Harry Kewell is a footballing hero in Australia. He debuted for the Socceroos at 17 and spent a dozen years in the English Premiership with Leeds United and Liverpool. His goal against Croatia moved Australia into the knock-out rounds of the 2006 World Cup and his return to his native country to sign with Melbourne Victory has been hailed as the most important signing in the A-League’s short history. While Kewell is certainly the face of the league ahead of the 2010/11 season, and his signing is indeed extremely important for the A-League, the player whose impact is most valuable in Australia is Brett Emerton. The former Feyenoord and Blackburn Rovers midfielder has 350 European games to his credit and 89 caps with the Socceroos, most of which has come with less fanfare than the circus that often follows Kewell.
Twice champions, including the double in 2009/10, Sydney FC are a vitally important club to the overall health of the A-League. Yet a terrible season in 2010/11 led to a ninth place finish, their worst ever position, and a failure to play finals football for only the second time. More worrying was the drop in average attendance from the A-League’s second best in 2009/10 (12,987) to the league’s third worst in 2010/11 (7656). In fact, Sydney’s highest attendance (12,106) was below the previous season’s average. And this is all compounded by the fact that the Sky Blues play at the massive 45,500-seat Sydney Football Stadium.
Kewell’s arrival will be helpful league wide, drawing increased numbers at away games in a situation billed as similar to David Beckham’s effect on attendance in Major League Soccer. Yet Melbourne Victory, Kewell’s new club, do not need the help in the ways other clubs badly need a spark of local interest. Victory led the league with an average of 15,234 last year and their derbies with Melbourne Heart were the three biggest crowds of the season. Emerton’s inclusion at Sydney, while slightly less heralded, could prove to be the catalyst needed to relaunch the club. Rumors have long circulated that a second Sydney club could join the A-League, but at long as the first one fares poorly and draws even worse than they play, there is little chance of that scenario.
Emerton’s impact at Sydney will be an ongoing point of interest in what is a very important season for the A-League. Corralling two long-time Socceroos on the back of the most thrilling Grand Final in league history has the A-League in a position of relevance in Australia and New Zealand. And all of this without the league’s two biggest markets, Melbourne and Sydney, having a club placing higher than fifth. Kewell will attract media and fans everywhere he goes, but Emerton can more quietly revolutionize the league. A powerful club in Australia’s largest city at a time when football matters is absolutely necessary.