Buoyed by the signing of Italy’s Alessandro Del Piero, England’s Emile Heskey and Japan’s Shinjo Ono, Australian coaches can see the day when every A-League club boasts a player of such international stature.
They believe the domestic league can attract even more global glamour – players like Manchester United’s Welshman Ryan Giggs, Spain’s Raul and Germany’s Michael Ballack, who at one stage was a chance of joining debut team Western Sydney Wanderers this season.
“There is a train of thought that each club should have a player of similar ilk,” said Newcastle Jets coach Gary van Egmond, whose marquee man Heskey was unveiled alongside Del Piero and Ono at the A-League’s eighth season launch in Sydney on Tuesday.
“One week we’d have Alessandro coming out (to play against Newcastle), the next we’d have Ono, the next week you might have a Giggs, then a Raul or a Ballack.
“That would be an excellent initiative to look at.”
Former Socceroo Tony Popovic, who will showcase Ono in his Wanderers team, said: “A few weeks ago no-one could envisage having a Del Piero here, or a Heskey, and all of a sudden we have three big name players.
“Who’s to say something like that’s not possible in the future?”
For many the future has arrived. Last season the A-League was agog at the return to Australian clubs of Socceroos Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton. That has been well and truly overshadowed by the emergence of the big three – Del Piero, Heskey and Ono – who between them have played at eight World Cup finals, with Del Piero on the winning nation in 2006.
Their combined wage bill for this season is $3.8 million.
Del Piero mania has already resulted in Sydney FC matches being televised live to Italy.
Their impact will be lasting. Del Piero and Ono are both on two-year contracts worth $4 million and $1.6 million respectively, with Heskey here for at least a year on a reported $1 million.
“We have had marquee players before but never of such international star quality and class in such a short time,” said Football Federation Australia CEO Ben Buckley.
“You can sense the buzz right around the country. Season eight is like nothing we have seen before.”
Wellington coach Ricky Herbert will be among the first to see the Del Piero effect first-hand, when his team hosts Sydney FC in round one in New Zealand this Saturday.
“What a cool game to get,” said Herbert. “We got the right roll of the dice on that one, having Del Piero on our shores.”
Central Coast Mariners coach Graham Arnold is a big promoter of local talent, but said: “It’s fantastic the recognition those three players have given us around the world.”
Van Egmond said Heskey’s arrival had helped push Newcastle’s membership numbers over 11,000, giving the Jets the second biggest member base.
“It’s massive,” he said. “This is the most interest I’ve ever seen in the A-League since the inaugural season.
“Football and non-football fans alike are all talking about it.”
Popovic said: “You can feel a real sense of football being on the map.”
Ono said the media interest in his arrival had been a “big surprise”, Del Piero said it was “wonderful news” that Italians could watch him play for Sydney FC, and Heskey said there was a “real buzz around Newcastle.”
His coach, however, sounded one note of warning.
The clubs that have brought these marquee players out should be applauded, said van Egmond, but we also need to ensure development of our game from the grass roots.
It can’t just be top driven. It has to be top driven and bottom driven, with both meeting in between.