The A-League needs more than celebrity


Football returned to Melbourne on Saturday night. And so did the crowds. A few days after the big game the question is, will they be back?

Football returned to Melbourne on Saturday night. And so did the crowds. A few days after the big game the question is, will they be back?

More than 40,000 fans turned out for the opening fixture of the season to watch Harry Kewell-s Melbourne Victory play out an enthralling 0-0 draw against a Sydney FC side boasting their own star recruit in Brett Emerton.

It was a vindication of sorts for the architects of the Hyundai A-League who have banked on star power to win the battle of hearts and minds and put bums on seats throughout the upcoming summer of football.

Yet it remains a delicate balancing act.

The A-League is undergoing something of a renovation in season 7 after the momentum developed in the early days of the competition seemed to have hit the wall in recent years.

Last season-s August start, coupled with a raft of unpopular midweek fixtures, saw the A-League slip into the relegation zone of irrelevance before we even had the chance to wind our watches forward for daylight savings.

When Melbourne Victory-s average crowd started trending down below 20,000 a game and hit the express way towards 15,000, it was obvious the A League needed a makeover to capture the headlines again.

Enter Kewell and Emerton. Regardless of what you think of the soap opera that was Kewell-s tortured journey to becoming a Victory player, it-s undeniable that his decision has put the game on centre court again.

Kewell has had a mortgage on the front page of both Melbourne daily newspapers in the lead up to the season opener, an unprecedented level of interest for a bloke turning out in a domestic football match.

Working on the same principle that the AFL used to woo rugby league converts Israel Falou and Karmichael Hunt, the A-League clubs might finally be waking up to the fact that the battle for the future of the game will be won on the front and back pages of the newspapers as much as it will be out on the pitch.

To those of us sad sacks that still live and breathe the game, it-s a serious business. More important than life and death and all of that (Thank you, Mr Shankly).

But for the casual viewer, football is entertainment. It-s a choice to be made with your disposable dollar in world spoilt for choice and hooked on instant gratification.

This is where it gets tricky for the A-League and FFA.

Like all builders and renovators, the danger lies in over quoting and under delivering on the job.

The Kewell v Emerton showdown was one in which both players had moments; admittedly Emerton-s was one he-d sooner forget, and neither produced a signature flourish that lived up to the hype generated around them.

None of which is their fault of course. Football doesn-t run to a script, and sometimes the supporting cast – in this case the keepers Ante Covic and Liam Reddy – upstage the headline act.

And whilst aficionados will have loved the cut and thrust of scoreless draw played with a real edge and just hint of malice, what does the first time fan or football agnostic get out of it?

Hopefully a taste of the energy and passion of a great derby with fans from both clubs providing the sort of active support and vibrancy other codes can only dream about.

And a first experience of the skill and ingenuity of some master craftsman in Kewell and Emerton and a couple of apprentices in Marcos Rojas and Terry Antonis. If so, you can be sure they-ll keep coming back for more.