Date: July 20 2012
Take a look at the panel below, and ask yourself one question? Has the A-League lost more than it's gained? Deep into the off-season, just days after Central Coast Mariners bid farewell to their popular skipper Alex Wilkinson, it's the hottest topic of debate.
Every winter, usually around the time the transfer window in east Asia hits its peak, there is this collective groan across the football community. Fans, pundits, officials and, yes, even some coaches, lament the loss of talent, and ponder whether the A-League has suffered a mortal blow. How can we expect the competition to evolve when so many players choose to leave? Will we ever be a fair-dinkum league?
Guess what? We already are. The A-League's destiny is to be what 90 per cent of other leagues around the world are. A first stop for emerging youngsters, a last stop for ageing journeymen, and a worthwhile, legitimate destination for all those players in between. That's not second prize. It's simply a reality.
Australian players were going to England and Scotland at the start of last century. Joe Marston played in an FA Cup final in 1954. Ray Baartz spent two years at Manchester United in the early 1960s. John Roberts, a goalkeeper from Cessnock, went to Blackburn Rovers in 1966. Nobody worried then, and nobody should worry now. Craig Johnston and John Kosmina turned the trickle into a flood in the late 1970s, and between the 1985 World Cup campaign and the 1997 World Cup campaign, the Socceroos went from a homegrown team to one almost exclusively drawn from players based abroad. Fifteen years later, we're still waiting for the doomsday scenario to materialise.
The NSL lasted 27 years, and the pipeline of talent was as strong at the end as it was at the beginning. The A-League is heading into its eighth season, and it's generally agreed that playing standards are the highest they've ever been. Economics, mixed with ambition, are a powerful cocktail. Who can truly begrudge any player for wanting to challenge himself? Players come, players go. That's not the issue. The challenge for the clubs, and Football Federation Australia, is to manage the hysteria which usually follows.
Take another, closer, look at the panel. The headline departure is Harry Kewell, but he had powerful personal reasons for returning to England. It couldn't be helped. Who else have we lost? Carlos Hernandez was a crowd favourite, but perhaps the extent of his ambition to improve can be measured by his choice of destination. India. We might have seen the best of 'Carlito' already. Eli Babalj? He's a talent, and might have been better served by another season in the A-League. But he's gone at the same age, and after the same domestic experience (two seasons) as Mark Viduka, the player he is most often compared with. Viduka's departure from Melbourne Knights didn't bring down the NSL, nor will Babalj's from Melbourne Heart collapse the A-League. Babalj is one of a handful of young Australians who have headed overseas, but the majority of off-season departures have been imports. You expect a 'churn' of foreigners - it happens all over the world. Mohamed Adnan is the only foreigner his club wanted to keep, but he also had unique family circumstances to deal with. Byun Sung-hwan was cut by Sydney FC, then cut by Newcastle Jets, and has ended up back in South Korea. Does he count in the debit column?
Which brings us to the flip side. The angst over the exit of Babalj needs to be countered by the return of Aaron Mooy, or Theo Markelis. Young Australians who have decided, after years trying to break into European football, that their pathway is better served by coming home. Imports-wise, Josip Tadic could be a revelation, Marcos Flores is back, and Krunoslav Lovrek has an interesting pedigree. The next few weeks will see a flurry of foreign signings, and hopefully we'll end up in front. At the very least, as these imports find their feet during the long pre-season, it's going to spark a lively discussion.
Whatever the merits of the individual, however, the focus needs to remain fixed on the big picture. A-League clubs sell because they want to, and sometimes because they have to. Why should that mean the league itself is going out of business, or the quality on the park is falling apart?
"Anybody who thinks developing players for overseas isn't integral to the future of the A-League is missing the point completely," says Melbourne Heart football manager, John Didulica. "Football is a global ecosystem, and we've all got roles to play in that. If we can find a player nobody has heard of, develop him over 12, or 24 months, and sell him to an overseas club, to me that's a massive endorsement of what we're about. How people can't accept that is beyond me."
The Heart have sold Babalj and Brendan Hammill in the last few months, and Curtis Good and Aziz Behich could join them in the departures lounge. Babalj will effectively be replaced by Gol Gol Mebrahtu, while the Heart have their eyes on a couple of emerging defenders. "There's enough quality, home and abroad, to plug any gaps," insists Didulica. "I tell you one thing. Our team will be a lot better this season than it was last season. I've got no doubt about that."
The Mariners, who have also been criticised for a 'fire sale' mentality, but chairman Peter Turnbull is equally steadfast: "We will continue to promote young Australian players and give them a career path. We make no apologies for that."
Nor should he. Our clubs are starting to get market rates for their players. Our clubs are using some of that transfer money to upgrade the facilities and off-field operations which create a professional environment. Our clubs are becoming more competitive in Asia. Nobody outside Australia thinks the A-League is struggling. As always, the enemy lies within.
WHO'S IN AND OUT OF THE A-LEAGUE
Brisbane Roar: Do Dong-hyun (free agent, South Korea).
Central Coast Mariners: Mile Sterjovski (Dalian Aerbin, China).
Melbourne Heart: Josip Tadic (Legia Gdansk, Poland), Patrick Gerhardt (Zeljeznicar, Bosnia).
Melbourne Victory: Jonathan Bru (Moreirense, Portugal), Mark Milligan (JEF United, Japan), Theo Markelis (Vicenza, Italy), Guilherme Finkler (Criciuma, Brazil), Marcos Flores (Henan Jianye, China).
Newcastle Jets: Dominik Ritter (FC Winterhur, Switzerland).
Sydney FC: Yairo Yau (Sporting San Miguelito, Panama), Krunoslav Lovrek (Qingdao Yonoon, China), Adam Griffiths (Hangzhou Greentown, China).
Wellington Phoenix: Benjamin Totori (Koloale FC, Solomon Islands), Michael Boxall (Vancouver Whitecaps, Canada).
Western Sydney Wanderers: Aaron Mooy (St Mirren, Scotland).
Adelaide United: Daniel Mullen (Dalian Aerbin, China), Francisco Usucar (Tecnico Universitario, Ecuador), Evgeniy Levchenko (uncontracted).
Brisbane Roar: Mohamed Adnan (uncontracted), Issey Nakajima-Farran (AEK Larnaca, Cyprus).
Central Coast Mariners: Alex Wilkinson (Jeonbuk Motors, South Korea), Mustafa Amini (Borusssia Dortmund, Germany), Rostyn Griffiths (Guangzhou R&F, China).
Melbourne Heart: Rutger Worm (Willem II, Netherlands), Maycon (Pahang, Malaysia), Alex Terra (Daejon Citizen, South Korea), Brendan Hammill (Seongnam Ilwha, South Korea), Eli Babalj (Red Star Belgrade, Serbia).
Melbourne Victory: Carlos Hernandez (Prayag United, India), Harry Kewell (uncontracted), Jean-Carlos Solorzano (LD Alajuelense, Costa Rica).
Newcastle Jets: Byun Sung-hwan (Seongnam Ilwha, South Korea).
Perth Glory: Andrezinho (uncontracted).
Sydney FC: Juho Makela (HJK Helsinki, Finland), Bruno Cazarine (uncontracted).
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