A-League offseason made tolerable by arrival of EPL clubs

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Manchester United and Liverpool face off this weekend in what is perhaps the greatest rivalry in world football. (AP Image)

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The treacherously long A-League off-season continues, but July will be an exciting month for Australian fans of the English Premier League.

Four days after Manchester United play the A-League All Stars side in Sydney, the Melbourne Cricket Ground is expected to be packed with Liverpool fans from around the country.

While many have questioned the merits of the gimmicky All Stars concept, nothing will change the fact that the A-League XI and Melbourne Victory will simply be making up the numbers against their high-profile opponents. The tyranny of distance means that it’s rare for Australian football fans in the antipodes to be treated to such football royalty.

None will be more excited than JP Rambert, who organises a Liverpool Fans Club in Australia.

“I’ve been following Liverpool since I was four years old” explains Rambert, who lives on the Gold Coast, “but I’ve never seen them play live.” He and his mates have been planning the 1,700 kilometre football pilgrimage south since the tour was announced in April.

Diehard diasporic football fans are common in this country. As strange as it may seem to outsiders, there are three important factors that have led to these kind of long-distance engagements.

Firstly, Australia’s multicultural society means that many migrants and their children often retain strong and unshakeable bonds to clubs on the other side of the world.

Secondly, while the National Soccer League produced generations of Australian talent, it’s lack of visibility and political and financial instability entrenched a cultural cringe towards the local game.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, globalisation has allowed Australians who may never have even visited Liverpool to follow the club just as closely as somebody living on the Merseyside.

While the national league and the Socceroos have only started to boom in the past decade, there have always been Australians of Scottish, Greek, Italian, Turkish, or English descent who keep a close eye on their club “back home.”

Joe Napoliello, who owns Bar Sport in Sydney’s inner west, is just one of these fans. His cafe is heavily adorned with football memorabilia, particularly of Italian sides, Sydney FC and the Socceroos.

But when Juventus play, Napoliello trades his work gear for his black and white ‘Pirlo’ jersey, keeping one eye on the wall-sized television while busily pouring espresso for his customers. His cafe has become a meeting place and a sanctuary for Australian fans of the Bianconeri.

In between serving customers, Napoliello takes me back to Juventus’ one-off match against Melbourne Victory in 2008.

“I’ve never been that excited by exhibition matches, until Juventus came here. Then I realised why it was so important. Even though a lot of the best players didn’t play, it was still great to see my team.”

Similarly, Tottenham Hotspur fans in Australia make it a priority to come together for an annual long weekend of beer and football. This year they met in Perth.

Tommy Silver, one of the organisers of OzSpurs, admits that it might seem crazy for fans like him to spend so much time on a club thousands of miles and several timezones away. But growing up in a Tottenham-mad household, Silver says that the 400-strong group are bound a sense of duty to their long-distance relationship. “I had no choice really,” he explains.

Which makes pre-season tours like Liverpool’s all-important to many Australian football fans. Tours to Australia by overseas sides have always been popular. Since the beginning of the last century, club sides and national team tours from areas as far flung as China, Israel, South Africa, North America and the former Yugoslavia have yielded huge crowds.

Teams from the ‘mother country’ England have proven to be particularly popular. In 1958, when Blackpool toured Australia with their star winger Stanley Matthews, large numbers flocked to football grounds in Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. More recently, in 1999, Manchester United drew just under 100,000 fans to the MCG.

But while Manchester United are regular visitors, this will be the first time that Liverpool have toured Australia. Manager Brendan Rodgers admits that he knows little of his opponents Melbourne Victory, but says that he is keen to meet the legion of Australian supporters.

Many A-League fans may like to cast aside these people as ‘Eurosnobs’, but the truth is that they are a crucial part of Australia’s football culture.

Further to the point, their support for a European side doesn’t necessarily need to detract from their support for an A-League club. Australians are a living contradiction to the one-club model of fandom described by Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch.

The All Stars concept may take a little while longer to win over the skeptics, but there is no doubt that pre-season tours and exhibition matches by overseas sides are a boon for the local game.

Tickets have been snapped up quickly for both matches.

For Australian based Manchester United and Liverpool fans in Australia, it’ll be a night to remember.

Instead of screaming at the television at uncivilised hours of the morning, they’ll be able to watch their beloved side in the flesh.

Joe Gorman is a football journalist with a particular interest in sports history. After completing his thesis on football in Australia, Joe started with The Roar in October 2012. He tweets from @JoeGorman_89.
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