Some 15 years since they began their careers together in Sydney’s outer suburbs, Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton are once again on the same plane and, in the process, have given Australia’s A-League the biggest boost in its short history. Six weeks before the season's start came confirmation that two of the Socceroos’ most recognisable names would return home to link up with the league’s two biggest clubs: Kewell to Melbourne Victory and Emerton to his hometown side Sydney FC.
Kewell has spent the last few years in Turkey with Galatasaray, and is the only Australian to win the UEFA Champions League, which he did with Liverpool in 2005. For many years Kewell was the one household name that transcended Australia’s sporting divide. His arrival at Melbourne airport last month demonstrated that he has lost none of his star power, with an enormous media contingent and a horde of chanting Victory fans on hand in a scene never before played out for an Australian footballer. More new ground was ploughed as several thousand turned out at Victory’s stadium for Kewell’s first training session.
In keeping with his reserved off-field demeanour, Emerton’s arrival was more low-key, but the impact has been equally significant. With more than 20 professional sporting teams in Sydney, Australia’s largest metropolis could lay claim to the most congested sporting marketplace globally.
However, in Emerton, their local-boy made-good, they have a well-known name who has returned at the height of his powers. The 32-year-old is the first to return to Australia during an English Premier League season, departing Blackburn Rovers after eight years, having previously enjoyed a highly successful period with Feyenoord.
“There was always going to be big expectations put upon Harry and myself,” Emerton told FIFA.com. “But it’s all about the league, so I’m just happy that us coming back has generated so much interest in football in Australia and I hope that continues for many years to come.”
With erratic crowd figures over recent years, following an initial boom period across the league’s early seasons, and with a television deal coming up for renewal, the coming season is a critical one for the still fledgling competition. Reasons for optimism arise from a number of quarters – not only the new-found star-power – and, partly on the back of a stunning finale to last season, club memberships are up 20 per cent across the league.
The impetus provided by Kewell, for many years a poster boy for the Australian game, and Emerton, the Socceroos most-capped outfield player, cannot be underestimated. Australia have one of the most competitive sporting environments in the world with four codes of football alone competing for the attention of the sports fan. Already the media attention generated by the pair has been substantial, despite the Rugby League and Australian Rules Football seasons reaching their respective finals in recent weeks.
There was always going to be big expectations put upon Harry and myself.
With the league enjoying growth in a number of areas, not least of all in playing standard, Football Federation Australia have been promoting the league heavily. “The homecoming of stars Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton has proved what we’ve always said – that the Hyundai A-League is fast emerging as one of Asia’s top professional competitions,” said FFA chief executive Ben Buckley at this week’s launch. This season’s marketing campaign for the league is ‘We Are Football’, a clear sign of the game’s intent to plant its marker down firmly in the crowded sporting landscape Down Under.
Consensus was that last season’s A-League was marked by a significant leap in the quality of football. Leading the way were champions Brisbane Roar who will commence the new campaign seeking to build upon a 28-match unbeaten run when the new season commences on Saturday. The Roar played a high-tempo short-passing game under former Young Socceroo coach Ange Postecoglou, and their belief in the system has been unshakeable.
Never was that better illustrated than with two minutes of last year’s championship decider remaining, when, with the team facing a heartbreaking defeat, goalkeeper Michael Theoklitos elected to play the ball out from the back rather than the time-honoured long ball in such situations. The Roar were duly rewarded with a last-gasp equaliser and a penalty shoot-out victory, to claim their maiden crown in front of 50,000 delirious home fans.
Now the challenge for the Roar will be to maintain that momentum, without influential skipper Matt McKay who has joined Rangers. Postecoglou has, however, brought in reinforcements from far and wide and is leading the way as the A-league fields the most diverse cross-section of nationalities in its six-year history. Long-serving Bahrain international and AFC Player of the Year nominee Mohamed Adnan being a key recruit and whose signing - the first Bahraini to feature in the competition - indicates a new-found willingness to look further afield than has traditionally been the case.
Elsewhere, 2008 Asian runners-up Adelaide United have recruited well with Socceroo defender Jon McKain and former Ukrainian international Evgeniy Levchenko both arriving in the City of Churches. Among other key international signings are Brazilian midfielder Fred who links with Melbourne Heart, having previously starred for city rivals Victory after a lengthy MLS stint with DC United. Perth Glory, the leading light of the former National Soccer League, have strengthened with New Zealand’s 2010 FIFA World Cup™ star Shane Smeltz and former Republic of Ireland midfielder Liam Miller among the new recruits. On the debit side, the likes of McKay and reigning A-League player of the year Marcos Flores have departed, while metronomic Socceroo midfielder Jason Culina will miss the entire season with ongoing knee problems.
The nature of a league operating under a salary cap means the title race seems to once again be wide open with all ten teams having reason to believe that a play-off berth is eminently achievable. Whether anyone is equipped to take Brisbane’s crown may not be answered until the final day of the season next April, and Postecoglou sees the rivalry as a positive. “If we stay where we were last year, we will get overtaken,” he said. “The league went up a level last year but we believe we can play better football this time around.”