Marquee mania cannot be a one-time fling

Vince Rugari Columnist

By , Vince Rugari is a Roar Expert

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    A special fund for special players, can FFA make it happen? And should they? (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

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    What a difference six months can make. If you need to pinch yourself, you are forgiven. The A-League has never ever had it this good.

    Back in April, when Nathan Tinkler followed Clive Palmer’s lead and moved to withdraw his support for the Newcastle Jets, we were wondering if there was going to be an A-League at all. 

    Clubs were dropping like flies. There was open, embarrassing warfare between Frank Lowy and the very owners who were keeping his competition afloat.

    And there was nary a proper marquee to speak of.

    That all seems a lifetime ago now, thanks to the charming Alessandro Del Piero and the Sydney FC brains trust who brought him here. And of course, to a lesser extent, Emile Heskey and Shinji Ono.

    Crowds are through the roof. Ratings are high. The amount and quality of media coverage is unprecedented. The feeling around the A-League is so warm and gooey it’s even sucked Phil Rothfield in. 

    The football itself is on the up, and to top it off, there are now three fantastic, gripping derbies.

    The truth is, however, that this competition couldn’t afford not to grow. 

    Every last drop has been squeezed out of the current TV deal. With attendances and general interest reaching a plateau in recent years, the problem with the A-League business model was crystal clear.

    And there was zero light at the end of the tunnel.

    Not that we could see, anyway.

    Turns out there was one. Three, in fact – Del Piero, Heskey and Ono. And boy, have they changed everything.

    That’s why it’s fantastic to hear that Football Federation Australia has stopped basking in the club-made glory and is ready to assist teams with marquee ambitions in the future, with a kitty of cash between $500,000 and $1,000,000 set aside for this purpose, according to the Sunday Telegraph.

    If this move is any indication, perhaps – finally – FFA is starting to get it. 

    You really do only get out what you put in. This very real transformation of the perception and popularity of football in Australia simply has to continue.

    Contraction and consolidation may have sounded like a good idea earlier this year to the business heads that knock about in the upper echelons of the federation. 

    But in practice, it would only have submitted further ground to the other sports – cricket, rugby league, Australian rules – that are all a bit more plush with funds and a lot more aggressive with how they spend.

    It is encouraging to see the FFA take Major League Soccer’s lead. Let’s face it, we should be comparing and learning from them at every available opportunity. 

    The similarities between the A-League and its booming American cousin are too obvious to ignore – right down to New Zealand, which must be our Canada.

    Immediately after David Beckham signed for the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, the Designated Player Rule was hastily established to allow for other headline acts to follow. It is central to the growth of the MLS.

    The MLS contributes a sum of money – somewhere in the vicinity of $500,000 – if a club is prepared to sign a big-name player.

    That is partly why so many have traced Beckham’s footsteps. Henry, Cahill, Marquez, Keane, the list goes on. It is actively encouraged by the competition.

    This warm embrace of star power is clearly the chief reason why MLS is now, arguably, one of the biggest competitions in world football outside of Europe. 

    When Del Piero first signed for Sydney it was very easy to call his signature the A-League’s Beckham moment. But in this context, we can see exactly why it is true. 

    Heskey and Ono followed Il Pinturicchio. And you can bet that there will be more where that came from, given how the legendary Italian has not only taken Australia by storm, but started paying his own wages in shirt sales and exposure alone.

    Now that the league has woken up to the endless benefits of genuine marquee players, it’s perhaps no longer as silly to dream of Andrea Pirlo directing play for Brisbane Roar, or Frank Lampard driving the Perth Glory midfield, or a 33-year-old Wayne Rooney in an Adelaide shirt.

    And as Del Piero continues to hand Sydney FC an incredible return on their brave investment in him, there is a major lesson to be learned for everyone involved in football – the FFA, the other A-League clubs, the state federations, or anyone with an influence on how the game is run.

    There is no point throwing good money after bad. But if you’re going to throw good money in the right direction, amazing things can happen.

    This has a meaning outside of marquee players. It is a crying shame that there are two communities of football fans, in North Queensland and on the Gold Coast, who have missed out on enjoying the fruits of the Del Piero coup.

    In terms of participation, there are few better states than Queensland. Who knows what could have become of the Fury or United had they been allowed to continue on into this new era of optimism, under new ownership, instead of being used as pawns for the World Cup bid or as a sacrifice for the incoming broadcast rights deal.

    What’s done is done. But Australian football should never feel like it needs to go back into its shell again.

    Now that the Del Piero era has got the ball rolling, the A-League has to kick on.

    Vince Rugari
    Vince Rugari

    Vince Rugari is an Adelaide-born journalist who cut his teeth on the sporting graveyard of the Gold Coast. He fancies the round ball and the Sherrin, and used to be a handy leg-spin bowler before injury curtailed a baggy green push. A Port Adelaide fan by birth, he now is a sports reporter for Australian Associate Press