A-League plan coming together as national heroes return home
Paul Winslow looks ahead to the start of the new A-League season, and in particular the homecoming of two of Australian football's biggest stars
In 2011, two crack 'soccer' players were invited to play in a league where most people wouldn't commit. They promptly escaped from Blackburn and Istanbul to the Australian underground. Today, still wanted by the Football Federation of Australia, they survive on an absolute fortune. If you have a problem, if there's no other football to watch and if you think Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton are the best things in football, maybe you can watch... the A-League.
Let's only hope that the return to Australia of the aforementioned Kewell and Emerton is more successful than the remake of the A Team and more successful than that slightly laboured introduction shall we?
Outside of Australia the news of Kewell and Emerton returning home to play in the A-League would perhaps be worthy of nothing more than the raised eyebrow that would usually accompany any move by a couple of past-their-best 30-somethings. But down under the news was almost enough to knock all of Australia's other sports off the back pages for a while.
Melbourne Victory Chairman Anthony Di Pietro went so far as to describe his club's procurement of Kewell as 'the biggest player signing in the history of Australian sport'.
Such is Kewell's star quality that when rumours first started doing the rounds about his possible return it wasn't just a question of which club he would go to, but what deal he would have with the Football Federation of Australia, who wanted him as the face of the A-League with a separate contract to that effect. That's the equivalent of Messi moving to England and having a contract with the club he signed for and another one with the Premier League.
As it transpired his contract is solely with Melbourne Victory, who will hand over a hefty whack of the extra membership, attendance and sponsorship money his arrival will garner. Emerton's subsequent signing for Sydney FC wasn't greeted with quite the same fanfare, but having them both back in the fold is an undoubted coup for the A-League.
As luck would have it, Kewell's Melbourne Victory, installed as favourites , play Emerton's Sydney FC in the first game of the season. Their arrival seems to have done the trick, with rumours of 50,000 fans expected to turn up to watch them. There was a real danger that neither would be available to play because Australia, or the Qantas Socceroos as they are so nattily titled, play a friendly game with Malaysia the night before and a World Cup Qualifier four days later.
The idea of the A-League's two big recruits not playing in the season openers because of representative duty must have brought the League hierarchy out in a cold sweat, but as it is Australia coach Holger Osieck conveniently decided they are not fit enough to play international football.
You could be forgiven for wondering which genius was responsible for scheduling the start of a league season during an international 'break'. The answer lies in football's subservience to other sports over here. While Australian interest in cricket has diminished somewhat since their thrashing in the Ashes (perhaps they talk about it among themselves, but not within earshot of an Englishman), there are several other sports that will always be foremost in Australian hearts.
In Melbourne, Aussie Rules (AFL) reigns supreme (if a city could actually match the cliche of living and breathing something then Melbourne would live and breathe AFL). In Sydney and Queensland it's very much a case of Rugby League, then Rugby Union and a bit of AFL thrown in for good measure. It's bad enough that the rugby world cup is taking place, but last weekend saw both the AFL and NRL Grand Finals.
Faced with that competition, the A-League decided to push back its start to avoid clashing with the finals and to attempt to fill the sporting void that is left after them. This involved a calculated risk that none of the Socceroos squad would come from the domestic teams. That was all decided before the return of the prodigal sons and and it's only their apparent lack of fitness (obviously they will be deemed fit enough to play for their clubs) that means it isn't looking like a monumental error of judgement.
But it's also proof of just how big a deal it is that their two biggest players are now back in the domestic fold. The fact that every other player in the Aussie squad is employed overseas (in ten different countries) only proves just how big their return is. And so, by accident as much as design, opening night will see Harry and Brett going toe-to-toe, and while that prospect will undoubtedly boost the attendance in Melbourne (thankfully the international match is in Sydney) it remains to be seen how long the novelty effect will last.
Cameo seasons by Dwight Yorke and Robbie Fowler have done little to really boost the A-League, but having two genuine homegrown stars may have a real impact. Both have made the right noises about giving something back to the game in Australia and can be applauded for that; in fact Kewell has never actually played at the top level in Australia, having been spirited away to Europe as a teenager.
But can two players really make that much of a difference? The answer will not be apparent at Melbourne's Etihad Stadium on Saturday, but several weeks into the season and even if Kewell can pull in crowds on a wet Tuesday night in Perth, it promises to be a short-term gain. Not unless a flurry of other players returned or other international stars are attracted can the overall level of play be raised to subsequently have a positive affect on the popularity of the sport. But maybe it's time to just enjoy them while they are here.
More than one of my English friends has admitted they're more likely to head down to watch a game now Harry is around, so maybe even if they can't convince the Aussies to start watching they'll at least pick up a few Poms.