The game in Australia is on the cusp of an exciting new era with the commencement of the much-anticipated Hyundai A-League this weekend. Eight teams will compete in the much-revamped domestic competition, which replaces the National Soccer League (NSL) that kicked its final ball last April after 28 years of existence.
The new tournament is based on a "one-team, one-city" model with just three clubs making the transition from the ultimate season of the NSL: Adelaide United, Newcastle Jets and perennial pace-setters Perth Glory.
Joining them are Queensland Roar, Central Coast Mariners, Sydney FC, Melbourne Victory as well as Auckland-based New Zealand Knights who will be the lone representatives of Oceania's second biggest footballing nation.
For the first time there will be a centralised marketing plan with significant expenditure by the governing body to ensure inroads are made into what is one of the most competitive sporting market places in the world. All competing teams have been required to meet minimum off-field standards while a salary cap will help ensure the ongoing financial viability of each entity.
The new-look and fully professional league has seen the return from Europe of a number of Australian players including current or former national teamers Archie Thompson (Lierse), Kevin Muscat (Millwall), Ned Zelic (Wacker Tirol) and David Zdrilic (Eintracht Trier).
However it is not just returning Australian players that have been tempted by the combination of long summers and an enthusiasm to partake in something fresh and innovative.
Clubs are permitted to field one 'marquee' player outside the limitations of the salary cap with the highest profile recruit undoubtedly being former Manchester United and current Trinidad & Tobago star Dwight Yorke, who will enjoy at least the next two summers in the harbour-city of Sydney. Perth Glory have attracted veteran English striker Brian Deane, while lesser known but equally intriguing are Shengqing Qu, a Chinese international striker who has hooked up with Adelaide United, and talismanic former Korean international Tae-Yong Shin, to whom Queensland Roar will look for inspiration.
Reflecting Australia's modern multicultural society, the international flavour gets richer with players hailing from countries as diverse as Uruguay, Solomon Islands, USA, Switzerland, Northern Ireland, Japan and Belgium. Add to the mix the coaching personalities of former FIFA World Cup-winner Pierre Littbarski of Germany, England and Liverpool legend Steve McMahon, and John Adshead, who took New Zealand to their only FIFA World Cup appearance back in 1982, and Australians look set to feast on tasty tucker this season.
Bridging the gap
Along with a number of heavyweight scalps at international level, the last decade saw players of the calibre of Harry Kewell (Liverpool), Tim Cahill (Everton), Mark Viduka (Middlesbrough), Brett Emerton (Blackburn Rovers), John Aloisi (Alaves) and Marco Bresciano (Parma) make the successful climb to Europe's top leagues, while the base of the game in Australia is at an all-time high with more junior players than the traditionally popular Rugby codes or Australian Rules Football.
The challenge of putting into place a viable and exciting 'bridge' between the two ends of the spectrum has been met with typical gusto by Football Federation Australia Chairman Frank Lowy and Chief Executive John O'Neill. One of the nation's wealthiest individuals, Lowy is well known in Australia. But he is admired and respected in equal measures among the football fraternity due to his long association with the game and having been instrumental in establishing the NSL some 30 years prior. Upon taking the reins in 2003, Lowy quickly moved to enlist the support of O'Neill, who had overseen the successful growth of Rugby Union in Australia over the past decade.
The duo quickly set about establishing a competition with broad appeal that would give the many amateur players a competition with which they could identify.
"Our aim is to go mainstream," said O'Neill at the time of the announcement of the Hyundai A-League last November. "The million or so boys, girls, mums and dads who take to the park each weekend for fun or competition will be a prime audience for the Hyundai A-League.
"We will reach these people through a totally new family-oriented package that is strong on quality football and community engagement."
The inaugural Hyundai A-League should coincide with Australia's historic progression to the Asian Football Confederation. With the momentous move formally scheduled to occur on 1 January next year, there remains the likelihood that Australian clubs will be competing in the next edition of the Asian Champions League.
To that end, after 21 rounds the top four teams will play-off over four weeks in February for the right to be called the first champions in a new era for Australian football.