Australia needs long-term plan for success
20 September ~ It's not every day the A-League welcomes an international striker with more than 20 years' experience at the top level in Europe, a goalscorer in the knockout stages of the World Cup with hundreds of appearances for a Champions League-winning club. So you can imagine the excitement when it was announced that Emile Heskey would be joining the Newcastle Jets. Of course Heskey was playing not so much second fiddle as occasional triangle accompaniment to Alessandro Del Piero, whose arrival on a two-year contract at Sydney FC has sent the Australian football world into a collective frenzy of adulation.
Rightly so, as Del Piero is by far the biggest talent to have graced the A-League since its establishment in 2005. He eclipses the variable contributions of Dwight Yorke, Juninho and Robbie Fowler in publicity value even before stepping on the field.
While football basks temporarily in an unaccustomed spotlight, its supporters are uncomfortably aware that the game's fragility is also exposed. Expanded from an initial eight clubs to 11 by 2010-11, the league will begin in two weeks having lost two of the new outfits (North Queensland and Gold Coast) and pinning its hopes anxiously on a new western Sydney team that is both overdue and premature.
Heskey's Jets also teetered on the brink last season thanks to the erratic behaviour of their owner, Nathan Tinkler. One of the mining entrepreneurs whose rapidly acquired wealth and robust views increasingly influence Australian politics and many other realms, Tinkler's finances now seem increasingly precarious – with worrying implications for the Jets.
The new western Sydney club would doubtless welcome such a champion with open arms. The area is a rich heartland for football but a previously botched attempt to attract investors for a new club, followed by the hurried establishment of a replacement in April after the demise of Gold Coast, left only a few months for what should be a key club to start from scratch. The Western Sydney Wanderers, so far funded by Football Federation Australia, made an inauspicious start when two early friendlies were marred by crowd trouble, bringing back the kind of headlines the A-League was supposed to have banished for good.
Quality on the field is not among the league's main problems. It's generally felt to have risen although many potential stars, both Australian and foreign, are increasingly attracted to wealthier leagues in east Asia and the Middle East. Instead it suffers from a lack of steady investors with a football background, wobbly crowd figures, no free-to-air TV exposure and a tempestuous relationship between the clubs and the league administration.
The national team's limp 2-1 defeat to Jordan this month has made failure to qualify for the World Cup a real possibility. That would have a disastrous effect on both morale throughout the game and the revenue that helps to prop up the intermittently sagging A-League. If only the league could conjure up a massive and lasting injection of enthusiasm to kickstart its crowds and TV audiences, it might be able to stand on its own two feet. Over to you, Alessandro. And Emile. Mike Ticher