There can be no doubt that football fans across Australia are excited by the A-League’s two biggest captures of this off-season. With Harry Kewell signing for Melbourne Victory after a protracted tussle and Brett Emerton smoothly easing into the spare marquee spot at Sydney FC, two of the Australian national team’s stars have very much come home.
It would be churlish to say the pair have headed back Down Under for an easy payday. Australia’s A-League continues to operate at a loss, buoyed by Football Federation Australia (FFA) payments. The league’s business model expected year-on-year crowd uptake of the product being pitched and against expectations fans started to stay at home, seemingly content to watch on TV or just read about the domestic game.
This is what marks these two signings out as a cut above. The one thing the duo will do, without doubt, is bring fans to the stadiums, and if both can stay fit these could be the deals that drag the A-League back to an upward curve. Kewell remains the golden boy of Australian football, Emerton has never drifted far from fans’ hearts, and if both turn up, put in a professional shift and raise their teams from last year’s nadirs there is hope that this could signal the beginning of the A-League’s legitimisation process, whereby the league can be seen as a genuinely challenging place for Australian talent to develop.
Socceroo coach Holger Osieck has never been shy to select from the local league, especially for Asian Cup fixtures, but September will see his first World Cup qualification campaign. With fixtures close to the big A-League clash between Kewell’s Victory and Emerton’s Sydney, Osieck has declared that both men will be wanted and it is the league that is set to give with the match likely to be pushed back so that the stars can recover in time for the qualifier.
Although Kewell’s flirtation with a return to his homeland started back in June, it has taken two months and a lot of negotiating for the forward to finally sign with Melbourne Victory; talks with Sydney broke down in the last few weeks of their pursuit. These are the two teams with the biggest potential fan bases, and hence the biggest reasons for signing such a big name, but reports of outrageous demands are not entirely fair. The FFA have contracts with major sponsors that protect their relationships and it was the potential for conflict between these obligations and some of the sponsorship arrangements pertaining to Kewell that were at issue. To put it simply, in the Hyundai A-League it would not do to have a star player turning out for a motoring rival.
Certainly no one could accuse the FFA of erecting walls, having offered the support needed to bring Kewell to the A-League on an “unprecedented” contract, the exact details of which remain unknown, but which includes proportions of gate receipts and a highly subsidised salary. There is certainly no doubt that Melbourne Victory want the forward, no doubt Osieck would like him in the A-League, no doubt the FFA are over the moon, and it seems certain fans will be jumping for joy, but there remain question marks over Kewell himself on two fronts.
The first is whether the 32-year-old is going to stay fit enough to play a full season, something he has not managed for some time. With bits of his finely honed body constantly breaking down, Kewell could yet be an expensive bauble sitting in the stands. The second question is to what degree Kewell wants to be in the A-League, and to what degree he has nowhere else to go. It is unknown what other offers were on the table, but the nature in which his team wrangled suggested they lacked a trump card, not least when the European seasons began again.
All of this is in stark contrast to Brett Emerton. With Sydney falling behind in the race for Kewell and deeming the chase a good exercise in getting the chips in order when the next big name was available, Vitezslav Lavicka’s team pulled a fast one and focused in on a player who has every right to consider himself Kewell’s equal, and who moreover was plying his trade in the English Premier League, with well over 200 games under his belt following a stint at Feyenoord. With Blackburn Rovers willing to cancel the remaining 12 months of Emerton’s deal by mutual consent, all potential roadblocks were quickly laid aside.
A Sydney boy with a mean right boot, Emerton will come fresh from a farewell game against Everton to start his Sydney career and may be the one to watch for the upcoming season. Diligent, professional and well-liked, it might be that Sydney will benefit more on the pitch whilst the Kewell bandwagon gets Victory’s turnstiles spinning. The A-League will hope each player brings a bit of both to two teams who have struggled on and off the pitch recently. What the FFA will be crossing their fingers for is that this will be the beginning of a trend that sees the best Australian talent returning home because it will be the chance of seeing their Socceroo heroes in the flesh that is most likely to get people following the domestic A-League.
With a disastrous World Cup bid now put behind them, the FFA are having to take control of their destiny once more. Managing to lure back two top stars will no doubt go a long way towards making people remember that it is the excitement on the pitch that makes football the world’s favourite game.