29 August 2005

Round One Report

Bumper crowds and expectant atmosphere? Check. Top-notch goals and plenty of them? Check. Quality attacking football? For the most part, check. Wholesome family entertainment? Aside from the half-time burst of crowd thuggery marring the Sydney vs Melbourne match, check. It seems the feedback from the masses who simply want to watch some beautiful football has thus far been extremely positive. Without a doubt the opening weekend of the Hyundai A-League has been a brilliant success. The FFA must surely be pleased.

First up, the amazing crowds. On Sunday, first the Queensland and then the Sydney audience broke the previous regular season attendance record. The turnout of 20,725 at Suncorp Stadium bettered the 1988 debut of the Brisbane Broncos in the NRL. Two hours later, 25,208 people entered Aussie Stadium with tickets, with another estimated 1,600 (some reports say 6,000) pouring into the ground as the gates were flung open just twenty minutes into the match. Traffic jams and a limited number of ticketing windows meant long queues for Sydney-siders. Ground staff didn't expect such a large walk-up audience! Thankfully, the press coverage about this has been positive, and the fans haven't really kicked up too much of a fuss (at least the stragglers got in for free). The lost sales figures may have hurt the club a little: 1,600 x $15 = $24,000. Unfortunately, what it proves is that the real average audience for Sydney games might be substantially lower. Walk-ups do not own memberships so they are not as likely to return. Hopefully, memberships will increase a touch and some of the walk-ups will at least pre-purchase in the future. Two other records were also broken on the weekend: highest average attendance (17,551) and highest total attendance (70,206!) in a regular season round.

Several of the league's top sharpshooters were in great form, with Dwight Yorke, Archie Thompson, Alex Brosque, Michael Baird and Carl Veart all opening their accounts in good style. Sean Devine was only denied by a somewhat dubious refereeing decision and, had he been on the pitch, the chances were good that Nick Mrdja would have scored too. In-form forwards are another encouraging sign for the administrators. Most of the goalkeepers did their utmost to deny the goals the FFA so desires, with Clint Bolton and Tom Willis especially good. Jason Petkovic was lucky to have a woeful punch into the back of his own net ruled out due to a non-existent foul, but there was nothing he could about Noel Spencer's long range smash. What a goal! The Mariners' captain was probably under a bit of pressure to hold his spot in the starting eleven, and although he had a quiet game his wonder goal should silence the critics for quite some time. As a tall, rangy foil to stocky Andre Gumprecht and sublime Tom Pondeljak in the triangular Mariners midfield, Spencer seems perfectly well placed to me.

Newcastle, Perth and New Zealand fans have commenced ringing alarm bells after witnessing their teams' losing performances. Surely it's too early to judge. The Jets probably needed to give Ante Milicic a solid run, and Adelaide's speedy flankers are will cause everyone concern. If any of the quality-on-paper teams is a touch rusty, it's Newcastle. Perth fans want coach McMahon gone, even more than they want McMahon Jr on the bench. The exclusion of Matt Horsley from the starting lineup raised eyebrows everywhere. If it's true that personal issues with McMahon are the root cause, both Horsley and Stuart Young might have to start looking for work elsewhere in the forthcoming weeks. Simon Colosimo needs to stop thinking about his declining Socceroos opportunities and focus on playing well for Glory. (The same goes for Newcastle's Ned Zelic.) Whining about non-club matters is inappropriate for atheletes aspiring to professionalism. Results must come first (unless you are Harry Kewell). The Knights can count themselves unfortunate: they encountered a speedy Roar side fired-up by a massive crowd and did well to hang on for 80 minutes. The injury to John Tambouras derailed their defensive efforts and sent them spiralling downhill, not unlike the national team losing Tony Popovic against Germany. What doubly hurts the Knights is that a loss to Sydney next week might consolidate a long period at the bottom of the cellar. Fortunately, they won't have to contend with Yorke and Sasho Petrovski (called up for national duties). But how will the loss of Late Night Dwight effect the size of the crowd?

It was a great opening round. Impartial observers must have been impressed. For the FFA, it's mission accomplished for round one. But they and we have to consign it to history, because as I write this we're just a handful of days away from round two. The A-League has definitely captured the attention of its target audience. The task now is sustaining the momentum.

Best of Round One:

Player: Alex Brosque (pictured) - kicking into top gear at just the right time

U-20 Player: Billy Celeski - running things in midfield for an AWOL Simon Colosimo

Coach: Ernie Merrick - switching fullbacks (Muscat on the left!?) and bravely starting Pantelidis rather than import Kitzbichler

Match: Sydney FC vs Melbourne Victory

Referee: Mark Shield

Goal: Noel Spencer - a 30 metre Steven Gerrard-like piledriver

4-4-2 Team of the Week:

Alex Brosque - Archie Thompson
Lucas Pantelis - Tom Pondeljak - Seo Hyuk-soo - Jonathan Richter
Ronnie Bull - Chad Gibson - Danny Hay - Carl Recchia
Clint Bolton

Subs: Richard Johnson, Andre Gumprecht, Carl Veart, Tom Willis

25 August 2005

The Transfer Market

How much is Alex Brosque worth? If an EPL club offered Perth Glory $200,000 for Naum Sekulovski, should they sell him? Or how about $2 million for Archie Thompson? Who will be the first player sold from one A-League club to another? What will happen if good players under free transfer are snapped up by European clubs, leaving local teams with nought for their investment? Will the team with the best reputation slowly dominate by cherry-picking the league?

Details about the future of the A-League remain unclear. The format for choosing the two qualifiers for the Asian Champions League, for instance, still hasn't been decided. Everyone agrees squad sizes are unsustainably small, and most teams have trailists or trainees in place, but no official changes to team structures have yet been sanctioned. Even ticket prices aren't firm. Worried about low attendances, Victory has slashed almost one-third of the cost of its general admission tickets for its opening home game on Father's Day.

Call me premature, but another under-analysed detail concerning the future of the league is the transfer market. There is a multitude of open-ended questions about the comparative market value of A-League players, the capacity of clubs to buy new players and the very real issue of losing talent to bigger clubs.

I imagine the FFA is strongly opposed to selling high profile players like Archie, and has or would emplace measures to deter the clubs from doing so. The salary cap, of course, is one such deterent. Nevertheless, we can't forget that every team in the league is subject to wider market forces. As such, it would be stupid of them not to position themselves in that market through the acquisition, trade and sale of players. To my knowledge, not a single player has actually been purchased by one of the A-League clubs, who have either acquired free transfers or paid token sums (e.g. $3,000) to state league clubs for their poachings. That's rather interesting, isn't it? How will the league change, I wonder, once maneuvers in the transfer market become more apparent?

So, from a purely economic standpoint who are the league's most valuable players? What kind of price would be too tempting to refuse? Which youth players are the most likely to be targeted by major European clubs?


And so it begins.

With just over 24 hours before the kickoff of the A-League, it's proving impossible to track the opening weekend media blitz, the pre-game hype in the fan forums, all of the comments of the sport's critical observers and, inevitably, the injuries to key players. Tomorrow is the biggest day in Australian football since the away game in Uruguay, and the biggest day in the local scene since ... well, it's unprecendented, really.

There's a lot of talk about attendances. Queensland Roar's offer of a new Hyuandai Getz for one lucky winner at every home game seems to have encouraged ticket sales, which have reached 13,000. Chairman Ribot has cleverly used the unexpectedly high pre-sales figure as fodder for additional promotion, earning the Roar high marks for their overall marketing strategies. With the Knights coming to town, expect a fired-up Roar side to push for early goals in order to maximise the returning audience for their next home game. Hickey is out for the New Zealanders, so it's likely they'll stack the midfield and play solo with Devine up front. They just beat the Solomon Islands national team 4-0, but it's hard to say if that result suggests improvement. My prediction: Roar 2 - 1 Knights.

The match at Aussie Stadium between Sydney vs Victory (arch-rivals before they've even played each other) is expected to draw a large audiences, with some predicting as many as 35,000, a near sell out. That would be something. Apparently ticket sales are currently about one-third of that figure, which is still good. On the park, Victory are looking a bit suspect. They're coming off a heavy loss and Mark Byrnes is out due to suspension. Sydney also lost their last competitive match, but only narrowly and without any of their top shelf strikers in the starting lineup. The result: Sydney 3 - 1 Victory.

Newcastle vs Adelaide, the battle of the Uniteds, is probably the least glamorous of the first round matchups. The Jets will be very concered about attendances after shambolic preparations during the pre-season drew them smaller crowds than any other club. Word is things are improving by the minute, and the diehard Adelaide travelling supporters should help a little in terms of numbers and a lot in atmosphere. The Jets have been underperforming on the park, but now that the real season has commenced I think we will see a different side. Only embarrasment and scorn will await another lacklustre show. Injuries will play a hand. Adelaide is without Shengqing Qu, while Milicic is back for the Jets. The score: Jets 2 - 0 Reds.

Perth and Central Coast go at it again after the Mariners eclipsed Glory in the final of the Pre-Season Cup. Of course the crowd should be fine in Perth, where the administration has fewer audience-related headaches than anywhere else in the country. With the return of Despotovski and Harnwell, and the arrival of Brian Deane, Perth will be able to play quite a few cards that remained held up their sleeve last week. Mrdja is out for the Mariners, which due to their depth and hard running style isn't a massive a blow, but in addition to the long travel it does swing things in Perth's favour. Should be a cracker: Glory 1 - 0 Mariners.

22 August 2005

Just How Good Are the Mariners?

After finishing runners-up to Sydney in the World Club Championships playoffs, annihilating Victory in the semi-final of the Pre-Season Cup (this competition needs a proper name!) and taking out Glory in the final, everyone wants to know if the Mariners are capable of winning the inaugural A-League title. We should also remember that the Mariners even have a win against Manchester United to their name, albeit in a shortened version of the game.

Lawrie McKinna has coyly declared that his team's chances are good, as good as any other team, including the glamour boys of Sydney. Incredibly, at the time of writing, his team is still considered a $12.00 medium-shot on TAB Sportsbet, giving a much better return than both Perth and Melbourne. Over at Sportal, Marc Fox has glowingly appraised the Mariners squad, but even he stops short of predicting they will finish in the top four and make the finals. Again, the Melbourne team soundly beaten by the Mariners is rated higher.

It's easy to understand why the Central Coasters are so often overlooked. They're a local or regional unit, not a big city team, there are few big names, they have less money than some of the other clubs, and so it goes. Clearly it's time to stop talking rubbish and pay respect to what has been done with the Mariners.

McKinna has recruited multi-positional talent that has proven experience at the NSL level. He has brought together a bunch of players that know each other's game, giving early season advantage over teams like the New Zealand Knights who are still getting to know each other's style and working on their best combinations. And they do actually have a healthy array of borderline "stars," with talented assets like Pondeljak, Mrdja, Beauchamp, Gumprecht, Spencer, Wilkinson and Crawley. It's difficult to imagine such a team inflicted with a savage multiple goal loss to, say, Adelaide United or Melbourne Victory.

The Hyundai A-League is going to be tight. As coaches have already said there will be a lot of drawn matches. The idea of one or two teams running away with the competition, leaving stragglers in their wake, is preposterous. That's great for football.

How good are the Mariners? Good enough to win it, for sure. Just like any of the other seven clubs.

17 August 2005

Eight More Players to Watch - Part 2 of 2

Continuing Eight More Players to Watch - Part 1 of 2...

The Newcastle United Jets are brim full of young talent. Stuart Musialik, Mark Bridge and Jobe Wheelhouse (both of whom missed out on the U-20 World Youth Cup due to injury), Brett Studman, Labinot Haliti. But if one individual stands out it has to be Guy Bates, an ex-Newcastle United (EPL) reserves player whose junior goal scoring exploits have no doubt left vivid memories among the Toon Army. If Bates can effectively pair up with Ante Milicic and translate all that youth potential into senior glory, opposition teams are going to have major headaches dealing with the Jets forward line. If not Bates, the same goes for highly rated Bridge. Reason: anyone attacker who finds himself in space is going to receive plenty of quality defence-splitting passes from the sublime Nick Carle.

Perth Glory's Nick Ward is already one of my favourite players in the league. His stature and calm demeanour on the field, soft first touch, shooting ability and off the ball movement are a pleasure to watch. Let's hope coach McMahon determines McMahon Jr superfluous to the club's endeavours, because Ward (along with Billy Celeski) deserves the opportunity to showcase his stuff to the Members Equity Stadium faithful on a full time basis. Nepotism cannot be allowed to negatively affect the future of local talent.

Queensland Roar's recruitment strategy has been one of the most interesting to follow. They've nabbed a pair of Koreans from the K-League, one of the most tremendous signings in the league in Alex Brosque, and plenty of local lads -- they've even slapped all things State of Origin in the face and named a New South Welshman as their inaugural captain. Another interstate import is Victorian Massimo Murdocca, who along with other youngsters Michael Baird, Jontie Richter and Matt McKay has been given a large dose of creative and attacking responsibility. If the club is going to have a successful season, these guys will have to fire. Who's to say they won't?

Sydney FC possess one of the more experienced squads in the league, but they're not short on young talent either. Head and shoulders above his teammates at the World Youth Cup, Mark Milligan is the future right fullback for the Socceroos. Currently out with the same injury affecting Harry Kewell (hernia), Milligan will likely make a quick return to the first team and stamp his class all over the league's best left midfielders, wingers and strikers. His matchups with the likes of Brown, Hutchinson, McKay, Brosque and Pantelis should be similarly as epic as his encounter with Holland and Arsenal's Quincy Owusu Abeyie (pictured).

14 August 2005

Mariners Crush Victory

Mariners 3 (Pondeljak 2, Brown) - Victory 1 (Byrnes)

Central Coast were too hot going forward Friday night, rampaging into the final of the pre-season cup with a deserved win over their hosts. Archie Thompson did indeed start up front for Melbourne. He played well but proved a touch off his best with a series of very near misses. For the Mariners, Tom Pondeljak was pushed forward in place of Russell Woodruffe, a move that paid dividends for Lawrie McKinna as Pondeljak proved to be the most productive attacker on the night, bagging a penalty and a nicely slotted-in goal during open play. Pondeljak often drifted into midfield, where Melbourne's lack of a dedicated holding player saw him unmarked and able to set up the play.

In the centre of the park, Noel Spencer (pictured) and Andre Gunprecht totally dominated Kristian Sarkies and Michael Ferrante in ball-winning and the possession game. Victory's game plan consisted of holding a narrow formation and driving either through balls to Thompson's feet or long looping balls to Danny Allsopp's head. Neither striker was particularly effective at holding up the play and bringing the midfielders into the game, but Thompson did manage to turn on the razzle-dazzle every now, and then and if not for a couple of great saves from Crawley he might have put Victory back on top in the second half. It was very disappointing to see Victory make very little effort to open up the game down the flanks. Kitzhbichler and Vlahos could not get behind the Mariners defence, and more than once it was obvious that Sarkies and Ferrante had nobody to pass to out wide.

It was quite the opposite for the Mariners, with Damien Brown having a blinder down the left flank. More than once his pace was far too much for Kevin Muscat, leaving the ex-Socceroo (and let's hope it stays that way) far behind the play. It was no surprise, really, that Brown's jinking runs eventually drew a foul and a penalty from hatchet-man Muscat. Given Muscat's woeful lack of speed, Claeys' back pass error that led to Central Coast's third goal, Byrnes' red card and Recchia's jittery performance, there have to be several question marks concerning Melbourne's until now very highly rated defence.

The altercation between Mark Byrnes and Nick Mdrja requires some comment. Byrnes was bringing the ball out wide in order to set-up a clearance with Mrdja applying pressure, which included pulling Mark's shorts about half-way down his thigh. Clearly pissed-off, Byrnes lifted an elbow and smacked Mrdja in the face with a glancing blow. Nick made the most of it, and Mark Shield, a tad trigger happy I think, gave Byrnes the straight red. Mrdja received a yellow for his earlier infraction. If Byrnes had received a yellow earlier, so if he got another he would have been gone anyway, but I didn't think the elbow flash was nasty enough to deserve a red, leaving 3,871 one-eyed Victory supporters very upset. Following this, the bulk of the crowd stooped to referee abuse as a way to vent their frustration at Victory's performance. Another individual near where I was sitting was less charitable when it came to condemnation of the players. Late in the game Thompson decided to hold onto the ball and go it alone rather than offload to a teammate. "Pass the ball," the supporter screamed, "Bloody team Thompson!" How different it could have been for Archie, who is generally loved by the Melbourne fans, if one of his great efforts in attack had found the back of the net.

Overall, the Mariners were far too good for Victory, and based on this result their A-League championship odds must be dropping faster than the temperature in Melbourne after sunset. Last time I checked they had ballooned out to $15.00 or so, which is ridiculous. Against Victory, they were fit, sharp, fast and totally ruthless.

The best moment of the night was watching Leo Carle's trickery during the half-time break. Warming up with the other substitutes, Carle showed he definitely has the skills to pay the bills, but he only received about 30 secs of match time from McKinna, who preceeded to order all three subs to run the length of the pitch five (!) times after the game. A somewhat unfit or just lacklustre Carle was left a fair length behind the other two subs by the end of this little extra fitness program, perhaps explaining McKinna's reticence to use him!

12 August 2005

Tough Choice for Archie

Archie Thompson might play for Melbourne Victory tonight afterall. The marquee striker hasn't left the country for the national team training clinic yet due to the imminent arrival of a new addition to the Thompson clan.

Apparently coach Merrick is undecided who to use up front with Danny Allsopp, with right midfielder Vince Lia one option along with Ricky Diaco. Anyone who watched Lia play in U-20 World Youth Championships in Holland recently knows he doesn't exactly possess a cannon of a right leg. I would have thought left-sided attacking midfielder Andy Vlahos could have a run up front, with Chris Tadrosse taking his place out on the Olympic Park flank. Perhaps Lia's duties would involve drawing the defenders out wide and away from Allsopp, where he might be able to get some chips and crosses onto the head of the English-game striker. Or is Merrick thinking about playing him just behind Allsopp?

Obviously Thompson would be the best option, but what kind of a message does it send to Guus if he is willing to play? I wonder if the national manager and his 'Farina-system' assistant Graham Arnold have agreed to let Thompson decide what is best for himself or if they've taken the (perfectly reasonable) hardline position that he either (a) attends camp ASAP, or (b) sacrifices all football activities to be with his wife. I don't see how he can defend option (c) stick around for the baby, but maybe take a few hours off to be with the boys and play a local cup tie.

If he plays tonight, he'll have to face up to Hiddink and explain how his decision doesn't put club before country (and baby too). The fact that it's a do-or-die cup game makes it a tougher call than usual, but my guess is that he avoids the heat and faithfully upholds his familial responsibilities.

11 August 2005

Oh, Just a Few Million Dollars

Tomorrow night's pre-season semi-final between Melbourne and Central Coast is an extremely important fixture for both teams with news that both clubs are still searching for some of the $5 million start-up capital required by the FFA before the commencement of the season. A cup final should theoretically take the heat off the club's financial managers, providing them with something of a spotlight to direct potential sponsors towards. A loss means more time in the wilderness before the real action begins, and a lost opportunity that could quite seriously cost millions of dollars!

Some big kahunas with very fat wallets graced the Central Coast last night as the Mariners attempt to draw $2.5 million from local investors. While the image of the FFA's O'Neill arriving in a helicopter and being picked up in a limousine all seems a wee bit mafioso, I don't see a problem in splashing the money and the vino around a bit for the good cause of convincing the good people, the right sort of people, the wealthy people of the 'Coast, to keep the Mariners afloat.

Victory has similar problems, needing about another $2 million to hit the magical FFA target. I guess there's just no comparison with the good old days when Greece (aka South Melbourne) could fight it out with Croatia (aka Melbourne Knights). That's the view of chairman Lord at least, who wants the Anglos to come to the game with all their old ethnic friends next time. Lord is copping it for his comments, and rightly so. But he may have a point at one end of the scale: his thoughts rest mostly with the investor he's trying to attract to the club, and maybe his comments were directed more to them than to the average fan in the Eastern stand of Olympic Park Stadium. How a city like Melbourne, which practically enunciates itself as Art, Culture and Sport all at once, can't raise a platry $5 million is beyond me.

My prediction? The game will do down to the wire, with extra-time a distinct possibility. Archie Thompson (who as I write this is no doubt nuzzling up to Guus for a spot against the Solomons) will be missed up front. A major blow for Victory and they could cop a few more: they may find McKinna's Mariners exceptionally tough in the tackle for such a big game. The loss of Petrie and Clark to injuries is a bit of a savage belt in the groin for the yellow boys, though, and given that some of the players on the field are untested at this level so far (Leo Carle, Russell Woodruffe) I am giving the edge to Victory. Even if it goes down to penalities.

Off the field, the money will find it's way to the coffers of both teams. It may take time, but it will happen. The stakes are too high for it not to.

10 August 2005

U-17 Class of '99 - Where Are They Now?

One afternoon late in November 1999 I received a call out of the blue from my Sydney-stationed mate Michael Vincent regarding the final of the FIFA U-17 World Championship held in New Zealand that was being played between mighty Brazil and the Joeys of Australia. I wasn't even aware the game was being televised, such was my lax attitude to youth football last century (perhaps it had something to do with losing to Iran). I caught the last 10 minutes of the match, with the teams locked in a spellbinding 0-0 draw. It was thrilling stuff: an Australian national team on the cusp of a World Cup victory?!

As history is there to tell us, Australia eventually lost the game after a long penalty shootout saw the Brazilians put 8 in the back of scrawny Jess van Strattan's net compared to the 7 we could slot past his opposite number. I think it's appropriate, as we stand on the eve of the commencement of the A-League (arguably the best thing to happen to local soccer since that fateful day), to cast an eye over the lads who played against Brazil. Surprisingly, almost half of them are still sniffing around the local scene.

Goalkeeper Jess van Strattan, a several time hero against Brazil, is still mixing it up with Serie B outfit Hellas Verona, the Millwall of Italian football (i.e. the team nobody likes). He's not seeing much time as the backup to young Italian starlet Gianluca Pegolo (who is just 24) and must surely be looking to move on.

Adrian Madaschi has just made an offseason move to FC Dundee in the Scottish Premiership after two successful years with Partick Thistle and a few years in the wilderness in Italy (with Atalanta, Monza and Pistoiese) before that. Another year as a centre half at this level and he should be ready for a big step up.

Along with Jabcob Burns, Danny Milosevic (now with the New Zealand Knights) and Jamie McMaster, Shane Cansdell-Sherriff was a part of the Australian Leeds contingent who never quite made it in the EPL. Things are going much more favourably in Denmark, where he is a regular with AGF Aarhus.

Aaron Goulding remains with Adelaide United where he is a mainstay in the defensive setup. Unlike the rest of the backline against Brazil, he hasn't been able to turn it up a notch and make an impression overseas.

Mark Byrnes is one of the elite defenders of the new A-League. Byrnes can play anywhere across the backline, but it looks like Victory will position him in the centre where he will anchor a formidable backline.

Jade North has gone from coast to coast, switching from the NSL's Perth Glory to be with the Newcastle United Jets. He's a part of Aussie Gus' first full national team training squad, but his prospects for serious match time are quite limited behind the likes of Lucas Neill and Brett Emerton ... unless he can successfully convert to a left-side role?!

Tall central midfielder Wayne Srhoj is one of three Australian's still contracted to FC National Bucharest in Romania. Unlike the other two (Ryan Griffiths and Michael Thwaite), he wasn't selected in Hiddink's squad.

In addition to Goulding, Adelaide United also has talented midfielders Lucas Pantelis and Louis Brain on their roster -- that's 30% of the starting outfielders who almost won a World Cup! Much has been made of Pantelis' limited opportunities on the left flank this preseason under coach John Kosmina. Brain has also been a little starved, with Ross Aloisi, typically a defensive midfielder, stealing some of his thunder in the attacking midfield position. It remains to be seen how often Kossie will pull these two guns out of the holster.

Scott McDonald is probably the golden nugget of the squad that faced Brazil. The only piece of the puzzle missing for him is an international call-up. It's nice to see Sydney's Petrovski rewarded with a place in the squad, but should McDonald have been overlooked?

Striker Dylan Macallister now spends his time with Norwegian club SK Brann. Macallister has scored a couple of goals, but unfortunately he's stuck behind Bengt Saeternes and Robbie Winters (both of whom have been capped as full internationals) in the rotation up front. Brann is a fairly decent team, though, and if Macallister is patient it seems that his time will come.

Iain Fyfe, recently praised for his solid performances for Sydney in the World Club Championship qualifiers and A-League preseason games, was among the substitues for the Brazil game. Of the other two subs, Joshua Kennedy is plying his trade with Dynamo Dresden in the German second division after once being contracted to top flight VfL Wolfsburg. Chances are promising that he'll make an impact this year. Unlike any of the other Joeys from 1999, Joe Di Iorio, another ex-Bundesliga player (with Werder Bremen) has truly fallen off the radar. Di Iorio, whose goal sealed the 1-0 victory over Qatar in the quarter final of the World Championship, was last seen playing with Richmond in the Victorian State League Division One (a step down from the Victorian Premier League)! (Incidentally, ex-Socceroo Joe Spiteri also currently plays at this level.) He has certainly been pumping in the goals, though. Just last week (August 5), Di Iorio claimed a hat trick against Northcote City. Here's hoping we see more of him in the future, such that the legacy of Australia's most successful international team may continue to prosper.

9 August 2005

Eight More Players to Watch - Part 1 of 2

They're young, talented and full of beans. A recent article on the A-League web site entitled Eight to Watch chose one player from each of the eight founding clubs, highlighting their potential to make a name for themselves in the forthcoming season. Dissatisfied with a couple of the selections, I thought I'd offer a different perspective: eight (mostly) young players who will be relied upon each week right from the start of the season. If these guys fail to turn it on, their respective team's can probably kiss championship aspirations goodbye.

Adelaide United's Travis Dodd has been given the responsibility in right midfield, which is probably the single position with the least depth of talent in the league (with Kitzbichler clearly the best of 'em). Given the absence of Vidmar, who I always saw as more of a provider than an outright goal scorer, Dodd's value to the side has increased. Left fullback Adam Van Dommele is another relatively young player who the club would probably love to give 21 starts if he's fit and ready.

Alex Wilkinson was an obvious choice among the young talent at Central Coast; he's one of many excellent Lawrie McKinna proteges. Adam Kwasnik is another, a striker who should be able to seize a spot in the first team alongside Nick Mrdja sooner rather than later. The Mariners have built for success today, not signing too many young players who will command a spot, but Kwasnik will get to share some time with Wilkinson and if he puts a few in the back of the net then Stewart Petrie may find himself back in midfield.

Vince Lia was a big disappointment at the World Youth Cup. This, plus the fact that he'll be playing behind arguably one of the league's best players in Kitzbichler, made Lia a strange a choice in the article. Victory have got youth everywhere, with Chris Tadrosse, Kristian Sarkies, Adrian Leijer and Steven Pantelidis all expected to play a big part in their season. My pick goes to Mark Byrnes, who at 23 still has his best years to look forward too. If he has a good season, Byrnes will probably be one of the hardest players for the league to keep at home. Surely he's bound for another crack on a bigger stage.

I'm also expecting big things from Zhang Xiaobin and will be very surprised if he isn't one of the signings of the year, given his relative obscurity yet experience in England and within the Chinese national setup. A lot will be expected of ex-Man Utd youth flanker Ben Collet, but Joshua Rose seems to be the left midfielder of choice for the Knights at the moment. (Indeed, Collet may wind up a regular in the centre of the park.) Rose is just one of a handful of young players whom the Knights will have to rely on to provide some good performances, but some of the others (like Farina's nephew Zenon Caravella) may not initially claim a starting spot.

A-League Promotional Launch

The A-League marketing campaign for the inaugural season is finally underway!

All the teams have launched new web sites, and the FFA has commenced splashing its TV spot over the networks. The 60 second A-League commercial is available for download. (17 MB)

Well, what about the slick advertisement, which according to the Herald Sun has reportedly cost $1.2 million to produce and another couple of million to place on broadcast TV, Foxtel and in cinemas for the duration of the season? While there is definitely a 'Nike shoe commercial' element to the shooting and editing style, there's also a feeling that the available talent for such a carnivalesque display is a touch meek ... Aloisi and Ferrante ain't Ronaldo and Figo, so the ball skills leave a little to be desired. We're treated to a couple of golden heel-tapping moments, but really, what is the level of difficulty for lazily kicking a ball against a wall, or performing a few step-overs on asphalt, or flicking a dead ball into the air and putting it well out of reach of a follow-up juggle (enter the 'magic' of film editing)?! Come on lads! Even Harry's behind-the-leg penalty kick in that British "I call my boss, Sir" commercial was a sparkling move in comparison to Aloisi's flashy but clearly way-over-the-top-of-the-bar scissor kick. Dig?

Another minor issue: where is Dwight Yorke? Shengqing Qu? Shin Tae-yong? Richard Kitzbichler? Or even (relatively unknown, but still a Swiss ex-national at youth level) Remo Buess? What's the point of talking big about the putative high profile international players the league has attracted if the FFA is not even going to use them in its key promotion? Of course, it just clarifies what we all already know but don't really want to admit: that aside from Yorke we actually haven't attracted any truly impressive stars of the game. (Archie Thompson fans need to point to more than an Aurelio Vidmar-like goal scoring season in Belgium to impress me otherwise.) The bulk of the league will be made up of more or less the same players we have been accustomed to seeing in the old NSL. By the numbers players like Craig Deans and Andrew Clark are the Joe Averages of the league. How many of us can imagine them cast in a strictly glamorous light?

Heck, even Kevin Muscat probably deserved a place in the league's big marketing push: why can't we see Kevin applying his 'talent' in the TV ad? Just picture Kev sliding into Aloisi, studs up; an orgasmic slow-motion lunge that smashes Talay's fibula between boot and concrete. Yeah, baby! While such an image might sound horrifying rather than pleasurable, it has to say something that Muscat has legions of fans everywhere in this country. Coach Merrick is one of them, and he was willing to go so far as to make Muscat the club captain (i.e. someone to set the proper example for other players, the media, the fans). In reality, everyone knows you need a few goons like Muscat around, but pragmatically the FFA wants everything to remain as falsely squeaky-clean as possible.

Overall, however, congrats to the FFA for having the balls to (let's face it) copy Nike's shamelessly mass-market approach to advertising, for using borderline criminal behaviour (graffiti) as a vehicle for attracting the attention of the "core youth market," and for saturation spamming the damn object of discussion, as well as the league's faux spray-paint logo, apparently everywhere.

Now we wait: the FFA has successfully built 'it' (an image), but will they (the supporters) come?