It wasn’t the 3-0 drubbing by Spain that left a slightly hollow aftertaste to our otherwise plucky World Cup campaign.
The true dose of reality came 24 hours after the sobering masterclass in Curitiba, when back-up Socceroos striker Adam Taggart announced that he’d signed a three-year contract with English Championship side Fulham.
The army of casual observers who only tune into football for the World Cup every four years might well ask: Adam who? Having done so, they then might be entitled to wonder what’s the fuss about?
For the progress of Australian football – and the A-League specifically – Taggart’s loss is a very big deal. The Newcastle Jets marksman won the competition’s Golden Boot award last season as the competition’s highest scorer, for a team that failed to make the finals.
That feat gained the 21-year-old notoriety among local fans of all persuasions, which was further crystallised when Taggart was called-up to spearhead the Socceroo attack against the Spaniards on Tuesday morning in place of suspended talisman Tim Cahill. Adequately filling the boots of Australia’s most prolific goal scorer was beyond the tyro, who was comfortably held and barely sighted before being substituted at halftime.
It was a completely unremarkable foray onto the biggest stage. Nevertheless, it was still enough to seal Taggart’s departure to south London, where he will audition for football’s biggest annual show in world soccer.
And therein lies the vicious rub for the A-League, and its fierce band of loyal followers who’ve spent the past decade forecasting the inevitable rise of soccer at the expense of AFL and NRL.
Sadly for them it will never happen. N-E-V-E-R. No matter how bravely the Socceroos perform against infinitely classier opposition. No matter the standard of foreign imports who join the A-League as marquee signings. No matter, even, if Australia should ever host the World Cup. It will never happen.
Taggart’s exit proves why. Rich overseas clubs view Australian-based talent much like vultures eye roadside carrion. The carcass is there simply to picked over until every last morsel is consumed. That includes the likes of Taggart, whose 2014 World Cup contribution will be forgotten quicker than Socceroos fans flooded from Brazil after the deflating defeat to Spain.
Even more depressing was the loss of teenage Brisbane Roar striker Khwame Yeboah midway through last season. The Ghanaian-blooded prodigy had been making weekly deposits to the A-League highlights reel with a collection of match-winning strikes from the bench for the future champions. But it wasn’t only SBS and Fox Sports who were watching. German club Borussia Monchengladbach II also had their attention on our antipodean backwater. They pounced even before the wider sporting public became aware of Yeboah’s feats. Had they not done so, there’s every chance Taggart would not have won the Golden Boot, given Brisbane eventually claimed the premiership with 10 points to spare.
Now both young stars have vanished from the A-League. It’s most likely they will spend the next year or two playing in feeder sides for their new clubs in Europe. For Australian fans, that equals complete obscurity. That’s exactly where the star performer of our brief World Cup tilt – Mathew Leckie – has been hidden for the past two years. Obscurity. The beacon of strength, pace and energy on Australia’s left wing has not really shone beyond the confines of Germany’s second tier league since departing Adelaide United in 2011.
For the players and their A-League clubs, which pocket healthy transfer fees, the one-way talent drain is a fact of evolution. Making it overseas is the sporting version of true independence for Australian players, even if their first pad away from home is a tiny hovel, hidden at end of a cul-de-sac, crowded with inconsiderate tenants who are demanding the biggest bedroom and first use of the shower each morning.
As far as the A-League is concerned, obscurity is hardly an ideal address for these players. In the most competitive sports market imaginable, each Australian football code needs the best talent on deck to showcase its wares. I’ve never believed that salary caps or drafts are responsible for captivating the next generation of fans. Children simply cannot be expected to understand and appreciate the tools of talent equalisation.
What they can understand is star power. It’s the heroes they mimic in backyards around the country. And each time one leaves his chosen sport – for advancement abroad or for a rival competition – the parent code suffers a blow that they are often unwilling to measure, let alone acknowledge.
When Sonny Bill Williams left Canterbury in the lurch six years ago, myopic NRL types maintained that he could be replaced. They were wrong. There is no other player in either rugby code capable of capturing attention, and hence the adoration of undecided young minds, like him. This much was proved when Williams returned to rugby league last year, delivering the Roosters a record season of ratings, home crowds, and, best of all, a premiership.
Israel Folau is another example. The ARU will be forever grateful for the NRL’s complete ineptitude in failing to welcome Folau back from his failed Aussie Rules experiment in 2012. If not for Folau, it’s conceivable the NSW Waratahs and Wallabies would struggle to attract any narratives that resonate beyond their rusted-on fan base of private school graduates.
At the same time, the A-League does not currently boast a single player who can match SBW or Folau – or AFL’s Buddy Franklin – for marketability. Each time one emerges with the promise to do so, they are whisked away to Europe, Asia or the Middle East. In the majority of cases, they are out of sight. Which also means they are out of mind. Which, for the A-League and domestic soccer generally, is a shocking hereditary handicap to bear. If the fight for Australian sporting fans were a Royal WWE Rumble between the four codes, soccer is being asked to enter the ring with one meaty arm tied behind its back.
The A-League attempts to respond by allowing each club an uncapped budget to entice one foreign and one domestic player per season. This marquee player scheme has seen Sydney FC snare Alessandro del Pierro and also enter the fray for Cahill. There can be no denying Del Pierro was magnificent for the A-League, but the halo effect was always muted with the knowledge his time Down Under was only fleeting, and only granted for an extraordinary $4 million salary. Spanish star David Villa promises to be an even better signing, given he’s only 32, and destroyed the Socceroos this week. The trade off, however, is that Villa plays just 10 games for Melbourne City en route to a permanent new home in New York.
Ten appearances from Villa on local soil is preferable to none, but it’s debatable what lasting effect this stint will have on the A-League. Ditto for Del Pierro, whose two-year stay triggered record ratings and crowds for Sydney FC. If those figures flatline immediately without the Italian genius, that will be indisputable proof a constant influx of star power is needed to sustain the A-League at a level where it effectively competes for decent sponsorship and broadcast deals.
Neither the NRL nor AFL has that problem, given they are the premier competitions for their sport worldwide. Such a statement is an absurdity for AFL, which has no global footprint, and therefore no predators. The NRL once suffered from English raiders, but economic developments have turned that dynamic on its head in recent years.
Australian soccer bosses could only wish for such good fortune. – Photo and report by Josh Massoud
Josh Massoud teaches sports journalism at Macleay College. He was in Brazil on assignment for News Corp, following the Socceroo campaign.