The Alessandro Del Piero-led Sydney FC will kick-start today’s new A-League season when they host Newcastle Jets with the competition's crowds, TV audiences and memberships at an all-time high. “Football will become the biggest and most popular sport in the country,” said Football Federation Australia chief executive David Gallop at this week’s launch of season nine, in a sign of the new found confidence and enthusiasm for football Down Under.
It is a bold statement in a sports-mad nation whose infatuation has historically extended mostly to pursuits other than the round-ball game. Gallop’s comments are, however, a sign of how the game in Australia has expanded at a warp speed over the past decade.
The headline achievements have been Australia’s success in reaching consecutive FIFA World Cups™, joining the Asian Football Confederation and the successful inception of the A-League. Dig a little deeper and the rapidly increasing influence of Australian coaches has been another less obvious sign of maturity for the Aussie game.
The early years of the A-League saw some club owners have a clear preference for overseas coaches, with the likes of Pierre Littbarski, Terry Butcher, Richard Money and Steve McMahon enjoying vastly differing levels of success. Fast forward to the present day and nine of the ten A-League clubs boast home-grown coaches, with Adelaide United’s Spanish mentor Josep Gombau the lone exception.
Significant too, is that the fact that the top three teams last season were headed by former Socceroos; Central Coast Mariners’ Graham Arnold, Western Sydney Wanderers’ Tony Popovic and Melbourne Victory’s Ange Postecoglou. Four of this year’s ten coaches have had experience with Australian national teams – most notably Arnold and Sydney FC’s Frank Farina at the helm of the Socceroos - while there are also two veterans of the Socceroos’ breakthrough 2006 FIFA World Cup campaign in Popovic and Melbourne Heart’s John Aloisi.
“I think there is a lot more faith and trust in Aussie coaches,” Arnold told FIFA.com comparing the current environment to the old National Soccer League (NSL). “The passion of Australian coaches has never been in question. They are all willing and wanting to learn. For me, being able to coach in international football - and perhaps being honest I wasn’t ready at the time - but being able to do that, and doing it the hard way, has made me a better person and coach.”
Lone New Zealand club Wellington Phoenix will be led by two-time championship winning coach Ernie Merrick. Though his voice still contains more than a hint of his Scottish upbringing, Merrick has, other than a recent stint with the Hong Kong national team, been coaching in Australia since 1979.
“There has been good infrastructure put in place to help develop coaches,” said Merrick to FIFA.com. “Now it is a fully professional set-up and players want to continue in coaching. When I first started in the NSL it was very much part-time. There are lots of opportunities to develop as a coach and it is good to see so many locals involved.”
“No longer are Australian coaches seen as second rate. In fact really it has been the opposite and a lot of overseas coaches have really struggled here.”
Aussies return home
The new season has been marked by the return of numerous Australian players from overseas clubs, many of them no doubt with an eye on Brazil 2014 selection. Among the returnees who have previously worn the Green and Gold are Mathew Spiranovic (Western Sydney Wanderers), Nathan Burns (Newcastle Jets), Nick Carle (Sydney FC) and Matt McKay (Brisbane Roar). Notable too, is the return of one-time Socceroo icon Harry Kewell who has linked with former international team-mate Aloisi at Melbourne Heart after a year out of the game.
A further 11 overseas players have been recruited this season, with 27 nations now represented across the ten clubs. Among the new international names are experienced Chile defender Pablo Contreras who has joined Melbourne Victory, while Malta captain Michael Mifsud has inked a deal with cross-town rivals Heart.
The highest profile import remains former Juventus and Italy superstar Alessandro Del Piero at Sydney FC, who brings both extra global attention and new spectators in equal measure. Del Piero continues to defy the evidence of his 38-year-old birth certificate with sparkling and energetic displays last term yielding 14 goals in 24 appearances.
And Del Piero says players coming from overseas should not underestimate the level of the A-League. "It's tough here,” said the 2006 World Cup-winner. “The football is strong and difficult. It's wrong if someone thinks they can come here and say, 'I played in Europe so I can go to Australia and it is very easy'. That is not true. The teams are organised, and there are some very good players."