Friday, February 17, 2006

Victory is... er...

As I mentioned a while back, Australia now has its own nationwide [association] football league, the A-League, a title which nicely avoids the question raging here: "so... is it soccer or is it football?" by not mentioning the sporting code in its name.

Previously, Australia had a series of State and City leagues [and still do, in fact], but they are just about to complete their first season of the national league, albeit comprised of a measly 8 teams at the moment. O, and did I mention that one of those is actually from New Zealand, the NZ Knights, who bizarrely seem to have Charlton Athletic as one of their sponsors.

There is currently some dicussion about adding a number of teams in order to extend the season, as they currently play just 21 games, although the original decision to play so few matches was perhaps partly influenced by the hope/promise that the league winners would subsequently be eligible for the Asian Champions' League. At the moment, they're not allowed to compete, so there's no little disappointment here.

In the meantime, there's the odd situation [to British eyes, at least] that the "Minor Premiers", Adelaide United, who won the league over the 21 games played over the summer, are now competing to be "Major Premiers" in a play-off system similar to that employed in Aussie Rules...

You sure you're ready for this?
The top two play in "major semi-final", the winner of which meets...
The winner of a play-off between the winner of the "minor semi-final" [3rd and 4th teams] and the loser of the major semi-final, known as the Preliminary Final...
So the losing team in the 1st v. 2nd game gets a second chance to play in the "Grand Final" against the team they originally lost to in their first play-off game, providing they beat the winner of the match between 3rd v. 4th.
Hope you followed all that.

And in the meantime the Victorian Premier League [or VPL - insert your own joke here], has just kicked off, as they play through the winter [it's late summer here now]. These consist of long-established teams who are determined to a large part by their ethnic roots [hence team names such as "Hellas" were prevalent], and some teams remain capable of achieving low 5-figure crowds. Melbourne Victory (sic), Victoria's only A-League team, averaged a respectable 14,000 for the season, with the national average was a touch under 11,000.

The A-League has allegedly scooped the cream of the VPL along with a number of Aussies returning from a career in various European Leagues. They're joined by assorted European players who've reached the twilight of their careers and are happy to play out their time at a 2nd-division level in the sunshine - known as "Marquee Players". They are paid outside of the otherwise-sensibly-applied salary cap, their wages paid by eager sponsors.

One such person is Dwight Yorke, playing for glitzy Sydney FC, or "Bling Bling United" as they're less-than-affectionately known down Melbourne way, managed by ex-West Germany winger Pierre Littbarski.

Other returnees include such venerated names as Carl Veart [Sheff U, Palace, Millwall], a strangely goal-shy-now-he's-home Danny Allsop [Notts County, Hull], scrapping yard-dog Kevin Muscat [Palace, Wolves, Millwall, Rangers] and one of the worst players ever to pull on the famous hooped shirt of QPR: yes, lazy-arsed waistrel Ned Zelic [Who, inexplicably if you ever saw him play for the Rs, had just won the German League with Borussia Dortmund].

And 3 poms have set up shop over the Tasman Sea in New Zealand: Sean Devine [Barnet, Wycombe & Exeter], Neil Emblen [Millwall, Wolves, Palace, Norwich, Exeter] and Simon Yeo [Lincoln City & errr... Hyde United], although as they managed just one win and three draws all season, they may well be heading home very soon.

As if the disadvantage of being from New Zealand; Kiwis not being terribly highly regarded here; was not enough, their inept performances have led to the legitimacy of their presence in the A-League being seriously questioned.

I managed to get to Victory's last game of the season, freshly-arrived and missing home. Unfortunately, by the end of the game I was more homesick than ever. The football was poor, 2nd-division standard at best, and the crowd [at least where I was standing - but at least you can stand here!] appeared to have been time-travellers from 80s England, foul-mouthed, pissed-up and one-eyed.

OK, OK, maybe I've been spoilt, hanging out with the good bunch of blokes that make up the Manc Rs [who have probably at some time or another been guilty of all the above sins], but perhaps it all seemed so odd as it also felt that their passion was a little forced.

Strangely subdued other than when being encouraged by the shaven-headed pom leading the "Cheer Squad" [no pom-poms, no short skirt, just a pom] in a series of delectable songs such as "O Melbourne is... so wonderful, o melbourne is so wonderful... it's full of..." If I need to finish that song for you, just be thankful that I didn't. Let's just call it a little peurile and sexist.

Every time the NZ players touched a ball, several hundred people cried "baaaaaa" and then sniggered at their amazing wit [New Zealand = sheep, geddit? Ho ho, ho hum], and the Second Half was characterised largely by verbal hostility and a little confrontation with the police, who had enforced the removal of their banner protesting at the Victory's lack of... well, victories, although the football was a little better, though no goals were scored.

My poor old brother-in-law, Stephen, who had been bigging up the game for me, desperate for me to take to the club, kept asking me if I was enjoying myself, only too aware of the lack of quality on the pitch, and the neanderthal element that surrounded us off it. I tried to smile, I tried to enjoy it, and I did in a funny sort of way, but it was a strangely dispassionate and sanitised experience, despite the foul mouths and rage that emerged from time to time amongst members of the crowd.

I'm hoping to make the Socceroos' [Australian Football Team] impending pre-World Cup game with Greece at the MCG on 25th May, with probably around 80% of the 100,000 expected consisting of those with Greek heritage. As Oz is made up of so many people of European origins, loyalties are divided between those who will support Australia [thus passing the old Tebbitt Test], those who will support their "home" country [thus failing it], and those who will support both, at least tacitly.

Croatian-Australians' true feelings will be tested should the meeting of those two nations on 22nd June ultimately decide which team makes it through to the next stage. Ooooo...

I really want to experience some VPL football, where I'm hoping that, by virtue of the clubs being long-established, and consisting of a disproportionate amount of European immigrants [largely Greek, Italian, Serb, Croat - o, yes, it's quite an interesting mix] who grew up with the game, that there may be more of an identity with the clubs, a passion and a real heart for football, and make it more of a familiar experience for me.

That's not to say that the 10,000 or so who made it to the game I saw weren't all of those things, at least in part, but that there was something that was just not quite there for me. It was like watching the Milton Keynes Dons playing another Milton Keynes Dons [albeit from Poland or somewhere distant], with little history and desperately seeking some real experience, but so poorly served by the football on offer.

I'm aware that you can't judge a whole league by one game played out by two under-achieving teams, and it was a hot 25+ degrees too, which made it a little peculiar. I will no doubt go along next season, hopefully with some local "ethnic" football under my belt, but hey, it's not like seeing Crewe v QPR. No, really, it's not. And maybe that's really the heart of it. Maybe it was the homesick blues rearing its ugly head again in another form.

O, and by the way, Melbourne won 2-1.


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