Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A-League: New Football Off To A Flyer

Marc Fox reports on the impact of Dwight Yorke, Kevin Muscat, Archie Thompson, Alex Brosque and Richard Kitzbichler: harbingers of football's rebirth down under.

Thanks in no small part to the five imports named above, Australian football's governing body has seen all its dreams come true in the opening weeks of the inaugural A-League. If six months ago, you had foretold the start of the fledgling competition would see not just sparkling debuts but goals from each of these players, your prophesy would have been laughed out of town.

However, from the moment Adelaide United's veteran striker Carl Veart headed home the first-ever A-League goal at the Newcastle Jets - springing the first of a host of surprise results during three rounds of action - the competition's leading men have continued to step up and meet the challenge of chartering new football's voyage to a more credible future.

Yorke, Thompson and young gun Brosque each struck in the opening weekend, the former Manchester United striker opening his Sydney FC account 44 minutes into his debut against Melbourne Victory. New dad Thompson, himself fulfilling all his personal ambitions including two goals in the World Cup playoff against the Solomon Islands, equalised in the second-half to force shared honours.

Meanwhile, Queensland's Brosque held his nerve ten minutes from time in his first A-League outing to snatch the points from New Zealand. In round two, Muscat and Kitzbichler - one a returning hero, the other an Austrian international - each scored for Melbourne in its 2-2 draw with Perth.

That is not to demean the impact local talent has made in the heavily-budgeted never-seen-before A-League show. Bobby Despotovski (Perth), Nick Carle and Ante Milicic (both Newcastle), Noel Spencer and Tom Pondeljak (both Central Coast), Jonti Richter (Queensland), Ross Aloisi (Adelaide) and Zenon Caravella (New Zealand) all deserve a special mention from the group of players to have stepped up from the old National Soccer League.

Not only has the new league been rich in talent, it's proved to be far closer than bookmakers would have had you believe before launch. For instance, only three games from 12 have been won by more than the odd goal. Moreover, only one team has not yet recorded a victory - surprisingly early picks Melbourne Victory - and just one has won twice (the unlikely frontrunners Adelaide United).

Off the pitch, the FFA declared an early victory as crowd figures topped 70,000 across the four venues for the opening round alone, a weekend in which the domestic record for attendance at a non-finals league match was broken twice in the space of two hours - first at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane where 21,000 Queenslanders made history, then at Aussie Stadium in Sydney where the turnout exceeded 25,000. More importantly, fixtures are still averaging upwards of 12,000 supporters with the biggest pullers Sydney, Queensland and Melbourne having played only once at home so far.

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Outside the A-League, fate continues to deal a good hand to the Australian football authorities. The Socceroos breezed past the challenge of the Solomon Islands despite some hairy moments in the away leg in Honiara. Having already subjected the Melanesians to a seven-goal tanking in Sydney in the first tie, complacency, humidity and tactical naivety all combined to anger new coach Guus Hiddink at the way his squad bumbled to a 2-1 victory.

Nevertheless - and as expected - the Socceroos have booked their place as Oceania's challengers in November's double-header against the fifth-placed South American qualifiers. Nothing new there but what did make a refreshing change was FIFA's decision - albeit via the gamble of drawing lots - to award Australia the benefit of playing the final decisive leg at home.

The Socceroos' likely opponents are either current fifth-placed side Uruguay - their 2001 World Cup nemesis - or sixth-placed Colombia, neither of which would be straightforward assignments despite the advantage of being able to defend stoutly away and strike at home.

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