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The Sydney Morning Herald

A-League far from the big league

Date: 01/10/1995
Words: 1743
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: SPORT
Page: 42
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 nonetheless.

"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 surprising."

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 off.

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 the situation.

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 next year.

"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 of."

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 competition.

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.



Gains: Sasa Nedeljkovic (Heidelberg United), Brad Armour (White City Woodville).

Losses: Tony Vidmar (NAC Breda, Holland), Sergio Melta (retired), Angie Goutzioulos (released).


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 Britton (released).


Gains: Paul Dee (Marconi-Fairfield), Norman Kelly (Brunei), Danny Milosevic (AIS), Michael Garcia (AIS), *Lachlan Armstrong (Malacca), Paul Wade (South Melbourne).

Losses: n/a


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, WA).

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 SC, WA)

Losses: Steve Douglas (Albion), *John Markovski (Melbourne Knights), Shaun Parton (retired)


Gains: Jason Bennett (Warringah Dolphins), Craig Sharpley (Warringah Dolphins), Steve Hickman (Warringah Dolphins), Damien Brown (Central Coast), *Glen Sprod (Parramatta Eagles).

Losses: n/a


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 Strikers).


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, Holland).

* Pending at time of going to press

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