Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Victory the loser amid Muscat mess

More than just a few bytes have been consumed in the wake of Kevin Muscat's horror tackle on Adrian Zahra which marred Saturday's bristling A-league derby between Melbourne Victory and Melbourne Heart. At time of writing, the Victory's hardman's crude lunge seems likely to provide a coarse full stop to a career punctuated by a number of violent episodes.

As much as this incident has provoked vitriol towards the man himself, public opinion has also biased firmly against his club. In six seasons Melbourne Victory has established itself as the biggest club in the Australian A-league. Its support is the country's largest and its two titles are only matched by Sydney FC. Its star players such as Archie Thompson and Muscat have attracted as much media attention as any, while Ernie Merrick remains the only surviving A-league coach from season one.

The public statements by coach Merrick following Muscat's act via have been truly lamentable. Merrick forsook the opportunity to denounce Muscat and his action. Post-match he tediously grasped the "I didn't see it" defence before launching into criticism of the referee's performance. The next day he chose to defend Muscat's "professionalism" while bleating that Victory weren't the kind of club that played dirty. This simply provided a green light for the parading of a litany of violent acts perpetrated by Muscat and his team mates over a long period. Finally he had the sheer temerity on Melbourne radio to lambaste the management at Melbourne Heart who had by contrast conducted themselves with quiet decorum since Saturday's contretemps.

For Victory members like me, this has been a gut-wrenching time. For all his faults, Muscat has been a leadership figure at the club and contributed positively to its success. But for me that has been obliterated and more after Saturday. He was due to retire and now should immediately. But more than that the implied endorsement of Muscat by the club is a bitter pill for me to swallow.

In this its first season in the A-league, Melbourne Heart has genuinely struggled to find a point of difference, a unique selling proposition in marketing terms, for it to build a critical mass of support. Melbourne's size and sporting disposition should support two teams, but to date, notwithstanding an attractive squad (and the league's most attractive playing strip) Heart has managed gates often not much more than 6,000.

I'd reckon that after this week, Heart can afford to stop worrying. In a single blow (literally), Muscat - and by association his club - have kick started Heart's recruitment drive. There were over 32,000 at the derby on Saturday, by far the biggest gate for any game in the league this year, and far exceeding the combined attendances of both constituent clubs. For those casual football followers who fronted for the first time this season, there could be only one club that would have their support after Saturday's and subsequent events - and Victory is indeed the loser.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Asian Cup sets twin test for Aussie football

Australia will be tested in more ways than one at the Asian Cup finals tournament which just kicked-off in Qatar. The first will be to maximise its playing performance in difficult conditions against eager and talented opposition. The second and arguably greater challenge is for Australia to act with grace and respect to towards both its opponents and towards the competition in general.

The 2007 tournament brings back only bad memories for me. In the wake of the Hiddink-led brilliance of Germany 2006, the finals tournament was a substantial let-down. Australia underestimated the opposition and was poorly behaved on and off the field. Most of the fallout followed the 3-1 group loss to Iraq. Immediately after the final whistle TV viewers were treated to the unpopular boss Graham Arnold bagging the playing squad, with Mark Viduka seconds later challenging the boss's comments. Captain Lucas Neill had "led" by example with a red card for dissent.

Following Australia's exit at the hands of Japan, red-carded midfielder Vince Grella in a massive dummy spit scorned the AFC, its referees and each of Oman, Iraq, Thailand and Japan. The net impact left onlookers with the impression that Australia didn't respect the competition, its organisers or its competitors.

Aussie football followers would expect increased respect, particularly in light of the announcement this week that, albeit as sole bidder, Australia had been handed the hosting rights for the 2015 Asian Cup finals. It was rather bemusing to see Melbourne Victory hard-man Kevin Muscat singing the praises of the competition, as he hasn't managed to do so for the confederation's other major tournament, the AFC Champions League. With his club's continuing poor performance in the competition, Muscat pretty well bagged the entire tournament once Victory had achieved rapid fire elimination last time around.

The blanket lack of support from the Asian confederation for Australia's hapless bid for the 2002 World Cup means that Australia must display consistent and committed support of football in Asia. Let's hope the report card at the end of the 2011 version has more ticks than we saw last time around.