By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Usain Bolt's mission to win a professional football contract in Australia has dominated the A-League's pre-season and could prove an intriguing sideshow throughout a championship that has lacked superstar glamour in recent years.
Bolt, trying to make his mark at Central Coast Mariners, netted twice in a trial match last week, generating headlines around the world but failing to remove doubts about the eight-time Olympic gold medallist's chances of making the grade.
However, Bolt's mere presence at Central Coast has given the sleepy region north of Sydney its time in the limelight, drawing thousands to warm-up games that would normally struggle to lure a few hundred spectators.
Football Federation Australia (FFA) has said it would not raid a special fund set up to lure marquee players to the league if the Mariners decide 32-year-old Bolt is worth the risk.
But it would likely move heaven and earth to keep the Jamaican Down Under, for his marketing value if not his footballing quality.
Adding another element of intrigue, Maltese champions Valletta FC have declared their interest in signing Bolt, dangling a two-year deal in front of him.
What is certain is that Bolt will not be turning out for the Mariners when they open their season at Brisbane Roar on Sunday, and most probably not until the New Year at the earliest.
The league's next registration period does not open until Jan. 3, which could leave him a mere cheerleader for the first half of a season tipped to be one of the most open in years.
With Bolt cooling his heels, former Japan midfielder Keisuke Honda will feel the burden of expectation as the league's highest profile recruit in its most dominant team, Melbourne Victory.
Honda is arguably the league's biggest signing since Sydney FC lured Italy great Alessandro del Pierro for a couple of seasons in 2012, and he could prove key to the Kevin Muscat-coached Victory's hopes of extending the champions' record to five titles.
Sydney FC and Newcastle Jets, beaten in the championship decider by Victory last season, are also expected to figure prominently in the post-season but Perth Glory may be set to make the biggest move up the table.
Glory finished eighth in the 10-team league last year but the recruitment of manager Tony Popovic, who guided the Western Sydney Wanderers to the Asian Champions League title in 2014, has helped trigger an influx of quality signings.
They now boast three former Australia internationals in a defence that leaked far too many goals last season.
The A-League will also kick off without a governance war raging in the background for the first time in years after FFA's Congress voted in a reform package earlier this month to end a long-running dispute.
The political wrangling delayed the selection of new expansion sides but FFA CEO David Gallop said on Wednesday the league still planned for new teams to join the A-League in the 2019/20 season.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)