Monday, August 29, 2005

Historic crowds launch quality A-League summer

On the weekend the indigenous Australian Football League's 109th season set a home-and-away attendance record, the new elite national soccer competition, the A-League, also made its mark on Australia's sporting profile. The AFL attracted 6,283,788 fans over 22 rounds (averaging 35,700 per game) confirming it as the No 1 spectator sport in Australia, a remarkable achievement for a code in a country of only 20 million and sharing winter with an international Rugby Union competition (Super 12), the National Rugby League and state-based soccer fixtures.

However summer may belong to the A-League. Stunning opening round crowds in Sydney (25,000-plus) and Brisbane (20,725) as well as solid gates at Newcastle (13,160) and Perth (11,160) astonished even the league's founders.

"The crowds have been above our expectation and the football has been of the highest standard. In terms of our ambitions we should be able to produce a competitive league, but although it's been a great start we have to remember that one swallow doesn't make a summer," Football Federation of Australia chief executive, John O'Neill said.

The Australian media also praised the success of the new competition despite most of the sports pages still being devoted to the Ashes cricket series in England and the AFL and NRL competitions. "Everyone's a winner," proclaimed the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper while the Daily Telegraph ran a gushing double page spread under the headline: Thumbs up for new era.

"It was as if all the big Australia stars were back in town when Sydney FC players walked onto Aussie Stadium last night to be part of A-League history against Melbourne Victory," the Telegraph's chief soccer writer, John Taylor wrote. "The fans rose from their seats to give their new team a standing ovation as they came on to the field. A bit different to the old days when the cries were O-lym-pic, Mar-con-i, Cro-at-zia. The new era in Australian football is here and so is the new follower."

Franchise owners were equally ecstatic. "I can confirm that at 2.30 pm today we had pre-sold 12,000 tickets," Sydney FC chairman, Walter Bugno said. "And I have been told by the Sydney Cricket Ground trust that this is the biggest walk-up crowd (10,100) at this stadium and the second biggest in its history - second only to World Series Cricket ... "This is a fantastic day for Australian soccer," Bugno added. "We love the people of Sydney. We dared to dream and put in a huge investment. We feel humbled by the support."

Queensland Roar's coach, Miron Bleiberg, also revelled in the start. "What a day," he exclaimed. "Exactly as we wanted and dreamed about. I've had a day to remember and I've been around for a long time. Sometimes I feel like a politician. I promise but I can't always deliver. But the boys, they did the job for me and they produced."

Round-One details: Adelaide United 1 (Veart 19) d Newcastle Jets 0 at EnergyAustralia Stadium (crowd 13,160); Central Coast Mariners 1 (Spencer 65) d PERTH GLORY 0 at Members Equity Stadium (crowd 11,113); Queensland Roar 2 (Brosque 80, Baird 86) d New Zealand Knights 0 at Suncorp Stadium (crowd 20,725); Sydney FC 1 (Yorke 44 ) drew with Melbourne Victory 1 (Thompson 73) at Aussie Stadium (crowd 25,208).