It seems like an obvious next step. The A-League is nine years younger than the MLS, operates in a similarly competitive market and is going through some of the growing pains that American fans will still remember with a grimace.
In terms of development, Australia heading into 2013 is not that far behind the United States circa 2007 when David Beckham signed for LA Galaxy. Englishmen and women of certain years often like to head down under for the better weather and slower pace of life but this is one ‘Pom’ that Australia can do without.
The market may be as tough as America’s but it is much smaller and the light from such a big star can blind all to everything else that is going on including the slow but steady progress that the A-League has been making of late.
Just the rumour, the possibility that Australian clubs were after him put the media into overdrive.
On the face of it, there is not much wrong with that especially for a league that does not always fare well in newspapers against more traditional sports but it also meant that much-needed coverage for the next day’s Australian football awards was washed away.
It was, perhaps, a warning of things to come.
That is not Beckham’s fault. His fame has often overshadowed even his own talent, leading people to forget what a fantastic player he was in his prime. He may not be as good as he was on the field, though more than capable of shining in the A-League, off it, he is as big as ever. Too big for Australia.
There is a spring in the step of the competition at the moment. The seven and a half years since eight teams kicked off in 2005, following the death of the old National Soccer League a year earlier, have been eventful ones.
The first three were solid but then expansion went badly. Two new teams, North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United, introduced in 2008 no longer exist.
Attendances across the board were falling and average just over eight thousand in the 2010/11 season, clubs were losing money and the governing body – Football Federation Australia also runs and controls every aspect of the league – had its eyes on what turned out to be a disastrous 2022 World Cup bid. The A-League was being neglected by the management.
Last season, 2011/12, marked something of a turning point. It was nothing spectacular but the downward trajectory of attendances was halted and then turned around . After the turning point comes the litmus test, 2012/2013.
“There has even been talk of a ten-game guest stint… With one world-renowned 37 year-old in the league, another would bring the risk of a competition becoming known as a place where old stars go to end their careers”
Ahead of the big kick-off in October, all knew that this season had to show, at least modest, improvements, even if for no other reason that a new television deal was to be negotiated with Fox Sports, the broadcaster on which the league relies.
With that in mind, a tenth team was set up for the new campaign. Western Sydney Wanderers is designed to appeal to the heartland of Australian soccer.
Then Alessandro Del Piero joined Sydney FC. The Italian is not only the best player in the league but his star quality enhances rather than overshadows. The move also brought marquees back to life. After the early days of Dwight Yorke when one big name could be paid outside the salary cap into which the rest of the roster had to fit into, the concept was dying out.
But after Del Piero, who signed a two-year contract, came Emile Heskey to provide a little piece of the Premier League and then Western Sydney showed a little more imagination turning to Japanese legend Shinji Ono, a major step in the right direction for a country that still doesn’t yet fully understand or appreciate that it is part of the Asian Football Confederation.
The season started extremely well with records set in terms of attendance and viewing figures and the traditional media was giving the game more coverage than ever before. This helped lead to an improved deal with Fox that has eased some of the financial strains on the league and its clubs. As it stands, the average attendance is around 13 and a half thousand, an increase of almost three thousand from last season.
Going forward, the horizon is not free from clouds but the outlook is brighter than it has been for some time. Beckham, through no fault of his own, would distort all that.
There has even been talk of a ten-game guest stint, surely something to be avoided at all costs. With one world-renowned 37 year-old in the league, another would bring the risk of a competition becoming known as a place where old stars go to end their careers rather than one which is serious about developing its own talent. There are worse things in soccer but there are also better.
There are worse things than signing David Beckham. He is a consummate professional and a good player but for an A-League that is finally starting to find its feet to move gingerly in the right direction, there are also better.
John Duerden has been called ‘The Voice of Asian Football’ by the BBC and writes for ESPN, New York Times, The Guardian, Associated Press, Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports, 442 and various Asian media.