The Men’s A-League kicks off this week and if fans were looking for an Alessandro Del Piero-like figure to boost interest in the competition, they might be disappointed.
- The A-League was regularly signing aging international stars like Del Piero and Dwight Yorke.
- Many of these stars can now earn a lot more money in the Saudi Pro League.
- This has forced clubs to target young local and international talents to develop or sell them for profit.
Football’s transfer system has been upended by the influx of money from Saudi Arabia, whose clubs have spent almost $1.58 billion over the past four months.
The Australian Professional Leagues (APL) have set aside a sum of money to attract big names to Australia in a bid to replicate the effect Italian star Del Piero had while playing for Sydney FC from 2012 to 2014.
But since the APL took control of the ALM from Football Australia in 2021, top recruits – such as Daniel Sturridge and Nani – have failed rather than thrived.
And as PLA chief executive Danny Townsend would have it, its spending power pales in comparison to the large sums of money on offer in the Middle East, where superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, N’Golo Kante and even A-League veteran Craig Goodwin have signed recently.
“I think where it probably affects us is with the players who are 34 or 35 years old who have been our usual targets and are now going to Saudi Arabia,” Townsend said.
“It makes things a little more difficult for us.”
Australian clubs have responded accordingly and their international signings now appear to reflect their position in the global transfer market, signing players with potential rather than those looking for a vacation or an opportunity to be a big fish in a smaller pond.
Sydney have added Brazilian defender Gabriel Lacerda, 24, and striker Fabio Gomes, 26, and if they deliver on their promise, the Sky Blues could well profit by selling them in the future.
“We think we have a better balance in our squad in terms of age,” Sydney FC general manager Adam Santo said.
“That was really a key focus with the overseas recruitment of these Brazilian boys.
“Historically, with the right balance, you can set yourself up for success.
“But our goal is not just to sell players, we want to win trophies at Sydney FC.”
As well as impacting recruitment for Australian clubs, the Saudi boom has created a chain reaction in terms of retention.
Over the past 12 months, Central Coast Mariners have snapped up Sam Silvera (Middlesborough), James McGarry (Aberdeen) and Nectar Triantis (Sunderland) and then sold them to British clubs for a transfer fee.
Melbourne City, Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers have also seen their bank balances supplemented by overseas player sales in recent months.
“We did some really good business in the off-season,” Wanderers boss Marko Rudan said.
“We understand the league we play in, you give the younger guys an opportunity and if you trust them they are sold.”
But the off-season exodus of local stars and talent, along with the lack of headline-grabbing stars coming from overseas, has created a chasm.
A-League commissioner Nick Garcia said in a recent interview that the competition now sees itself as a “development league”, with the pursuit of “blockbuster” marquee signings becoming less and less feasible.
Townsend said the A-League was unlikely to return to the days of attracting a Del Piero, Dwight Yorke or Emile Heskey to Australia, but the APL boss says the evolution rapid change in the world football landscape will force clubs to continue to look closely from the inside out. in the future.
“Our league builds a profile through the way we play and the talent we introduce early into the competition,” Townsend said.
“The way our fans reacted to Nestory Irankunda and Garang Kuol changed the way people perceive our league.
“That’s not to say we don’t want foreigners and that we will stop looking for great overseas talent, but we are starting to see the benefits to the Australian and New Zealand football ecosystem.
“Developing our own talents, showcasing them in the A-League and seeing them progress to really exciting clubs in Europe and beyond. We’re starting to get younger and it’s an exciting change.”
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