AUSTRALIA’S footballing future depends on the A-League. And, having attracted several high-profile foreign players, as well as luring back some of Australia’s finest – including Jason Culina, John Aloisi and Stan Lazaridis – there’s reason to believe the league is a solid and growing force.Not everyone is convinced. Socceroos coach Pim Verbeek has equated the domestic football centrepiece to little more than a European league training session. Crowds, ratings and playing standards are unpredictable. And the fragility that once plagued the code locally is not yet entirely a relic.So, more than four years since its inaugural season, is the A-League on the right track? Is it strong? Which clubs have got it right? And, perhaps most importantly, is the league going to produce the kind of players needed to keep the Socceroos moving into the realm of world football’s elite?”Absolutely,” former Socceroo Ray Baartz says. ”I wish I had those opportunities when I was young. The full-time professionalism, the grounds, the coaching, the training … I think everything is in the players’ favour now. If they’re good enough and they’re keen enough, the opportunities are unlimited.”However, Baartz, who played at Manchester United as a teenager in the 1960s and later played 48 internationals, fears that despite the new professionalism, some teams are playing too negatively.”That’s my only criticism,” he says. ”The build-ups are too slow, which is resulting in some teams not creating enough opportunities to score, which is what the crowds want. I’d like to see more emphasis on attacking play.”Nevertheless, Baartz believes faith should continue to be placed in locally produced coaches. He also believes the league will increasingly encourage young players to stay in Australia longer.”I think we’ve got coaches here who are capable of getting the players to approach the game in the right way,” he says.”The competition is a high standard and players can now look to establish themselves here and then maybe go overseas. There’s no point going to minor leagues overseas and struggling when there is a good option here now.”Lazaridis, another one-time star Socceroo, believes the world financial crisis – and the resulting comparative conservatism of European clubs – might force players to stay in Australia longer. It could also influence more good foreign players to come because ”it’s a half-decent league and they can earn a half-decent wage here now”.Lazaridis, who returned from England to play briefly with Perth Glory, says the true merit of the A-League will be evident after next year.”After this World Cup you’re going to see players step aside and that’s when we’ll start to find out if the A-League is producing what we need,” he says.Lazaridis believes the clubs on the best path are Melbourne Victory – ”their crowds have been good and they play good football” – and the Central Coast Mariners.”The Mariners continually finish well, their crowds are stable and they’re careful with their money,” he says. ”They haven’t had big-name stars, yet they keep doing well.”But there are problems.”Probably the big concern for me is the financial stability of the clubs,” he says. ”Adelaide is being run by the FFA, Brisbane is in a bit of strife, Perth was struggling. Each club needs to get 10,000 through the door every week.”One way to do that, he believes, is to stop showing live coverage of matches in their home cities.”I think that’s scaring away 1000 people,” he says.”The TV money is very important, but other sports put games on delay in the home city, so football should, too. My friends go to the pub and spend $20 or $30 watching a match instead of going to the game and spending that money.”Some clubs are still struggling, but a third former Socceroo, Jim Fraser, believes it’s natural. ”The league, like any business, suffered from initial problems of hype followed by a downturn,” says Fraser, who coached Sydney FC’s goalkeepers and now works with their youth team.”The same thing happened with the J-League in Japan, which nearly died and then picked up again. Same in the United States.”Fraser, however, believes it’s encouraging to see the way struggling clubs have rebounded.”Most clubs so far have had a bad year. Melbourne were terrible in the second or third year but bounced back. Central Coast, Newcastle … the clubs are all learning lessons.”I think things are improving and the league is now pretty much an even playing field. The salary cap seems to have worked, there’s no real runaway clubs and I think the model is solid. It looks to me like the basis is there for it to become a strong competition. I don’t think it’s in any danger any more of falling over.”A key to the future, Fraser believes, has been the successful introduction of the youth competition.”With that in full swing now, the A-League is going to produce the kinds of players we need to keep improving at international level.”
Nanjing Night Net