Australia’s A-League is set to reach a new level of esteem on the back of an influx of marquee signings. Unprecedented interest has been sparked Down Under during the past month with the arrival of Alessandro Del Piero, Emile Heskey and Shinji Ono for the new season, which kicks off on Friday.
The trio have provided massive impetus to a league which last season enjoyed significant levels of growth across a number of key areas, including television ratings, memberships, and most importantly, crowds. The arrival of three well-credentialed players, with a remarkable eight FIFA World Cup™ appearances between them, is perfectly timed for Australia’s still fledgling competition.
Season eight of the A-League is also significant for the arrival of the competition’s newest club, Western Sydney Wanderers. Sydney’s sprawling inland suburbs have provided a significant quantity of national team stars in modern times, and it is hoped that the club’s much-anticipated advent will kick-start an increased level of interest in one of Australian football’s heartlands.
Sydney FC, having previously been able to lure the likes of Dwight Yorke, Juninho and Kazuyoshi Miura to name just a few, took their reputation for attracting headline-grabbing names to another level with the prized signature of Del Piero. It is an important coup for the Sky Blues as they continue to seek a larger slice of a diverse sports market, in a city which boasts more than 20 professional clubs across half-a-dozen sports.
Such was the impact of Del Piero’s arrival that one of Sydney’s two daily newspapers printed their back page entirely in Italian with pink La Gazzetta Dello Sport-style paper, as a tribute to Il Capitano. Sydney FC open their campaign this weekend with a trip to Wellington Phoenix, before what they hope will be a record crowd at home against Heskey’s Newcastle Jets.
Such is the interest in Del Piero’s Aussie odyssey that all Sydney FC matches are being broadcast live on Pay TV in Italy. It is a quantum leap in every sense from the last Italian FIFA World Cup-winner to feature in Australian club football. Francesco Graziani, a world champion at Spain 1982, showcased his skills in 1988 at a tiny suburban venue to less than 5,000 supporters, made up largely of Sydney’s Italian community, in a metaphor for the growth in the Australian game.
Del Piero’s off-field demeanour has been both sanguine and gracious, providing a sense that the Juventus icon is happy to play a role in helping develop football in Australia. “A lot of clubs contacted me, Italian teams too and I thank all of them,” said Del Piero at this week’s season launch. “But now my new adventure starts and I thank Sydney for this opportunity. I have met many people already around Sydney and I can see that soccer flows through their veins.”
Two hours north of Sydney, the Jets have enjoyed a massive injection, albeit less glamorous than that enjoyed by their state rivals, with the arrival of former long-serving England and Premier League striker Heskey. Already Jets’ season ticket sales are in excess of 10,000, this in a city with a population of approximately 250,000 and where Rugby League generally dominates.
“This is the most interest I've ever seen in the A-League since the inaugural season,” said Jets coach Gary van Egmond. “Football and non-football fans alike are all talking about it.”
This week, Australia’s highest-selling newspaper chain commenced a policy of referring to the game as football, rather than soccer. It is, on the surface, a superficial change but, seven years after the national association incorporated football into their title, the move indicates another step for the game taking a hold in the national sporting psyche.
Western Sydney Wanderers will make their home debut this weekend against last year’s table-topping Central Coast Mariners. Two home-grown talents will be at the team’s forefront with Michael Beauchamp, a member of Australia’s 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cup squads, to wear the captain’s armband, while former long-serving Socceroo defender Tony Popovic will coach the side.
However, the biggest triumph in the club’s short history was last Friday’s announcement that former AFC Player of the Year Ono, a hugely popular figure in his native Japan, would don the club’s Flamengo-inspired red and black hooped jersey after signing a two-year deal.
Further afield much interest will focus on Brisbane Roar - champions for the past two seasons - and their ability to maintain momentum in the wake of coach Ange Postecoglou’s departure to Melbourne Victory.
Stepping into the breach is Postecoglou’s former assistant, Rado Vidosic, father of Socceroo and Adelaide United midfielder Dario. The Roar have, however, clung to many of their key assets, including mercurial German midfielder Thomas Broich and the competition’s leading goalscorer last term, Albanian Besart Berisha.
With growing off-field interest and rapidly increasing on-field quality over recent years, it promises to potentially be a watershed campaign for what is still one of the globe’s youngest professional competitions.