Weekend of wonders

After what seems like months of back-and-forth about the viability of the national league, perceived lack of leadership by the governing body and a fair bit of infighting – see the clip below, in which Harry Kewell blasts Robbie Slater – Australian football got back to basics last week by concentrating on matters on the pitch.

The international break initially meant there were no A-League games, but the FFA shrewdly  maximised attendance at the first Melbourne derby between the Victory and new side Heart by rescheduling it to avoid clashing with the AFL Grand Final replay.

As Melbourne is the self-proclaimed sporting capital of Australia, it was the right decision to postpone the historic game. While Melburnians consistently top football’s attendance charts, getting them to notice the ‘roundball game’ on Grand Final day would be like trying to drag Wayne Rooney’s attention from a women's keep-fit class in an old people’s home.

On paper, the first true A-League derby looked a massive mismatch. Victory are twice champions of Australia and veterans of finals football both domestically and in the Asian Champions League. In contrast, Heart were playing just the ninth game in their history and struggling to find their feet in their initial campaign.

So, of course, Heart won 2-1 thanks to goals from ex-Coventry and Portsmouth frontman John Aloisi and Alex Terra. In front of an impressive 25,897 fans in the purpose-built AAMI Stadium – shared by both sides – the new boys outplayed the veterans for long stretches and never looked in danger of losing the tie, even after going down to 10 men for the last 15 minutes of the match.

Heart boss John Van’t Schip said after the game that it was just the kind of result needed to help build their fanbase in a competitive sporting environment, with Victory skipper Kevin Muscat stating, without a hint of irony, “football was the winner tonight”.

After a good turn out in Melbourne, all eyes were turned to Sydney and the Socceroos’ friendly with Paraguay the following evening. The Melbourne Twitterati couldn’t resist a few jibes at Sydneysiders after rumours of slow ticket sales, with Melbourne Age chief football writer Michael Lynch tweeting “Sell-out shows that Vics get off their arses and go to things. Sydney folk prefer to tweet facebook and pretend!” Ouch…

Lynch’s prediction was spot on, with just 25,210 turning up at the Sydney Football Stadium, all the more disappointing after new coach Holger Osieck ushered in a new era of attacking football by stating he’ll look to play two up front wherever possible, as a single striker looks “lonesome”.

What those who stayed away missed was an assured performance from the Australians as they ran out 1-0 winners over a South American side which started six players from the World Cup defeat against Spain. While Osieck would have liked to have seen more goals for the amount of possession, the coach is still getting to know his first XI ahead of the Asian Cup, which kicks off in early January.

The winning goal was scored by journeyman David Carney, currently on the fringes at Blackpool after previous stints with FC Twente, Norwich and Sydney FC. It’s not often a Blackpool player scores a winner in an international fixture and the left-back is hoping the goal will boost his chances of making the first team, making sure to leave a copy of the goal on DVD with boss Ian Holloway to remind him he’s still around.

To put the icing on the cake of a great weekend of football, the U19 Australian team qualified for the U20 World Cup in Colombia next year by making the semi-finals of the AFC Asian U19 Championships in China. The Young Socceroos beat the UAE 4-2 in extra-time, with goals from Matthew Leckie and Matthew Fletcher in the additional period handing Australia an automatic spot in the South American tournament.