A few weeks ago, when the A-League’s impassioned fan-base were dallying through that fleeting period, allowing themselves – however fantastically, in hindsight – a few moments to imagine Andres Iniesta stepping out onto Australian pitches in 2018-19, that seemed at the time the upper limits of marquee fantasy.
A player who had been a wholly justified star and starter for Barcelona and Spain in the season just ended was perhaps now going to kit up for Sydney FC, or Melbourne City; it would have been an unprecedented arrival. A few days later, with Iniesta posing with Vissel Kobe shirt in hand and contract signed, we all felt a little silly.
I don’t know about you all, but I’m feeling a little sillier – perhaps just on the behalf of the Central Coast Mariners – now. Where Iniesta had been pleasant fantasy, the confirmation that Usain Bolt is about to undergo a trial at the Mariners has taken fantasy into that wholly unpleasant Dali-esque realm of the disturbingly surreal.
Bolt is a sprinter, and retired almost a year ago. He has never held a contract as a professional footballer. His most recent run-out with studs instead of spikes saw him face-off against a team comprised 50-year-old ex-footballers, Robbie Williams and Mo Farah. He looked pretty ordinary against them, too. Most notable was the very neat finish he clipped past 54-year-old David Seaman, having been utterly unaware he’d been glaringly offside.
There is no timeline in which it is appropriate, at this stage in the A-League’s existence, for Bolt to even be considered for a trial, let alone a contract. The A-League dwindled a little last season, with a general downturn in crowds and a slight sense of momentum lost, but if that is a problem, this cannot be the solution.
The bump in coverage and, perhaps, crowds Bolt might prompt may well be balanced out by the negative reaction we’re already seeing from the league’s established supportership. Sokkah Twitter is in flames, not that it’s not smouldering along at the best of times.
Multiple ex-players – Daniel McBreen and Clint Bolton, for example – have chimed in criticising the decision, pouring cold water on Bolt’s actual footballing ability, and pointing out how alienating the whole charade is for the NPL clubs and officials who have spent the last few years yearning for more space to open up in A-League squads so that young local talent might fill it.
We have literally just had a conversation about how Australian football isn’t producing as many technically proficient young attackers as we need, and how this has stunted the reigns of the last two Socceroos managers. Central to that discussion was the issue of how foreign A-League marquee players are mostly attackers – many of them strikers – who block young attackers from being blooded in first-team positions.
Bolt is a striker – if indeed we can describe him as such without air quotes – as well as being a non-footballer; it’s difficult to conceive of a more sneering, money-grubbing, short-termist gesture to make in the wake of this important post-World Cup discussion.
The statements Mariners CEO Shaun Mielekamp has made in the last few days make for truly remarkable reading. In one breath he said this: “For us it’s important not to get ahead of ourselves,” and ““We won’t know until it happens. It may not happen. We’ve just got to keep a very level headed approach to us.”
Then, in the very next breath, Mielekamp says ““When he [Bolt] does perform and when he does score a goal, that’s the big moment. That’s the bit that everyone wants. Let’s not shut the door on that opportunity. Let’s see if it will become a reality.”
Usain Bolt linked with a move to Central Coast, and could make his debut against Brisbane at Suncorp in Round 1. pic.twitter.com/cmg9BCUyPU
— Brisbane Football Review (@BNEFootball) July 16, 2018
Mielekamp waxes lyrical about potential sponsors already making approaches, paints vivid pictures of Bolt drawing packed stadiums around the country. When the circus gets a new sideshow freak, crowds flock to ooh and aah, to point and chortle, and they pay their fare to press their face to the fence and gawk.
Gimmicks tend to tease out an immediate and fairly showy reaction, it’s true. And then the novelty wears off, or the attraction moves on, and what are we left with? A reputation as a Mickey Mouse league, willing to debase itself for a short-term cash grab, slobbering and eager to accommodate any well-known quasi-athlete searching the world for a football club desperate enough to act as a feather in his cap.
The Mariners – and the FFA, if indeed the rumours of their chipping in to grease the wheels of this wretched process – need to stop and think what they stand to gain and to lose.
The sight of Bolt sprinting in a straight line down the wing of the Central Coast Stadium, posing with the giant tomato sauce bottle, doing the lightning bolt celebration after accidentally arsing the ball over the line during a set piece scuffle; the scene is high farce, many orders of magnitude greater than the Israel Folau sortie into AFL.
The best case scenario – which is extremely unlikely to eventuate – still hurts the reputation of the league, as well as directly or indirectly hindering youth development. It’s not worth the potential upsides.
We’ve just seen Croatian-Australia glow illuminated during the Croatian’s run to the World Cup final. Viewing figures for graveyard World Cup games involving two foreign teams have drawn astonishing audiences on SBS.
We have two home-grown coaches making A-League debuts as senior gaffers this season, in Steve Corica and Mark Rudan. There was an impassioned, complex debate around the right tactical formula for the Roos to adopt during the World Cup. Australia is a country that takes its football seriously, that is ready for a mature competition, that, generally speaking, is glad the marquee-crazed, slightly giddy early years of the A-League are over.
Romario and Benito Carbone have made way for Milos Ninkovic and Besart Berisha, and there is no reason to disrupt this evolutionary direction. Bolt’s presence threatens all of this, all for the sake of a few Daily Telegraph headlines, and a handful of plastic fans.
In the past, Bolt has expressed tangible interest in playing professional cricket, in the Big Bash League. He has played in the NBA Celebrity Game at All-Star Weekend. He grabbed headlines earlier this year when he set-up a ‘trial’ with Borussia Dortmund, a club that just happens to have Puma as their major sponsor and kit provider; Puma are Bolt’s sponsor too.
He is conducting a world-wide sporting taste-test, posing for the cameras, building his post-retirement brand, and collecting barrows of money doing it. It was his agent who offered Bolt to the A-League’s clubs. This is another publicity stunt, and the Mariners should rise above it.