You may have heard this one before, but this season is make or break for the A-Leagues. A potentially future-defining moment for competition, an opportunity for its administrators to grow the sport and relaunch it into the public consciousness. Again.
After limping through 2021-22, which began with such promise only to fall into a maelstrom of Covid chaos and a series of self-acknowledged own-goals, the A-League Men returns this Friday when defending champions Western United take on Melbourne City at AAMI Park. New competition administrators, the Australian Professional Leagues, are targeting 2022-23 as the one to come good after presiding over a maiden campaign which rapidly descended from triumph to triage.
Already they will enjoy a significant boost by virtue of the fact 50% are not expected to be rescheduled this time around, with the focus firmly messaging, content and live experience – a pivot towards servicing a core audience of existing football fans. Attempts to harness the excitement of a mid-season men’s World Cup will be made, as well as steps to leverage the existing brand capital of the league’s most gregarious and exciting players, including two of its highest-profile additions: Portuguese star Nani and former Premier League attacker Charlie Austin.
Both talents form part of the league’s marquee player strategy, one which centres on luring name-brand talent to to piggy-back off their fame. The APL, as part of its self-coined “three-year strategy”, is now targeting the January window for their next plunge into the sugar mines.
For Nani at least, there is some level of familiarity, given he has already served a similar role with Orlando City in the MLS. For Austin, however, the experience is all a bit of a novelty.
“We don’t have marquees – I didn’t understand what a marquee player was,” he says at the A-Leagues season launch, moments after walking through a tunnel of pyro and smoke to be presented on stage. “I guess that’s part and parcel of, if you’re here to grow the game, then I’m here to grow the game. If I can get more people involved in it and more people to play it and join their local clubs, then I’m all for that and helping it. If I need to speak to people, whatever it is, I’ll always do that. I assume now, that’s part of me being here.”
In truth, filling the complete brief of being a top-end marquee talent, of melding both off-field metrics with on-field success, is arguably one of the hardest jobs in Australian football. One would arguably need to go back to the A-Leagues’ first season when Dwight Yorke captained Sydney FC to the championship to find the best example. Alessandro Del Piero’s arrival at the Sky Blues in 2012 helped lift the league’s profile to a hitherto unmatched peak but failed to deliver silverware to Moore Park. The league’s last dalliance with a big-name addition, in former Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge, was a flop.
You have big potential to make this sport grow up
Nonetheless, both Nani and Austin, to their credit, have bought into the project ahead of them. Beyond their marketing responsibilities, both arrived in Australia well in advance of the new season (even if both were caught out by the egregiously long length of the A-Leagues off-season) and have demonstrated commitment that cannot always be taken for granted with marquee talent fully participating in their club’s preparations.
“There’s a lot of sports culture here in this country, especially in Melbourne,” says Nani, who enjoyed the public holiday associated with the AFL grand final even though he was still wrapping his head around the occasion. “In Europe, they live more, they cheer more, and they always talk about football. Here, I see it’s not probably the number one sport. But it’s still good, because like when I see people loving sport – it doesn’t matter which sport it is
“But we need to work hard on the football side to make this sport much more popular. Get it to the level of the footy and the other sports here in this country because the potential is there. You have big potential to make this sport grow up; this is a big opportunity this season.”
Austin is still adjusting to an unfamiliar sporting landscape.
“Getting your head around football not being the main sport [is a transition],” he says. “Obviously back home, football is the one. Here, it’s definitely down the ladder. You put on the radio and nothing’s football. It’s the NRL and the AFL. Hopefully, that will change but it’s not going to change overnight.
“I’ve got a wife and children. I’ve had to move my children out of school and that’s a tough decision. And I still have days now where I’m thinking if I made the right decision. [But] in the long haul I think it will be the right move and the right decision for the Austin family.”