It's more than a question of semantics down under, writes Matthew Hall

This has been a long hot summer for Australian soccer fans. Sorry – football fans. The wording is important. Australia kicked off 2005 with the Australian Soccer Association changing its name to Football Federation Australia and decreeing that the game will be officially referred to by its proper name rather than soccer.

The change is significant. Two major newspapers – the Sydney Morning Herald and its Sunday edition, the Sun-Herald – officially changed editorial policy to accommodate the “new” wording even if most other mainstream media continue to refer to rugby league and Australian Rules as football.

It’s more than symbolism. Change is sweeping through football in Australia. Which is why this summer has seen drought. Last April, the National Soccer League played its final match, shut down by the sport’s new administration. This summer? No football. The NSL was a dead duck as far as the general public was concerned. Clubs were considered out of touch and out of date. Sydney, for example, was home to five teams, none attracting more than a few thousand fans. Television stations were uninterested in broadcasting games, let alone investing in rights, where Marconi (traditionally an Italian immigrant club) played Sydney United (where a truck sold CDs by Croatian pop singers in front of the ground) in a ramshackle stadium in the far outer suburbs. The aforementioned newspapers would be lucky to give postage-stamp space to match reports.

The NSL’s closure had its genesis in Frank Lowy, Australia’s second richest man, being picked by the government to run the sport after previous administrations were found to be inept (at best) and corrupt (at times). Lowy, a shopping-centre developer and owner of a now defunct NSL team 20 year ago, installed John O’Neill, the former CEO of the Australian Rugby Union, as the sport’s new boss.

O’Neill had just run the 2003 Rugby World Cup and started his job admitting he knew very little about “soccer”. The old guard grimaced when he poached half his new staff from the ARU but, ironically, it is O’Neill who has reclaimed the name football, something the traditionalists would never have attempted.

Lowy and O’Neill may be successful in re-invigorating the local game, if only because they are ruthless. Australia has produced players such as Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill and Mark Schwarzer recently, but the local league has been a disaster. The new plan: one team in six major cities, another from a regional centre, as well as a team from New Zealand. The winning bids, an­nounced at a bells-and-whistles function in Sydney last October, revealed a league with new teams Melbourne Victory, Sydney FC, Central Coast Mariners (from a holiday and retirement region an hour north of Sydney), a rejuvenated former Brisbane suburban league side in Queensland Lions and former successful NSL clubs Perth Glory, Adelaide United and Newcastle United.

Throw in New Zealand Knights and you have the Hyundai A-League, televised on cable TV and set to kick off in August after a warm-up tournament in May (to decide the entrant for the Club World Cham­pionship). Interest rose even without a ball being kicked. Terry Venables was announced as Newcastle United’s technical director before an agreement had been reached (and despite denials he will come to Australia for a month) and Steve McMahon is to be Perth Glory’s new coach. Sydney are the league’s self-appointed glamour club and, at the time of writing, have had 11 high-profile names linked with their coaching position: John Gregory, Brian Kidd, Jean Tigana and Arie Haan are all in the running for the job.

There are headaches. An AUS$1.5 million (£600,000) salary cap per club has sparked debate over the quality of players and a showdown with the players’ union looms over the season only lasting 21 games. Two names linked with Sydney have added something of a novelty factor. Alejandro Salazar, the son of marathon legend Alberto Salazar, turned down Major League Soccer’s draft to try his post-college career in Australia. The other? Dwight Yorke. His agents have sounded out Sydney about becoming a salary-cap busting “marquee player”. Each club is allowed one “star” that will bring fans through the gates. The league, which will run from August across summer until February, has said it does not want to become a retirement home for European league veterans, but Yorke, no stranger to holidays in Sydney in recent years, is being seriously considered.

From WSC 217 March 2005. What was happening this month

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