Man Utd tour: Is Australia's A-League about to take off?

12,000 fans paid for tickets to watch Manchester United's open training session in Perth
12,000 fans paid for tickets to watch Manchester United's open training session in Perth

Perth Glory took a risk by agreeing to play Manchester United at their Optus Stadium on Saturday.

The A-League Grand Finalists were without a number of key players, including former Republic of Ireland striker Andy Keogh, when they hosted the touring Premier League giants, as Australia's domestic campaign doesn't start until October.

Two 15-year-olds - midfielder Joshua Rawlins and striker Gabriel Popovic, son of Glory manager Tony - were involved in the friendly against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men.

But Glory owner Tony Sage was never going to turn down the game. Almost 60,000 tickets were sold for Saturday's game. In 2018-19, across their entire 14-game regular home A-League programme, Glory's total attendance was 144,955.

As with their meeting with Chelsea 12 months ago, facing United offered exposure that does not exist in the A-League and offers an opportunity for Sage to put forth his ambitious plans for the league's future.

Premier League model may provide A-League spark

Sage is one of the key figures in Australian domestic football.

The 59-year-old says it is "100% accurate" that, since it was launched in 2005, the A-League has failed to establish the same kind of footprint in a market dominated by traditional sports as Major League Soccer has managed in the United States.

Average regular-season A-League attendances have fallen from a 2008 high of 14,610 to 10,411 last season. Despite signing Usain Bolt at one stage, Central Coast Mariners attracted just 3,703 fans to their game against New Zealand side Wellington Phoenix on 9 March.

However, Sage believes a decision earlier this month, due to be ratified on 1 August, gives genuine reason for optimism.

Football Federation Australia, the game's governing body, has agreed to hand over control of the A-League to the clubs, in a move similar to the one that launched the Premier League in England in 1992.

"You are about to see an explosion in the professional game," said Sage. "Under the FFA system, because they have so many aspects of the game to deal with, A-League clubs only ended up with 30% of the money they generated.

"When the split is confirmed, we estimate A$80m [about £45m] will come to the clubs that can be used to promote the game, through marquee players like they do in MLS."

Former Ireland striker Andy Keogh plays for Perth, pictured here with Glory head coach and ex-Australia defender Tony Popovic
Former Ireland striker Andy Keogh, who plays for Perth, with Glory head coach and ex-Australia defender Tony Popovic

Multi-national expansion plans

For the past seven seasons, since Western Sydney Wanderers replaced Gold Coast United, the A-League has been a 10-team league.

In December it was announced that two more teams, from west Melbourne and south-west Sydney, would be introduced from 2019-20 and 2020-21 respectively. The FFA also said further expansion was on the agenda. In a recent fans' poll, Canberra, Tasmania and Wollongong were the only areas that drew significant support for a new club.

Sage has a much wider vision. New Zealand side Wellington - technically not even from the same Confederation after Australia were affiliated to the Asian Confederation (AFC) in 2006 - play in the A-League, so why not introduce teams from other countries whose own domestic competitions are weak?

He said: "I don't see the expansion of the A-League as being through Australian cities, because we are saturated at the moment.

"But if we had one team in Jakarta, one in Manila, one in Kuala Lumpur and one in Singapore, that is expanding your potential audience by 400 million people. That would drive TV revenues up - then, maybe, we would be looking at A$1bn [£560m] instead of A$400m.

"It works perfectly in terms of time zones. And the rivalries between those cities already exist.

"It wouldn't happen immediately but in 10 years' time, my vision may come to fruition."

The obvious flaw in Sage's plan, beyond gaining Fifa approval for a cross-border competition, is the travel time. He calls it a "non-issue". It may be true for Perth, given the flying distance to Singapore is only 400 miles greater than it is to Sydney. It certainly isn't for Wellington. They would face a near 5,500-mile trip to reach Kuala Lumpur, which a slightly greater distance than London to Los Angeles.

The battle for recognition

West Coast Eagles
Australian rules side West Coast Eagles play their home games at the Optus stadium

The other issue for the game in Australia is the strength of the competition. In New South Wales and Queensland, rugby league is king. In Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia, Australian rules football dominates. Rugby union offers a popular international dimension Aussie rules lacks, while cricket captures attention across the whole country.

Yet, even among long-established sports fans, soccer has reason to be optimistic.

Richard Moody owns the Hill Street Sports Bar in east Perth. On Thursday evening, the place was fairly full as punters watched Australia's ultimately doomed Cricket World Cup semi-final against England.

"Soccer will grow because of the international spread of the game," he said. "Slowly, Australia, and Perth in particular, is edging into the rest of the world and youngsters in particular have a knowledge of the game people of my generation didn't have when we were kids.

"Domestically, everyone in this city knows who Perth Glory are and while AFL fans don't tend to watch in bars in great numbers, when Premier League games are on, we are always busy."

Not that a shift in the Australian sporting landscape can be expected any time soon.

David Steel, an AFL fan for 50 years, and part of a 56,251 crowd at the Optus Stadium on Friday to see Collingwood edge West Coast Eagles 78-77 in a thrilling Grand Final rematch, doesn't envisage one.

"I can't see soccer ever taking over," he said. "It is growing a little bit but it will never reach the status AFL has. It just doesn't have the same traditional rivalries."

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