Hay: A-League has raised the standard of play

DANNY HAY
Last updated 05:00 05/01/2014

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OPINION: As New Zealanders, many of us are partial to the sight of Australians failing on the sporting landscape. That is particularly prevalent when it is one of our own dishing out the punishment. It gave me great pleasure during the week seeing the Phoenix dismantle last season's Premiership winners Western Sydney Wanderers.

But as much as it pains us at times, we've got to give it to our mates from across the ditch. Of late they have wiped the floor with the Poms in the Ashes, gave us a touch up in the final of the Rugby League World Cup and Netball's Constellation Cup, as well as having plenty of individual athletes making headlines around the world in a multitude of sports.

Reflecting on the Phoenix's game last Wednesday night I realised a greater admiration for our closest rivals. Establishing the A-League has been one of their notable sporting success stories over the past decade. The foresight of the Australian Federal Government back in 2003 to initiate change in the governance and management of football was a masterstroke. Without it, billionaire businessman and football super-supporter Frank Lowy wouldn't have become involved and brought his uber professional outlook to the way the game is run in Australia.

That's not to say it's been a bed of roses since Football Federation Australia under Lowy's guardianship formed the A-League. The New Zealand Knights, North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United have all come and gone since the 2005 beginning. However, out of adversity comes strength. In their place the Phoenix, Western Sydney and Melbourne Heart have all been solid, if not exceptional franchises in terms of their structure and community support.

Passionate football fan or not, watch the Sydney Derby on Saturday night, even for just a couple of minutes.

The staunchest of rugby league fans will be blown away to see one of their sport's traditional strongholds, Parramatta Stadium, literally bouncing to the beat of the Wanderers home fans. Guaranteed, there won't be a spare seat in the house, which is a far cry from what the Parramatta Eels and rugby league has seen for many years at the same venue.

But it's not just the atmosphere or crowd numbers that is so impressive. The product on the pitch has come such a long way since the final days of it's predecessor, the now defunct NSL.

Many will argue ageing stars such as Alessandro Del Piero, Shinji Ono and Emile Heskey are propping up the A-League.

While they are certainly adding value and still show plenty of glimpses of the sublime, I genuinely believe the quality displayed to maintain possession and play an attacking brand of football, from the majority of players and teams, is what is keeping fans handing over their hard earned cash at the gate.

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The impact of the A-League closer to home has also been incredibly significant. Would players of the ilk of Shane Smeltz, Kosta Barborouses, Marco Rojas and company have come to the fore if an A-League franchise hadn't been on our own doorstep? Would the All Whites have qualified for the World Cup in South Africa if it hadn't been for the Phoenix and their ability to provide regular professional football for the majority of that squad?

Also consider the legitimate pathway that exists for our own emerging talent. Particularly now under Ernie Merrick we are seeing multiple young Kiwi players getting a taste of the game at a professional level.

It has the potential to lead to a production line of Rojas's - players capable of taking the next step to the more prestigious leagues in Europe.

Perhaps the most promising aspect is that Australasia's premier football competition is really only in its infancy. The world can be the oyster of those who are part of it.

Danny Hay is a former All Whites captain.

- Sunday Star Times

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