Stars have aligned, so let the good times roll

SEBASTIAN HASSETT
Last updated 15:10 05/10/2012

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In truth, last A-League season was meant to be the most eagerly awaited of all. Harry Kewell had landed at Melbourne Victory, Brett Emerton had signed with Sydney FC and domestic football hadn't seemed this alive since, well, ever.

Twelve months on and that hype seems a little misplaced. If only we'd known what was coming, perhaps we'd have kept the lid on a little tighter.

At the same time, Alessandro Del Piero was at Juventus, Emile Heskey was at Aston Villa and Shinji Ono was at Shimizu S-Pulse. To be fair, it's hard to imagine they thought they knew what was coming, either.

But football is a fluid landscape, one ever-changing, and changing in some places quicker than others. Yet for all the troubles over its short history, the A-League has managed to keep going and - almost from nowhere - develop some serious momentum.

For a league that threatened to be sucked into a hole of indifference a few years ago, evolution has been swift. No, marquee players will not sustain the A-League forever but they have provided a shot of something the game has craved but never possessed: credibility.

In a single month, the A-League has gone from being a secondary thought to being a major discussion in pubs, clubs, restaurants and bars around the country. Even the doubters don't mock any more. Instead, they ponder. Is Del Piero really capable at 37? Is it true Ono has dodgy knees? Will Heskey score enough goals?

All are legitimate questions. But it's better for them to be asked than ignored. Finally - and perhaps for the first time - attention has focused on what's happening on the field, not off it. A crucial, but subtle, transition being made.

It shows that a sports-mad country is willing to take a chance on football. Give Australia serious talent - Del Piero, Heskey and Ono qualify - and they'll have a look. Football hasn't fed this beast nearly enough, either through a lack of imagination or bargain-basement policies.

Mistakes of judgment were made and penny-pinching became a byword for boring. Yet when you're still in your infancy and trying to win over the market, flirting with the stale is disastrous. This is entertainment after all, and the A-League is competing not just against AFL, rugby league and cricket but the English Premier League and the Champions League, too.

This season, the A-League will be beamed into more homes than ever before, both here and around the globe. Sydney FC matches will be screened live in Italy.

We already know such short-term fixes are exactly that but this should not be cause for concern. These marquees should serve as a vision of what we can do with home-grown players should we collectively commit to proper development programs and a legitimate pursuit of excellence.

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Tactically, the A-League has never looked better - yet all of the league's coaches are locals, or at least began their coaching career in Australia and have lived here for over a decade.

One of those mentors, Ange Postecoglou has left a potential dynasty at Brisbane in the hope of creating another at Melbourne Victory. It is a massive story, yet even that narrative has struggled for traction in recent months - because somehow the league produced bigger, better and bolder tales.

What can Graham Arnold conjure at Central Coast after successive disappointments? Same for Perth, too. Can they find the energy to bounce back? Can Brisbane make it a hat-trick? Was John Kosmina's face-saving at Adelaide only temporary? Is John Aloisi as capable in the dugout as he was from the penalty spot?

We've even got a new club to dissect, too. Western Sydney is a work in progress; only announced on April 4 this year, they will officially spring to life at 7.45pm tomorrow. How will they go first up? Or will Wanderers fans still be talking at kick-off about Del Piero's debut in Wellington?

The Melbourne derby comes tonight. Sydney's turn is in round three. Before that, however, is the round two match between the Sky Blues and Newcastle at Allianz Stadium, Il Pinturicchio's first Australian start. Will records be broken when the fans pack the stands?

Talk about a salivating set of discussion points. Mercifully, the questions are starting to surround players and coaches, not owners and directors. The answers? Well, you'll just have to watch.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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