Melbourne win the climax to the A-League season.

By Les Murray in Sydney
On Australia’s societal landscape nothing throbs with more intensity than the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne, the country’s two biggest cities. The mutual dislike is right up there with that of Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, or Paris and Marseille in France.

But, because Melbourne’s religion is Aussie rules football and Sydney is a rugby league town, that rivalry has rarely manifested itself in sport. That is until the A-League was launched in 2005 when teams of an equal sense of ambition, snobbery and one-upmanship were planted in each city.

Although Sydney FC galloped away with the honours in year one, winning the title under coach Pierre Littbarski, and with the decorated Dwight Yorke on their roster, the mantle of Australia’s leading club has pretty much been held by Melbourne Victory ever since.

At the end of February Victory became the first club to win a second A-League championship, adding to the title it won in splendid style in 2007. Indeed, the Melbourne honour roll for season 2008-09 makes decidedly unpleasant reading in Sydney.

Melbourne won the title in a drama-filled grand final against Adelaide United, finished top of the league ladder, won the pre-season tournament, scored the most goals and attracted the biggest crowds, almost double that of Sydney.

By contrast Sydney had a most miserable season, finishing out of the play-offs in fifth place – which in an eight-team league is an embarrassment – and watched by the lowest number of fans in its short history. This despite boasting of a high calibre squad of players and playing to the country’s biggest market.

Sydney spent most of the season trying to avoid bad press, brought on by poor results, an under-performance by its “marquee player” John Aloisi and the controversial behaviour of its coach, the ex-Socceroo captain, John Kosmina.

Before the season ended Sydney’s ownership was taken over by Russian magnate David Traktovenko, who found himself having to choose between Kosmina and Aloisi, who in turn had publicly fallen out. Kosmina, who has a habit of creating bad headlines by confronting referees, opposing coaches and journalists, was shown the door and Aloisi, on a salary of £630,000, the highest in any code of football in Australia, was retained.

Traktovenko, a previous owner of Zenit St Petersburg, promises a new broom with the appointment of ex-Sparta Prague boss Vitezslav Lavickan and the recruitment of at least four new players.

Meantime Melbourne Victory are basking in their success and in their reputation as the most stable club in the country.

In fact the league season was dominated not by Melbourne’s rivalry with Sydney but with Adelaide United, who also had a stellar season, advancing to the final of the Asian Champions League (which they lost to Gamba Osaka), finishing second on the table only on goal difference and making the grand final at Melbourne’s Telstra Dome.

Melbourne’s 1-0 win in the decider, in front of 53,000 fans, was blemished only by the fact that Adelaide’s Brazilian import Cristiano was wrongly sent off in the 11th minute, for alleged elbowing, and it had to overcome and outlast a plucky if defensive Adelaide.

Now Melbourne can look forward to playing in the Asian Champions League in 2010, as can Adelaide who also qualified by making the grand final.

Adelaide’s splendid run in the ACL last year created huge interest in Australia and established participation in the tournament as the ultimate prize for clubs in the A-League, much like the role the UEFA Champions League plays in the ambitions of European clubs.
Les Murray