Game rising in popularity and excitement
15 October ~ When it comes to creating international headlines, the signings of former Plymouth defender Marcel Seip and and ex-Coventry striker Michael Mifsud are unlikely to register on the same level as Alessandro del Piero or even Emile Heskey. But the lack of star names joining Australia's A-League this close season belies a competition that is growing in confidence and homegrown talent. With the first round of matches of the 2013-14 season already played last weekend, the Australian public's appetite for soccer shows no signs of abating.
This is fuelled partly by the Socceroos' qualification for the upcoming World Cup but also a thrilling climax to the previous league campaign. New club Western Sydney Wanderers were denied a fairytale first season when they were beaten in the Grand Final by the A-League's smallest team, Central Coast Mariners.
This season looks even more unpredictable. Melbourne Victory may be the choice of most pundits for the title but they failed to convince in a 0-0 draw against city rivals Melbourne Heart. Meanwhile, the Mariners, Wanderers and previous champions Brisbane Roar all have designs on the title, while glamour-club Sydney and the aspirational Adelaide United, along with the Heart, will be aiming for the post-season play-offs.
If there has been a theme in the close season business leading up to this campaign, it's been to buy Australian. With the aforementioned World Cup looming large, many fringe Socceroos have returned home or opted to stay in the A-League in the hope of catching the eye of whoever the new national coach is, following Holger Osieck's sacking on Saturday.
Patrick Kisnorbo, James Troisi and Harry Kewell have all signed on for the forthcoming season while Mark Milligan, one of the league's outstanding performers, rebuffed interest from Crystal Palace over the summer to stay with Melbourne Victory.
The golden generation of Kewell, Mark Viduka, Tim Cahill et al never quite hit the heights the squad hinted at and there's a feeling that Australian soccer is still undergoing a period of transition, although plenty of A-League teams are promoting promising youth-team players into their main squad. The league is growing in popularity, attendances are up and the evidence of the summer and first round of games suggests it doesn't need big name signings to sell the sport to the public (although the presence of Del Piero at Sydney will always boost crowds).
Combine this with what promises to be one of the closest championships yet and 2013-14 could be the year that the A-League matures into a competition that has the confidence to compete with the likes of the two rugby codes, cricket and AFL for the Australian public's affections. Gary Andrews