AFTER a seven-year hiatus during which he excelled as a professional in
Europe, Frank Farina remains unsure of what to expect when he returns to the
playing fields of Australia this summer. And he is not alone.
Following an exhaustive and acrimonious legal process in which the lawyers
(as usual) were the only winners, a revamped national competition - to be known
as the A-League - will kick-off next weekend.
Twelve teams representing four States and one territory will participate in
the flagship domestic competition, with the prevailing mood one of genuine
optimism that elite club football is finally heading in the right direction.
Yet the truth is that this is only a beginning, and certainly not the end.
The reform agenda launched amid much controversy and heartache by Soccer
Australia chairman David Hill still has a long way to go. Indeed, for those
punters more interested in players than politics, the on-field product this
season should be more of the same - modest.
Farina, certainly, expects the A-League to be of a lesser standard than the
competition he departed in 1988, with a championship medal for Marconi-Fairfield
in his luggage. His reasoning may not be unique, but it is irrefutable
"Every year a high percentage of what we perceive as the best players are
leaving," he says. "From what everybody has told me the standard has dropped
off, and when you think of the players that have gone to Europe, it's not
Indeed. Since last season more than 20 players have won contracts with
overseas clubs, including six current internationals. No competition, least of
all one which lacks the financial muscle to bring players of similar stature in
the opposite direction, can afford to hemorrhage talent at such a rate.
When Farina last played in the national league, there were fewer than 10
recognised Australians playing overseas. Now there are 80, including virtually
the entire first-choice national team, and the average age of a national league
side has plummeted into the low 20s.
Youth has its own attributes - including a more expressive playing style -
but the backbone of any competition is always provided by seasoned professionals
with leadership qualities on and off the field. Bona fide stars provide the
real gauge, and despite the fervent salesmanship of Hill there can be no denying
that the A-league is chronically short of promotable talent.
Farina, who has returned to his native Queensland to lead the attack for the
Brisbane Strikers, is helping to alter the trend. Further encouragement will
come within 18 months when several other well-known expatriates - among them
Graham Arnold, David Mitchell, Jim Patikas and Eddie Krncevic - will be back to
end their playing careers in Australia.
For now, however, the outlook is more subdued. The 1995-96 season may boast a
new name and a new pay TV deal, which will substantially increase coverage, but
beneath the optimistic veneer the impact of these changes is yet to be felt.
Reducing the size of the league by one club will slightly improve playing
standards, while the inclusion of Newcastle Breakers and Canberra Cosmos should
provide new incentives for provincial players.
There is also a traineeship scheme being introduced for teenagers and a
gradual increase in the number of players being offered full-time contracts.
But with the average income for a nine-month season still hovering around
$10,000, it is clear that the career opportunities within Australian soccer
remain pitifully small.
Improving the lot of our often exploited players is the focus of the
much-maligned players' union, the Australian Soccer Players' Association, which
is engaged in a long court battle with Soccer Australia for the introduction of
a minimum award.
The abolition of transfer fees at domestic levels - the reasoning being that
the money saved will be re-directed into player contracts - has been agreed in
principle by the Industrial Commission, but its implementation remains 12 months
In the meantime, confusion reigns and movement of players between clubs has
been severely affected.
"Who's going to pay a $20,000 transfer fee for a player whom you won't be
able to sell for a cent 12 months later," says Newcastle coach John Kosmina,
echoing a widely-held view.
Nonetheless, some players have managed to move (many of them on loan deals),
including experienced striker Kimon Taliadoros, who has a unique perspective on
Taliadoros, who also has a part-time position as chief executive of the
players' union, had a $43,500 fee placed on his head by Marconi-Fairfield, but
has been able to join Sydney Olympic, thanks to a straight swap deal which took
Brad Maloney to Bossley Park.
"One of the problems of the court decision is that during the interim period
it will obviously be difficult to negotiate," he says. "Clearly, the clubs will
be reluctant to spend money on players who will be able to leave for nothing
"Loan deals and swap deals could help, and I would hope that clubs will learn
to become more flexible in their arrangements."
Given the combined uncertainties surrounding transfer fees, the loss of three
established clubs and a transfer freeze, which was in place for two months of
the off-season, it is hardly surprising that few big-name moves have been
concluded. Many clubs have concentrated instead on trawling lower leagues for
talent - none more so than newcomers Canberra and Newcastle - rather than taking
the risk of a major investment.
The most dramatic overhaul has come at South Melbourne, where seasoned coach
Frank Arok has dumped almost all his established players in favour of youngsters
untried at this level. And, individually, the most significant switch will
involve Socceroo playmaker Gabriel Mendez - due shortly to leave relegated
Parramatta, most probably for West Adelaide where he would link up with his
long-time mentor Raul Blanco.
Blanco is understandably anxious to capture Australia's most talented
all-rounder, but also remains enthused about the prospects for the league as a
whole. Widely travelled in his other role as national team staff coach, Blanco
stands defiant against the tide of opinion which suggests our domestic
competition has lost its lustre.
"We are suffering through the loss of our players, of course it is a big
hemorrhage for a country as small as ours," Blanco says.
"But I am one of the few who believe that despite the quality of the players
we have lost, our league is still far better than we give it credit for. When
you think we have 200 plumbers, 80 electricians and a few bricklayers also
trying to make a career in soccer, we have done amazingly well. We just keep
getting good young players coming through."
Blanco recalls a pre-season trip to Marconi Stadium in 1993, when he took
former Argentine coach Carlos Bilardo and ex-Argentine internationals Brown,
Giusti and Pumpido to a friendly game between Marconi and Sydney United.
"I could hear them speaking among themselves, and they were very impressed,"
Blanco says. "They were looking at the game in an analytical way, and they were
saying the tactical standard and the organisation was quite good. We might not
have the people in the stadium, but on the field we have nothing to be ashamed
Perhaps. But the underlying impression is that until the overseas exodus can
be contained, until real money via television, privatisation and sponsorship
comes into the game, and until a co-ordinated, committed marketing campaign
brings attendances up to the 8,000-10,000 mark, then the A-League remains well
short of the finished product.
For the first time, though, the feeling is that it can get there. The Hill
revolution has convinced those outside the game, who have always recognised
soccer's potential, that there could be merit in investing in the national
To that end, privately-owned bids from Brisbane, Perth, Auckland and Sydney
(Manly-Warringah) are on the drawing board for next season. And to keep pace,
traditional clubs like South Melbourne, Sydney Olympic, Sydney United and West
Adelaide are moving steadily forward along increasingly professional lines.
At last there is real optimism that the A-League can succeed where the old
NSL - operating under a flawed structure propped up by vested interests - failed
abysmally. That is, to go into previously unchartered territory and demonstrate
to mainstream Australia that domestic soccer is a product worth paying to see.
TRANSFERS: THE MAJOR MOVES
Gains: Sasa Nedeljkovic (Heidelberg United), Brad Armour (White City
Losses: Tony Vidmar (NAC Breda, Holland), Sergio Melta (retired), Angie
Gains: Frank Farina (Lille, France), *Glenn Gwynne (Parramatta Eagles),
*Andrew Brayshaw (Parramatta Eagles), Mark Battistin (Brisbane City), Chay Hews
(QAS), *George Slifkas (West Adelaide), Reece Tollenaere (QAS).
Losses: Bradley Ditton (released), Andrew Stowell (Brisbane Lions), Alun
Evans (released), Jonathon Carter (released), Ian Hutchison (released), Danny
Gains: Paul Dee (Marconi-Fairfield), Norman Kelly (Brunei), Danny Milosevic
(AIS), Michael Garcia (AIS), *Lachlan Armstrong (Malacca), Paul Wade (South
Gains: Brad Maloney (Sydney Olympic), Eric Hristodoulou (Sydney United),
Robert Stanton (Sydney United), Andrew Ravanello (Port Kembla), Paul Beltrame
(Port Kembla), Ramon Climent (free agent, Chile), *Michael Petkovic (Spearwood,
Losses: Tom McCulloch (retired), Ian Gray (retired), Angelo Colombo
(released), Kimon Taliadoros (Sydney Olympic), Paul Dee (Canberra Cosmos), Steve
Corica (Leicester City, England), Ufuk Talay (Galatasaray, Turkey)
Gains: Idris Pelja (Bosnia), *John Markovski (Morwell Falcons)
Losses: Mark Viduka (FC Croatia), Steve Horvat (Hajduk Split, Croatia)
Gains: *Jason Polak (South Melbourne), *Francis Awaritefe (South Melbourne),
*Gary Hasler (South Melbourne), *Jim Kourtis (Melbourne SC), Scott Miller (Perth
Losses: Steve Douglas (Albion), *John Markovski (Melbourne Knights), Shaun
Gains: Jason Bennett (Warringah Dolphins), Craig Sharpley (Warringah
Dolphins), Steve Hickman (Warringah Dolphins), Damien Brown (Central Coast),
*Glen Sprod (Parramatta Eagles).
Gains: Con Blatsis (AIS), Daniel Allsop (VIS), *Agim Sherifovski (Sunshine
Georgies), Vaughan Coveny (Wollongong City), *Craig Lewis (Sunshine Georgies),
Michael Curcija (Heidelberg United).
Losses: Paul Wade (Canberra Cosmos), *Jason Polak (Morwell Falcons), *Gary
Hasler (Morwell Falcons), *Francis Awaritefe (Morwell Falcons), *Kevin Muscat
(Sheffield United, England).
Gains: Adam Ciantar (Parramatta Eagles), Nick Orlic (Parramatta Eagles),
Walter Ardone (Leichhardt Tigers), Kimon Taliadoros(Marconi-Fairfield), *Brendan
Renaud (Parramatta Eagles)
Losses: Brad Maloney (Marconi-Fairfield), Tony Spyridakos (retired).
Gains: *Robert Enes (Melbourne SC), *Aytec Genc (PKENJ Johor, Malaysia),
Robert Trajkovski (Melbourne SC), Robert Markovac (free agent).
Losses: Zeljko Kalac (Leicester City, England), Robert Stanton
(Marconi-Fairfield), Eric Hristodoulou (Marconi-Fairfield), Ivan Petkovic
(retired), Tony Krslovic (retired).
Gains: Nathan Day (Campbelltown City), *Gabriel Mendez (Parramatta Eagles),
Scott Ryschka (Campbelltown City), Hamilton Thorp (Port Adelaide).
Losses: Stan Lazaridis (West Ham, England), *George Slifkas (Brisbane
Gains: Tony Perinich (Rockdale Suns), George Jolevski (Melbourne SC), Lupcho
Naumovski (Illawarra Lions), Angelo Petratos (free agent, Greece), Simon Elliott
(Wellington Olympic, NZ), *Frank Mikuletic (Leichhardt Tigers).
Losses: Vaughan Coveny (South Melbourne), *Robbie Middleby (MVV Maastricht,
* Pending at time of going to press