|The king of Kewell: Harry's return is likely to promote soccer in his native Australia [GALLO/GETTY]
In terms of pure results, all the hype and outrageous personal demands aren’t translating into success. Yet Harry Kewell’s return home probably saved Australia’s fragile A-League from a further spiral downwards.
As the A-League finals began this weekend, Kewell’s star-studded Melbourne Victory had already started their off-season after missing out on the top-6.
On the face of it, the debut campaign of the former Liverpool and Leeds’ winger was a disaster. Melbourne Victory finished third-last on the table with just six wins in 27 games after their coach was sacked mid-season amidst a toxic atmosphere in the dressing room.
"Despite the Victory’s miserable record, their crowds increased by one-third to a healthy average of 20,281. And the Kewell effect on away games saw five other clubs attract their largest attendances when Melbourne came to town"
At the same time, Kewell split with his long-time manager Bernie Mandic as he produced only eight goals (including three penalties) in 25 games after earlier predictions that he’d win the Golden Boot.
Yet from a fan and marketing perspective, the Harry Homecoming was a raging success.f
Despite the Victory’s miserable record, their crowds increased by one-third to a healthy average of 20,281. And the Kewell effect on away games saw five other clubs attract their largest attendances when Melbourne came to town.
Overall, the A-League’s crowds were up by 24 per cent on the previous season with a solid match average of 10,490. That was achieved with one less team – and 30 fewer games - after the exit of North Queensland Fury. At the same time club memberships increased by around one-fifth and TV audiences jumped by 48 per cent.
Although Kewell was being paid only the A-League minimum wage, he’d reportedly negotiated a deal where he would receive a percentage of the increase in gate receipts, advertising and merchandise. That cut was believed to be around 20 per cent, a huge chunk for a single player.
But maybe it was money well spent. With the sport in the doldrums after the failed 2022 World Cup bid and intense competition from other football codes, Kewell helped make soccer sexy again. He took it from deep inside the sports’ section – and onto the news and social pages.
Kewell, his English actress wife Sheree Murphy and their four children were frequently photographed around Melbourne.
Earlier this month, Kewell was crowned the King of Moomba, the annual community festival, with entertainer Natalie Bassingthwaighte named as Queen.
At the same time, Kewell’s childhood friend and national teammate Brett Emerton made a more low-key return from the European game with Sydney FC.
Midfielder Emerton began the season with Blackburn Rovers in the English Premier League before signing a three-year deal in the A-League.
Sydney FC scraped into the A-League Finals after winning their final match of the regular season to finish fifth. While Emerton’s overall performance was deemed solid if unspectacular, his presence contributed to a 54 per cent increase in home crowds.
| Emerton's move to Sydney FC has also resulted in increase in home crowds [GALLO/GETTY]
Turning 34 in September, Kewell is five months older than Emerton, his teammate and rival growing up in western Sydney. The A-League’s seventh season was dubbed as the battle of Harry against ‘Emmo’, yet the predicted fireworks never really eventuated on the pitch, even though Fox Sports’ biggest ever A-League TV audience tuned in for one of the games between the nation’s biggest clubs.
Although Kewell and Emerton are still regulars in Australia’s World Cup 2014 qualifying squad, both failed to be selected in the A-League’s Team of the Season. (Kewell earned a spot on the subs’ bench).
A blue-collar player with exceptional fitness, Emerton is more low-key than Kewell and hides from the limelight. And watching him running up and down the right flank, it was often difficult to distinguish him from some of the journeymen who make up the Sydney FC squad.
But as the so-called Beckham Experiment proved at the LA Galaxy, sometimes perceptions are more important than reality. After having played in two World Cups for Australia, Kewell and Emerton are household names. Their long careers in Europe – Emerton also had three seasons at Feyenoord – only add to their familiarity on the Aussie sporting landscape.
Even though their bodies may not be capable of achieving what they once did, Kewell and Emerton are good marquee players because they are still likely to inspire young Aussie players while putting bums on seats in stadiums. Their limitations are partially overlooked because of the emotional connection created by past achievements.
For that reason, a homecoming signing in one of the AFC leagues is often better than the acquisition of a veteran foreigner. It’s unlikely that the recent stints of Nicky Butt for South China in Hong Kong or Robbie Fowler for Thailand’s Muangthong United will have any lasting impact on rising Asian stars.
Kewell described his inititation to the A-League as the 'toughest season of my career' with managers Mehmet Durakovic and Jim Magilton moving him between different attacking positions for struggling Melbourne Victory.
But as Kewell considers a loan-spell or training stint to keep himself fit for upcoming 2014 World Cup qualifiers, he can perhaps find comfort in the example of David Beckham in the U.S.
While Beckham’s initial foray into the MLS attracted the most attention, it wasn’t until the latter part of his initial five-year contract that the former Manchester United midfielder truly found success on the pitch.
While Kewell has two years left on his Melbourne Victory contract, there are already rumours that he might change clubs to become the face of a new team in western Sydney next season should Football Federation Australia approve its license.
A dramatic exit wouldn’t come as a surprise. While Kewell is married to a former star of the British TV series, Emmerdale, it his life that sometimes resembles that of a soap opera.
Jason Dasey is an Asia-based international sports broadcaster and host of Football Fever, the world's first international soccer podcast with an Asia-Pacific perspective. Twitter: JasonDasey
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