The A-League season kicks off with a host of returning Socceroos in its ranks
As the A-League enters its fifth season, and looks for further growth, its looming big crowd-pleaser will not be a player but a portly 54-year-old mining magnate who is friends with Senator Ted Kennedy and dines with Vladimir Putin.
Self-made billionaire Clive Palmer, who owns new league entrants Gold Coast United, in many ways symbolises the surging relevance of football in a country which, until a few years ago, seemed to care only about cricket, rugby and Aussie rules.
Palmer, who once played junior rugby league and confesses to being a total football novice, is reputedly worth £750million though he claims the real figure is closer to £3bn, which would make him Australia’s wealthiest man – and richer than shopping-centre king Frank Lowy, who chairs Football Federation Australia.
The combined influence and commercial muscle of Lowy and Palmer is something no other sport in Australia can claim, denoting football’s status as “new money” and the sport of far-reaching horizons. It would not have escaped Palmer, who sells iron ore to the Chinese, that football can be a handy language in international business relations.
Palmer, who likes to be hands on and talk brash about the prospects of his new A-League franchise, is freely being tipped to lead Gold Coast to a successful debut season. Save for the league’s restrictive salary cap, money has been no object in assembling the squad, which Palmer flies around the country in one of his private jets.
Coached by the media-savvy Miron Bleiberg, the Israeli-born former coach of Queensland Roar, the Gold Coast’s marquee signing was Jason Culina, 29, the Socceroo midfielder who rejected a lucrative contract extension offer from PSV in Holland in order to return in his prime and play in the sun-drenched resort of Gold Coast city.
Bleiberg has also brought in Shane Smeltz, last season’s top scorer from Wellington Phoenix, Ivorian teenage left-back Adama Traore, and three Brazilians, all hand-picked by the coach on a trip to Rio in March.
Culina leads an accelerating repatriation of Australian internationals from Europe. Perth Glory have recruited three: Mile Sterjovski from Derby County, Chris Coyne from Colchester and Jacob Burns from Romanian club Unirea Urziceni.
With the return of Culina and Sterjovski, and along with former Rangers defender Craig Moore (Brisbane Roar), John Aloisi (Sydney FC), formerly of Portsmouth, Osasuna and Alaves, and ex-PSV man Archie Thompson (Melbourne Victory), five members of Australia’s 2006 World Cup squad are now back home with A-League clubs.
Though crowd averages dropped for the first time in the league’s short history last season – to 12,180 – a new surge is expected on the back of the league expanding from eight to
Apart from the headline-grabbing Gold Coast, the other new franchise are North Queensland Fury, boasting the marquee signing of former Liverpool and England striker Robbie Fowler, who is destined to have the turnstiles clicking in tropical Townsville, provided he fully recovers from an injury that has sidelined him since his unveiling in February.
The third source of curiosity having the fans and the media buzzing is a reclad Sydney FC, whose underperformance since winning the title in 2005, the league’s first season, has been the venture’s distinctive disappointment. By birthright Australia’s glamour club, given that it represents the country’s biggest and most cosmopolitan city, Sydney have new owners, a new imported coach and a healthy volume of locally bred youth and promise.
At the helm is 46-year-old Czech coach Vitezslav Lavicka, formerly of Sparta Prague, whose central European technical mantra and iron-fist discipline is bringing a new culture to a club often accused in the past of player rule and dressing room chaos.
Still leading Sydney’s attack is Aloisi, the country’s highest paid home-based footballer (of any code), who, at 33, is desperate to put behind him a dreadful season which yielded him just two goals, and maybe even play himself back into calculations as a Socceroo starter at the World Cup in South Africa.
The fickle Sydney crowds are destined to return in the new season, though it is doubtful if they will match the numbers in rival city Melbourne where the reigning champions Melbourne Victory enjoy a following that gave them an average of 26,000 compared to Sydney’s shrinking 12,000 last season.
With all the sexy talk about Sydney and Gold Coast, Melbourne have been preparing quietly. They took permanent ownership of elegant Costa Rican schemer Carlos Hernandez, the league’s best player last season who had been on loan, and took another year’s lease on 35-year old Kevin Muscat, the former Wolves, Rangers and Millwall enforcer, whose leadership qualities were at the centre of Victory’s two titles in four years.
The new, expanded A-League will be a subject of some excitement and the ebullient Palmer will be at the centre of it. The crowds will be bigger, but the smart money will probably be on Melbourne retaining their status as its ruler.