The purchase of A-League club Melbourne Heart by the Abu Dhabi owners of Manchester City has come at a brilliant time for the A-League. It is not without caveats, but could be the single greatest trigger to take the game in Australia to the next level.
The past few years have been relatively frugal and, at times, uncertain. FFA finances were in a mess, necessitating a government review in 2011. Central Coast Mariners had documented financial issues and Melbourne Heart had been on the market for some time.
For the so-called richest club in the world, with revenues of $600 million, to invest in the A-League is an event that will fundamentally change the dynamics within the industry.
Recent growth has been hard-earned, welcome and incremental. This acquisition will turbo-charge the development.
Heart is the perfect vehicle for this change. The league needed it to be bolstered, so every stakeholder benefits.
Melbourne is home to one of the most toxically myopic media industries, at least half of it anyway, feverishly trying to protect their home-grown product. The introduction of a truly global soccer club is a challenge to this status quo. Owned in the Middle East, managed by Spaniards (Catalans, actually), represented by the rest of the world. Argentines, Ivorians, English, French, Spanish, Bosnian, and managed by a Chilean. That’s soccer.
If you were to design a Trojan horse to send into a still partly closed environment fearful of the international game, this would be it.
The internationalisation of the A-League will now step up with new players, big matches here and abroad, Asian tours, television exposure. Manchester City’s investment is part of a global strategy with subsidiaries in key markets, and leverage is obtained by promoting the brand and group. The glow will radiate across the A-League.
Many clubs have talked about becoming the biggest in Asia, but the limiting factor is money. Only greater levels of investment in youth, in the squad, in coaching, in marketing, in tours, in systems can achieve this. With the desire and financial backing, Melbourne City, or whatever the name becomes, has the genuine credentials to make this claim.
And they have the expertise. Ferran Soriano, highly respected as part of the ”Elefant Blau” consortium under Joan Laporta that revolutionised FC Barcelona in 2003, and Txiki Begiristain, one of the finest technical minds in soccer, bring a knowledge base, experience and contact network that can be utilised to lift the level of club administration, technical expertise and management of the league.
The potential for a higher level of player is obvious, and to extract the highest return on investment, City needs the highest level of soccer possible, an upward pressure on the salary cap and standard of the league that is hugely welcome.
But aside from the international credibility, the massive financial strength that dwarfs entire sports in Australia and the leading management expertise, above all, the most exciting aspect is in player development.
Here, Heart mark II has the opportunity to completely change the game.
I expect City to invest adequately in youth development, as Begiristain made very clear and, with his background at FC Barcelona, he understands only too well the quantum and timeframe over which this investment needs to be made. Tens of millions. And decades.
In other words, to compete internationally we need massive investments. He also knows the extreme quality of coaching necessary to help our kids to reach the highest levels, and for this there will be no compromise.
Begiristain will not accept training on shared parks, on school grounds, like a beggar the game often becomes, but will build a leading facility, because that is what soccer expects. He will also build a youth sector of international class, and the education will be free.
That is normal in Europe, how else would a club attract the best talent? This will be a game-changer. Most A-League clubs are chasing kids to make a buck and cover costs, and it’s killing our future.
City will create a new industry dynamic, it will get the best talent, and others will have to follow suit. No more invoices for thousands of dollars for the privilege of sending your talented child to an elite program. Imagine what the game can achieve?
This is my greatest hope for a partnership that holds such potential for the future of our game.
My preference would be for majority Australian ownership to protect our long-term goals. But such partnerships as that with City may ultimately allow the achievement of these aims. Only faster.
© 2014 The Age | This article was written by Craig Foster and first appeared in The Age on 26 January 2014.