieran Pender explains how a decade on from a major crisis, Australian football is finally on the up
In 2002, Australian football was suffering through a crisis. Having lost to Uruguay in a qualification play-off, the Socceroos would not be heading to the first ever World Cup held in Asia. To make matters worse, the National Soccer League was in decline, with TV rights in jeopardy and attendances dropping. Even the gameÃ¢ÂÂs governing body Soccer Australia was floundering, and would be reborn a year later.
Amidst the panic, Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) produced a level-headed report into the establishment of a new football league in the country, dubbed the Australian Premier League (APL). The report used a mass of empirical data to set out a detailed strategic plan for the new competition.
One of the reportÃ¢ÂÂs key findings was the need for at least two, if not three teams based in Sydney. Clubs based in the north, south and west of the city would be vital for the APL, given SydneyÃ¢ÂÂs large population and relative interest in football.
This weekend, almost a decade since the PFA first made these claims, two teams from the New South Wales capital will meet in the A-League for the first time. Foundation club Sydney FC will finally meet a team from the western suburbs in the aptly named Sydney derby.
Already sold out, a rare occurrence in Australian football, the derby will represent a huge milestone for SydneyÃ¢ÂÂs new club Ã¢ÂÂ Western Sydney Wanderers. Only just six months since the team was officially announced, they will take to the pitch having built a club and squad essentially from scratch.Ã¢ÂÂ¨
Having been ignored during the inauguration of the A-League, much to the PFAÃ¢ÂÂs displeasure, Western Sydney was finally given the green light in 2009. However the new franchise failed to get off the ground, and was canned a year before they were due to compete in the league.
Finally, on the 11th of April this year, Federal Government funding was used to secure a team in the area. To be initially owned by Football Federation Australia, the competition was at last getting a team in its Ã¢ÂÂheartlandÃ¢ÂÂ.
As PFA boss at the time Brendan Schwab noted, Ã¢ÂÂThe PFA is delighted to finally see Western SydneyÃ¢ÂÂ¦ represented in the A-League. It is something we have felt passionately about since the establishment of a new national competition was first mooted a decade ago, and we are delighted to see it come to fruition. Everyone in the game is deeply committed to the success of the club.Ã¢ÂÂ
Two men likely to feature heavily in the derby are not local boys, however, but top quality foreign imports Alessandro Del Piero and Shinji Ono. The marquee signings have been a huge boost to the league, with Del Piero in particular a coup for Sydney FC, especially given he reportedly turned down Liverpool in joining the club.
While Ono may have a lower profile, especially in Australia and Europe, the 33-year-old Japanese star is a legend in his home country, where he is nicknamed Ã¢ÂÂGeniusÃ¢ÂÂ.
OnoÃ¢ÂÂs presence in the middle of the park could be key for a Western Sydney team that has started well, with their solitary point from two games belying a positive start to the season. While a hard fought draw in the opening round may have been dampened by Adelaide UnitedÃ¢ÂÂs late winner last weekend, the team have certainly performed above expectations.
The more established Sydney FC, on the other hand, currently sit joint-bottom of the table having lost their opening encounters. Defeats at the hands of Wellington Phoenix and Newcastle Jets are hardly shameful, but the Sky Blues will be desperate to lift themselves up the table with a good showing at Parramatta Stadium on Saturday.
Elsewhere this weekend Emile HeskeyÃ¢ÂÂs Newcastle Jets host local rivals Central Coast Mariners for the always-fierce F3 Derby. Although the former England front man has started his stint at Newcastle well, scoring in their victory over Sydney FC last Saturday, he may face a sterner test against an impressive Mariners outfit.
With the A-League beginning to flourish thanks to strong local talent and several big name imports, history will be made on Saturday when Sydney FC take on Western Sydney. A decade too late, the encounter could mark the day Australian football changed for the better.