A month after their pre-season friendly thumping at the hands of Manchester United, Matt Tilby assesses the A-League All Stars, and whether or not the concept is still viable in Australian football.
When it was announced early this year that Manchester United would be returning to Australia to play the A-League All Stars, I jumped at the opportunity and bought myself a ticket at the first chance I got. Not only would I get to see my favourite sporting team in my home country again (yes, I’m a United fan, grab your pitchforks), but I’d also get to see the All Stars concept – one that has been executed brilliantly in the MLS and one I have enjoyed for many years – make its way into the A-League.
“Sure,” I thought, “the A-League isn’t that old and not that strong”. But results from past seasons had me hopeful of an upset. The Central Coast Mariners had beaten a full-strength Celtic side, while Everton had to leave it late to beat Brisbane Roar a few years ago. Throw in the added factor of a new coach in David Moyes and a sprinkling of untested youth players in the United squad and it provided a compelling spectacle.
Oh how wrong I was.
The All Stars were thumped 5-1. They looked lacklustre, out of shape, unfamiliar with their teammates and completely at sea when defending their goal. Serious possession of the ball was fleeting and the lone All Star goal – a fine turn and finish from Brisbane Roar’s Besart Berisha – was one of the few chances they had going forward. So what went wrong? Right from the word go, logistically, problems arose that would ensure the All Stars concept became a laughing stock.
The Socceroos’ participation at the East Asian Cup saw an all A-League based national team and saw the All Stars miss out on some of the league’s best performers. Players such as Aaron Mooy and Ivan Franjic, who shone during the 2012/13 season for their clubs, were snatched away for the chance to play in what was a rather dull and meaningless competition for Australia. Meanwhile, more of the league’s best talent was being sold elsewhere with fans being told that goalkeeping prodigy Mat Ryan (sold to Club Brugge), Johnny Warren Medal winner Marco Rojas (sold to Stuttgart) and breakout striker Jeremy Brockie (on loan to Toronto FC) would not make the squad after all, despite featuring heavily in the voting for the final team.
The biggest disappointment was the news that the league’s big three – Alessandro del Piero, Shinji Ono and cult hero Emile Heskey – would not take part. While the reasons for the superstars’ ineligibility were not explained, it had armchair fans across the country questioning the validity of the All Stars really being a team of stars. That, personally, is the big slap in the face. This is a glamour fixture for Football Federation Australia, with plenty of money being spent to bring one of the world’s biggest clubs to the country, so to find out that the league’s biggest stars cannot participate in one way or another is very disappointing.
The voting process soon became a farce, too. Five players from the Western Sydney Wanderers and four from Brisbane Roar were chosen, compared to the one player that represented Melbourne Heart, Wellington Phoenix and Perth Glory. Remember when I discussed the MLS All Stars? They capped the amount of players from one team at three players. Surely the FFA isn’t so blind that they can’t be bothered to explore the other great talent that the A-League has, right?
So what can they do to ensure the All Star concept thrives in years to come? Tour the game around the country. Just like the MLS takes the travelling All Stars roadshow around the country – with the next edition held in front of arguably the best fans in the country in Portland – the A-League should offer the match around. First Sydney, then maybe Brisbane. Melbourne and Perth. It keeps the game fresh and allows the city involved to participate in the pageantry and the fun that goes with an All Star game. Even from a fan’s perspective, some of the best fun I had in Sydney was simply walking around in the Fan Zones near the stadium. Live bands, good food and beer, it enhanced the spectacle, and I truly believe the FFA should continue this.
And while we’re at it, why not allow even more fan interaction? Let them design the jersey every year, perhaps? Sure, the bright blue and yellow jersey that the All Stars took to the field in wasn’t exactly a good mix but it certainly grabbed attention.
It just seems like Football Federation Australia didn’t take this seriously. It’s meant to be a big deal. Just like last time, it might be years before United and their Premier League cohorts ever make the trip to Australia again, so it’s of paramount importance that we make it look like we actually care.
I like the idea of an All Stars team. I really do. I think that while this iteration of the league’s (debatable) best talent absolutely crashed and burned with shocking results, I can see an All Star game happening again. Sure, I might get stick for wholly supporting an Americanised part of the game, but I don’t mind the sport keeping things fresh and interesting. This should be used as a learning experience by the FFA. While the World Cup in Brazil may scupper any chance of an All Star game this time next year, I have faith that the idea can work. The seeds have been planted for this idea, and hopefully it’s one that continues to grow and showcase the great home grown and international talent this league has to offer.