Last year’s pre-season hype was absent from the A-League launch this week. No multiple press conferences, no photo opportunities, and most of all, no global superstar.
The A-League kicked off on Thursday without the marquee names of the past. There is no Alessandro Del Piero or David Villa this season. There isn’t even a Nicola Berti.
Perhaps the lack of big (ageing) name signings is a sign of a new maturity. Melbourne Victory won the championship last season with overseas players such as Frenchman Matthieu Delpierre (who won the Bundesliga with Stuttgart in 2007), French-born Tunisian Fahid Ben Khalfallah, and Brazilian Guilherme Finkler.
The champions have retained most of their star players, losing only Socceroo midfielder Mark Milligan, who signed for Baniyas SC in the UAE. He has been replaced by international teammate Oliver Bozanic.
Melbourne Victory seems to be the team to beat. Their cross-city rivals, Melbourne City, may provide sterner competition than in previous seasons. Gone are the ageing, fading stars. Younger players such as Michael Zullo and Corey Gameiro have joined the club, along with experienced defender Ivan Franjic. With the ever-improving Aaron Mooy controlling the midfield, City is a realistic chance to win silverware this season.
Last season’s runners up Sydney FC will challenge for the title. The club has signed Slovakian international and former Beşiktaş forward Filip Hološko and Serbian midfielder Miloš Ninković. Hološko will replace Marc Janko, who scored 16 goals last season.
The other Sydney team, Western Sydney Wanderers, had a significant clear-out at the end of last season. The club won the Asian Champions League, but performed abysmally in the A-League. There are question marks over the quality of some of manager Tony Popovic’s signings. This could be another character-building season for Wanderers.
Adelaide United changed manager during the off-season. The energetic and popular Josep Gombau left the club and has been replaced by fellow Spaniard Guillermo Amo. There’s quality in the Reds’ squad, and the playing list has been topped up with Mate Dugandzic and Iacopo La Rocca.
“Perth Glory finished last season in ignominy, having been found guilty of salary cap breaches. Despite finishing near the top of the table, the club was denied their place in the finals. Top scorer Andy Keogh was released and is now playing in Thailand. Goalkeeper Vukovic has moved to Melbourne Victory, but has been replaced by veteran keeper Ante Covic.”
Brisbane Roar has lurched from crisis to crisis during the off-season. The club that dominated the league, winning championships and setting records along the way, is now late paying players and has alienated its fan base. New coach John Aloisi is returning to management, having worked at broadcaster FoxSports following an unsuccessful stint at the helm of Melbourne City. Star midfielder Luke Brattan has been released and is rumoured to be close to signing for Manchester City.
The only club preventing Brisbane Roar from taking the title of “League Basketcase” is Newcastle Jets. The club is currently being run by the FFA after former owner Nathan Tinkler placed the club in voluntary administration in May. Nonetheless, the club managed to sign two new imports, Brazilian playmaker Leonardo and Serbian striker Miloš Trifunović. Newcastle has a chance to make the finals, but then again, six of the league’s ten teams make the finals, so it’s not beyond the realms of fantasy.
Wellington Phoenix surprised many last year, leading the league with only a few rounds left before the wheels fell off. The New Zealand team has signed former Dutch youth international Jeffrey Sarpong but has lost star striker Nathan Burns to FC Tokyo. Inscrutable manager Ernie Merrick has otherwise kept the core of his squad together. A top six finish seems likely.
Central Coast Mariners are something of an A-League anomaly. The club is named after a region, its home ground has palm trees and giant inflatable sauce bottles at one end, its home crowds are often petite, and yet the club has topped the league and won the championship. Last season saw the club sack its manager – a first! Former youth league coach Tony Walmsley has taken over, and has signed a group of young players. He has also signed Irishman Roy O’Donovan, who will bring experience to the squad.
It is no accident that the A-League kicks off this week – the major domestic football leagues, the AFL (Australian rules football) and NRL (rugby league), staged their grand finals last weekend. Association football is a midget compared to the giant that is the AFL. The AFL recently signed a six-year, $2.5 billion broadcast deal. In 2012, the A-League secured a four-year, $160m broadcast deal.
There is no promotion or relegation to or from the A-League. There is no national second-tier competition, just State-based leagues. Debate continues in the media and across the internet as to the feasibility of promotion/relegation. At the moment, the simple answer is that the money isn’t there.
The State league clubs at least have the chance to pit themselves against A-League opposition during the FFA Cup, the national knockout competition. Adelaide United won the inaugural competition last year. The semi-finals will be played later in October, featuring three clubs from Melbourne, including Hume City, a club with Turkish roots based in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.
The opening match of A-League Season 11 saw Western Sydney defeated at home by Brisbane Roar. After a three-month off-season, the fans are ready for the action to begin again.
Ian Kerr is editor of Australian football culture magazine, Thin White Line. Visit thinwhitelinemagazine.com for more and for subscriptions.
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