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Can the A-League remain a closed shop?

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Last Monday, Football Federation Australia (FFA) unveiled what is surely to become the “Cahill Rule” – that is, to basically allow A-League clubs to have a third ‘one year guest’ marquee.

There was scope for guest players to come in previously, but this was only for a total of 12 weeks. The expansion, it is thought, was pursued at the request of Melbourne City so it could pursue Tim Cahill’s signature.

The other clubs were thought to be sold on the ‘Del Piero Effect’, that is, wherever Tim Cahill plays there will be an increased gate intake for that club.

It was just the latest case of Melbourne City and its cashed-up owners the City Football Group (CFG) flexing their muscles in what is essentially a ‘closed-shop’ market.

In the past 12 months, City has demanded a change in colours to Sky Blue, and used its CFG structure to essentially buy the likes of Luke Brattan and Anthony Cacares from other A-League clubs.

Because these players end up ‘loaned’ to Melbourne City from Manchester City, it was able to exploit loopholes to avoid paying the A-League clubs they came from a fair fee.


The FFA has been keen to avoid putting the CFG offside, as the CFG is by far and away the richest and most well-resourced investor in the league as a whole.

So, the CFG has been able to flex its financial muscle, increasingly to the detriment of smaller clubs in the league, and increasingly making the closed-shop mentality of the league irrelevant.

The addition of what is effectively a third marquee which can be paid from outside of a club’s salary cap will undoubtedly have the effect of entrenching the richer clubs’ dominant position in the league.

These clubs, primarily the Sydney and Melbourne clubs, will simply be able to afford players that the rest of the league can’t – potentially creating a two-tier system.

It makes a mockery of a league which by design is supposed to protect and constrain the ambitions of A-League clubs by imposing a salary cap.

The theory went that by constricting the ability of clubs to throw squillions at players on the open transfer market, it would have the effect of allowing those clubs to be financially stable while as a bonus ensuring an equal playing field.

Other sports in Australia have a salary cap including the AFL and NRL, but these sports by and large don’t have to play in a globalised market.

The global nature of football has lent itself to a free and open market, the scale of which dwarfs the A-League, and is increasingly making a ‘closed shop’ mentality anachronistic.

Little by little, the A-League’s foundations as a level playing field for clubs is being eroded as a result of money trying to find a way in.

CFG, a global entity which in December last year was valued at $3 billion, is hardly going to want to be constrained in what it can do by an arbitrary set of rules which by design constrain the ambition of clubs in the A-League.

It raises the question – how long will the salary cap remain in the A-League in its current form?

The MLS does maintain a salary cap, albeit at a much larger scale.

Australia though, has a fairly big neighbour to the north shaking up the transfer market the world over and essentially pricing Australia out of the secondary transfer market.

The rise of Chinese football has been pretty well charted, but suffice to say it’s buying up talent in a big way with Chinese football clubs given directives from the government to beef up investment in football.

It hopes to win a World Cup, sooner rather than later.

When Beijing threw dollars at athlete programs before the 2008 Olympics, the result was a Chinese gold rush.

Its overall investment in football could be a good thing for Australian football as Chinese football capital looks to invest – but will it really look at Australia if its capital is constrained?

With effects of football globalisation bearing down on the Australian market faster than a freight train can the closed shop of the A-League survive in its current form?

It’s a classic protectionism versus capitalism battle, and time and again it’s been proven that cash rules the roost when it comes to professional sport.

© 2016 Outside 90 | This article was written by James McGrath and first appeared on the Outside 90 website on 3 July 2016.

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