A BRIEF HISTORY OF GUEST AND MARQUEE PLAYERS IN AUSTRALIAN FOOTBALL
The signing of Spanish star David Villa by Melbourne City for an alleged 10 game stint prior to the 2014-15 A League season was thought to be the icing on a cakeful of guest / marquee players who have turned out for Australian clubs over more than fifty years. Aussie signings didn’t appear to come much better than Villa. A then current Spanish international and World Cup squad member, Villa was still scoring goals for the reigning world champions. How could a player of Villa’s quality be anything but a huge success, a massive fillip for the local game ? Well Villa’s Melbourne City stint was cut very short and with such a name player failing to produce the goods, it’s worth looking back on our football history to assess whether the presence of overseas “stars” has produced a positive return for the local game ?
I first appreciated the value and pulling power of an overseas guest player in the winter of 1968 at L. M. Graham Reserve Manly, a suburban football ground that now doubles as a dog park. On that Sunday afternoon Takis Loukanidis, capped 26 times for Greece came to Graham’s Reserve. I was a 14 year old youth player with Manly and our senior team were playing Pan Hellenic, one of the big drawcards in the old NSW Federation Division One.
Arriving late in the week, Loukanidis did not play that Sunday afternoon but that did not stop 4,500 fans turning up in the hope of catching a glimpse of the Greek star. At half time Loukanidis took a stroll around the pitch perimeter before entering the public toilet. I clearly remember 300 Hellenic fans following Loukanidis around the ground and parking themselves outside that very unfashionable men’s toilet. The presence of Loukanidis doubled the probable crowd figure that day and one benefit of a guest player was immediately evident.
At 30 years of age, this was Loukanidis’s first stint in Sydney with Pan Hellenic, the best supported, but perennial underachievers in the NSW Federation. Hellenic came second that season, their highest position during the Pan Hellenic (pre Sydney Olympic) years. Loukanidis was an inspiration to the team and at 30 he was still sharp. Loukanidis’s magnetism swelled the Hellenic crowds and the regular chant of “Takis Takis” reverberating around their Wentworth Park home ground almost carried them to a first ever premiership. Loukanidis returned to Sydney the following year as player coach, but a year older his impact was less profound and Hellenic struggled for much of the season. As a guest player Loukanidis was a success, helping to improve the performance of Pan Hellenic and boost their gate receipts.
Takis Loukanidis is only one of dozens of notable overseas players who have had played for Australian clubs with varying degrees of success. The first foreign players to have an impact on the local game and possibly the greatest from a playing perspective, were Leo Baumgartner, Walter Tamandl and Karl Jaros. Having toured Australia in 1957 with the crack Austrian club, F K Vienna, Baumgartner and Tamandl fell in love with the Australian beaches, the climate and the way of life and were not swayed solely by the size of the promised pay packet.
With Baumgartner, Tamandl, Jaros and another Austrian Herbert Ninaus, (Sydney based) Prague swept all before them in the NSW Federation First Division in 1959, State Federations being the highest level of competition at that time. These players all in their late twenties and at the peak of the ability, helped to grow the crowds and raise the profile of Australian soccer. The overall standard of football also improved as other clubs were compelled to recruit overseas to match the performance of the glamour club, Prague. This was a golden era for Australian football and the four Austrians and the well supported “migrant” clubs were largely responsible for the good health of the sport.
Age does weary old footballers however and the aura of the Austrian stars and FC Sydney Prague dimmed in the mid sixties and crowds suffered. It was at this time that BBC Match of the Day started to screen in Australia and local football fans became infatuated with the British game. Over the next 10 years, a who’s who of British football appeared fleetingly for Australian clubs. Ray Clemence, Bobby Charlton, Francis Lee, Charlie George, Trevor Francis, Malcolm Macdonald, Kevin Keegan, Paul Mariner and Ian Rush were just some who came here, principally for the purpose of earning a few bucks. Most of these played one or two games and did very little for the local game. Just about all were past their best.
Admittedly they drew a few more spectators through the turnstiles but when appearance money, accommodation and air fares were taken into account, the host club and Australian football saw little benefit for their financial outlay.
Non British imports also arrived to show their wares. Former Italian stars, the then 36 year old Francesco Graziani (Apia Leichhardt) and 34 year old Nicola Berti (Northern Spirit) were largely ineffectual in the old National Soccer League. Likewise Argentine Osvaldo Ardiles at 33 played just one game for St. George in the NSL – what was the point ? Local clubs were always looking for that big pay day and on field success, but the impact of these former World Cup stars was minimal on both fronts.
In 1983, a 37 year old George Best, the greatest footballer to have played for an Australian club, made four appearances for Brisbane Lions. Best a former European Footballer of the Year who effectively had retired over 10 years earlier, was a shadow of the wonderful player who dominated British football for nearly a decade. Best increased the gate takings during his brief stay but his impact on the pitch was minimal and Brisbane Lions were none the better for his four outings. The primary purpose of Best’s visit down under was obvious when, on the same trip he turned out for Dee Why a second division NSW State League team against Manly for the sake of a $5,000 match fee. I played against Best that night and although the 2,000 odd spectators enjoyed what was an entertaining game, the presence of a once great footballer on a poorly lit Cromer Park Dee Why, left no legacy for Australian football.
The inception of the Hyundai A League brought the “marquee” player – not just a short term guest player but a longer term proposition signed for a season or more. In 2005 the former Manchester United star Dwight Yorke was one of the first and still most successful of the marquee players. Not only did his presence with Sydney FC draw the crowds but his contribution on the field was a catalyst for the club taking out the inaugural A League competition. Yorke scored 7 goals for Sydney FC that season and was the ideal pin up boy for the new league.
Yorke was replaced at Sydney by the Brazilian Juninho. Early on Juninho lit up Aussie (now Allianz) Stadium but a malicious tackle by a Los Angeles Galaxy defender in a meaningless exhibition match, virtually ended his playing career with Sydney. Subsequently Sydney FC employed Nicky Carle, John Aloisi and Brett Emerton on the big money but none of them performed at a level befitting the salaries they were earning. Crowds were average and Sydney FC’s performances likewise.
Not too many clubs earned value for money with their marquee players. Marco Flores was an exception at Adelaide United but when the same club recruited the former Brazilian star Romario briefly in 2007, his almost comical quest to score his 1000th goal, overtook any other apparent reason for his inclusion in the Adelaide line up.
Romario’s fellow countryman, Mario Jardel was signed as the Newcastle Jets marquee in 2007. Jardel arrived with a big reputation but unfortunately an even bigger waistline. It was claimed that Jardel had been working very hard on his fitness prior to joining the Jets, however to see his midriff bursting the stripes of a Jets shirt gave lie to this. Eleven appearances, mostly off the bench with no goals was a sad return for a one time Brazilian international.
Former Liverpool star Robbie Fowler was a qualified success in his spell with North Queensland Fury and Perth Glory but with the Fury disappearing from the A League and Perth Glory unconvincing after his departure, there was clearly no long term benefit for Australian football. Shinji Ono performed well for West Sydney Wanderers, Emile Heskey less so for Newcastle Jets. Both players however were in their thirties and they would have been more influential had they arrived a couple of years earlier. Ono and Heskey do deserve credit for the manner in which they promoted their clubs and contributed to the image of the local game. William Gallas likewise at Perth Glory was a handy acquisition though old enough to play local over 35 football.
Harry Kewell, the long time darling of Australian football fans, less so football journalists, arrived back in Australia in August 2011 as Melbourne Victory’s marquee. Kewell returned to much fanfare and expectation but sadly for Kewell and local fans, injury and later family illness cut short his playing stint. When he turned his back on Victory after a truncated unprofitable stay, the journalistic knives were out again.
Alessandro Del Piero, the best credentialed of all A League marquees delivered on many fronts. Certainly in a his first season, sales of Sydney F.C. replica shirts boomed, crowds both home and away surged and the football world at large sat up and took notice of Australian football. Sydney F.C. fans fell in love with “Il Pinturicchio” and Del Piero fell in love with the harbour city. In his first season despite his 38 years, Del Piero showed why he had long been the sweetheart of Italian football. In ADP’s second year a series of niggly injuries, a number of poor team performances and grumblings on the terraces saw the aura of the former Juve superstar dim. Del Piero’s on field contribution became marginal and despite a couple of trademark goals and the occasional marvellous touch or pass, the “use by” date of Alessandro Del Piero was now there for all to see including a few fawning media commentators.
While few could doubt that the Del Piero marquee project had been a success, that success was tempered by the massive cost to bring him to Sydney FC. The signing of Del Piero could also have been indirectly responsible for the downfall of coaches Ian Crook and then Frank Farina both of whom encountered difficulty in building a successful modern football team around an ageing superstar. Compared to his welcome in September 2012, the Italian star almost sneaked out the back door following a disappointing 2013-14 season finale. Del Piero’s sojourn to Australia however was instrumental in advertising our domestic competition to the world.
When looking for the prototype marquee player, you need look no further than Brisbane Roar’s Thomas Broich. If the success of a marquee player is measured by on field results, the former German Under 21 international is by far the best example we have seen. Arriving in Australia at the relatively young age of 29, the two time Johnny Warren Medal winner has been a superb player for Brisbane Roar. Primarily due to Broich, Brisbane Roar has been the most successful team in the history of the A League. Yes, Broich has been well paid but he has also paid his dues to Australian football.
Is there a future for the marquee in Australian football ? Is it practical or prudent to pay a massive amount of money for one player who will often be on the wrong side of 30 ? Is the Hyundai A League a retirement village for once talented footballers or have overseas guest or marquee players still got something to offer the local game ? I believe that we should persist with the marquee concept but it is critical that clubs source the right type of player at the right price at the right age. It is imperative that the player can perform consistently at an exceptional level as well as having the “name” and the capacity to attract more patrons to our football grounds. Any more Mario Jardels would be an embarrassment to the Hyundai A League. If however, every club could unearth a Thomas Broich or fund an Alessandro Del Piero or a David Villa, crowds would surely grow, playing standards would lift and Australian club football would prosper.
David Jack Copyright 2014