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The Real thing: How Cristiano Ronaldo won Melbourne’s heart in a footy winter

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Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid are all over the front page of The Saturday Age and in the news section as well as the sports pages.

Coverage throughout the week of the Spanish galacticos and their star players in the printed press and online, on radio and television, in digital videos and streams and through just about every medium available in Australia.

If you are a football fan, what’s not to like?

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The AFL taking a back seat at the ground that is synonymous with the oval ball code in the middle of the footy season? Who would have thought it possible?
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Such, however is the power of the global game, or at least its biggest names, that even the best known teams and local rugby and footy players can be put in the shade in the depths of a Melbourne midwinter.

Okay, Real Madrid are a special case. The Spanish club is perhaps the single biggest brand in world sport, so it can be expected to make a splash and attract huge crowds, which it has done for its two ICC Cup matches in Melbourne, against Roma on Saturday night and for the clash with Manchester City next Friday. Some 10,000 supporters paid $15 a head to watch their training session at the MCG on Friday, a measure of the incredible drawing power the club has.

But big crowds for visiting European – particularly English Premier League clubs – have been a feature of this winter soccer off-season. Not just in Melbourne for this ICC tournament involving some of the best known players on the planet, but in Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide too.

Liverpool pulled 50,000 at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night for their pre-season game against Brisbane Roar, whom they beat 2-1 after surviving an early scare when they went a goal down.

The Reds from Anfield are expected to pull another large gate in South Australia when they play Adelaide United on Monday night at the Adelaide Oval.

In May Tottenham came to Sydney on a wet and cool night and beat Sydney FC 1-0 in front of more than 70,000 fans at ANZ Stadium, with Harry Kane, the pin-up boy of White Hart Lane, doing the damage. Three nights later, Premier League champions Chelsea turned up at the same venue and attracted another 10,000, with more than 80,000 showing up to see Jose Mourinho’s Blues see off the Sky Blues by a similar fashion.

Even on the Gold Coast on Saturday night there was huge interest in the friendly between Manchester City and its Australian offshoot, Melbourne City.

The Victorian government has come to the party to support the ICC in Melbourne, with reports suggesting it has invested between $8 million and $10 million to attract the competition.

Premier Daniel Andrews shared the stage with Ronaldo et al on Friday to declare that using public money to attract such international attractions was justified. Sports Minister John Eren confirmed that the expected economic benefit to the city from increased interstate and international tourism and global exposure was estimated at anything between $50 million and $80 million.

Such figures are always open to question as it is difficult to get an exact assessment, so many are the variables.

But what is not open to question is the huge PR push it has given soccer when usually the game is at its lowest ebb: most A-League clubs have only just returned for pre-season and the A-League itself is not scheduled to start for almost three months.

The challenge is now for the A-League, its administrators and individual club executives to cash in on this “theatregoer” interest and try to harness it for the domestic game.

Melbourne Victory CEO Ian Robson was in the crowd of well-wishers and interested parties looking on on Friday morning and could only smile at the devotion Madrid seems to generate.

“This is fantastic for the sport. We have to try and get these people interested, those who don’t come to the A-League, try to get some of them to attend matches and hook them into the local competition,” was Robson’s assessment of the challenge awaiting him and his rival executives.

And if there is any real benefit for the A-League, that is where it can come from these matches.

There are, however, some who see some risks attendant in these sort of matches, but they are in a minority.

There are plenty of so-called “Eurosnob” soccer fans who simply won’t watch the local competition on the grounds that it isn’t anywhere near the standard they can see on television, and they will point to the presence of Madrid, Roma and the Premiership plutocrats and their skill levels on show this week as justification for their view.

That’s fair enough, and they are entitled to their perspective, even if it is, in my eyes, completely skewed. Of course Melbourne Victory don’t compare with Real Madrid and the quality of football on offer at AAMI Park is not on a par with the Etihad or Stamford Bridge. How could it be given the economics of the leagues concerned?

But football is about more than aesthetic appeal. It is about a visceral sense of emotion, about tribalism, about getting behind your team for no other reason than that they represent you, that the shirt they wear is your shirt.

If these matches can generate passion, excitement and that sort of interest and thus attract new A-League fans for that reason, then they will have done their job long after Ronaldo is back in the Bernebeu and Collingwood have regained control of the AFL’s most sacred site.

© 2015 Sydney Morning Herald | This article was written by Michael Lynch and first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 19 July, 2015.

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