Terry Duffelen
Sun 22 February 2009

League Spotlight: Australia / A-League

Australasia remains one of the few regions of the world not held in Football's thrall. In his book The Ball Is Round, David Goldblatt pointed to the fact that when the first Australian colonies were founded, the game of Association Football had not developed, much less officially codified. In fact Aussie Rules football was formed before Soccer. Both Australian and Association rules football share their genesis from a previous version of the game now lost to history. By the time future waves of immigrants came to the country, exporting soccer, the native code had taken hold and Football never took its place as the pre-eminent sport like in so many other lands.

However, as we know, the beauty and simplicity of Football makes it a very hard game to resist and slowly the globalisation of the game grew stronger roots Down Under. The 80' and 90's saw a stream of Australian Soccer players migrate to Europe and the Australian national team (the Socceroos) slowly began to improve. Their recent performance in the World Cup captured the imagination of many Australians and the game now probably enjoys an unprecedented level of popularity. On the back of the growth of the sport, the National Soccer League in Australia was replaced in 2005 with the A-League, a new professional league of eight teams.

The league operates a franchise system. Five of the teams formed for the inaugural A-League season were brand new clubs. Only Perth Glory, Adelaide United and Newcastle United Jets survive from the old league. The new teams were Sydney FC, Queensland Roar, Central Coast Mariners, Melbourne Victory and from New Zealand, Wellington Phoenix. Players you may recognise that have graced the fields of the A-League are Tony Vidmar, Tony Popovitch, Juninho (yes that Juninho), Danny Tiatto and Kevin Muscat.

The A-League season is divided into two parts. A 21-week regular season determines the Premier (regular season) Champion and a top four to make up the post-season culminating in a Grand Final. The four team play-off competition is a novel and different approach to the first v fourth/second v third/final system we are used to here in England. In the A-League the top two play each other in the two legged Major Semi-Final. The winner of that match progresses straight to the Grand Final and chooses the venue for the match. The loser progresses to the Preliminary Final where they will play the winner of the Minor Semi-Final which is another two legged match between the third and fourth finished teams in the Regular Season. The Preliminary Final winners then progress to the Grand Final where the A-League Championship is decided.

The system satisfies the need for a showpiece climax to the season, which is very much at the heart of Australian sporting culture. It also clearly benefits the teams that finish further up the table and therefore provides incentives for clubs to keep going until the last week rather than settling for a play-off spot and taking their foot off the gas.

The winner qualifies for the Asian Champions League along with the winner of the Regular Season. Curiously, qualifiers do not enter this tournament for a whole year. This means that the 2008 champions, Newcastle United Jets, will enter the 2009 Champions League despite finishing bottom of the current A-League season.

This season saw Melbourne Victory take the Premier title. They played runners up Adelaide United in the Major Semi and ran out 6-0 victors on aggregate. United coach Aurelio Vidmar (right) took the defeat pretty badly and went on a Keegan style post-match rant. The only thing was, rather than slagging off the opposition, he slagged off just about everyone who had ever been anywhere near the club, including himself. Fortunately for Vidmar and his players, they got another crack at getting into the Grand Final against Queensland Roar in the Preliminary Final. The Roar were the form team at the end of the Regular Season and overcame the Central Coast Mariners 4-1 on aggregate.

Many people, including me, thought the Roar would er... roar past Adelaide by the force of their own momentum while Adelaide faltered under the wight of their coaches suicidal remarks. However, where Keegan's players failed, Vidmar's players rallied to a 1-0 win and sealed a place in the Grand Final at the Telstra Dome this Saturday morning (UK time). The game will be broadcast live on Sky Sports, more details will appear in our forthcoming Weekend TV Preview.

Next season, the league will take on a further two clubs in North Queensland Fury and Cold Coast United. Robbie Fowler has already signed up for the Fury and will be spending the twilight of his career expanding his already considerable property empire banging in the goals down under. Gold Coast have signed this season's A-League Golden Boot winner Shane Smeltz from Wellington Pheonix.

The standard of play? Unsurprisingly the quality does not match that of the major European leagues. However, the League is very much in its infancy and now there is a professional structure in place for young Australian sportsmen (of which there are many) to play football. Given Australia's proud sporting heritage, it may not be too long before the A-League starts to export its finest player overseas and provide the rump of a successful Socceroos team in the World Cup which, no doubt, we will never hear the end of...

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