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Jul 3, 2013

A-League joins in marquee dream

Whispers of well-known free agents heading abroad to extend their careers have filled the minds of world football fans in recent days. The opening of transfer windows across the globe can signal a new beginning for players, but also marks the start of endless dreaming on the part of their supporters.

Following the arrivals of Alessandro Del Piero, Shinji Ono and Emile Heskey last season, fans of the A-League have now genuinely joined in the annual tradition of pining for big-name signings. But, while understandable as a way to pass the seemingly eternal off-season, is it realistic to expect more of these high-profile footballers to arrive on their shores?

David Trezeguet is a fine example. The World Cup and European Championship winner suffered the ignominy of being cut from River Plate's first team squad last week after battling fitness concerns. A champion in every sense of the word, the French striker ruled out retirement in May, and is reportedly being hotly pursued by Brazilian sides Fluminense and Flamengo.

Such news leads to social media and fan forum chatter, and supporters in Australia have begun asking 'would it be possible for my club to secure a player like him?'

The A-League's marquee player rule allows each club to sign one foreign and one Australian player outside of the salary cap in order to lure footballers of renown to the fledgling competition.

Former Fulham midfielder Giorgos Karagounis has been most heavily linked with a switch to the Antipodes. The man who helped Greece to Euro 2004 glory and 2010 World Cup qualification has been in discussions with Melbourne Victory - and possibly rivals Melbourne Heart - for some weeks, with the deal perched at a critical stage. The capture of Karagounis would be significant for the competition and the club, with Melbourne having the world's third largest Greek-speaking population after Athens and Thessaloniki. Aside from the obvious off-field benefits, a player of Karagounis' ilk could also provide the A-League with a touch of class on the pitch.

With bigger names still in world football, the same could be said of Ronaldinho and Raul, who have impressed in their recent performances with Atletico Mineiro and Al Sadd respectively.

Indeed, Ronaldinho - who has six months left on his contract - is understood to have been shopped around to A-League sides at the end of last season at a price of AU$2 million for 10 matches. There were no takers in the run-in to the finals series, but the value of the former Barcelona playmaker may be priceless in terms of gaining long-term worldwide exposure. Raul, meanwhile, could prove equally valuable, with reports in Qatar suggesting his deal is set to expire following a relatively successful stint in the Middle East.

Add to that list Nicolas Anelka and Vincenzo Iaquinta - both released from Juventus - along with Florent Malouda, who has left Chelsea following a tormenting season in which he was forced to train with the youth side. Also let go by their Premier League clubs, Yossi Benayoun and Djibril Cisse are recognisable figures around the globe, and would be shoo-ins for marquee status.

But perhaps the most telling free-agent story for A-League followers is that of Pablo Aimar. The Argentine No. 10 was set free by Benfica, and has since been wooed by Malaysian club Johor Darul Takzim at great expense. The money on offer at JDT would no doubt be significant, and the club has an enviable fan base, but such reports should surely alert A-League clubs to the ongoing possibilities of bringing in well-known players direct from Europe.

Indeed, all of the players mentioned are being actively hunted by clubs in Asia, MLS or South America. It's relatively early days, but Australia can begin to play a more significant role in that mix.

Of course, a big name does not guarantee success. In fact, some fans would prefer to see their teams win by playing a brand of attractive football regardless of the personnel. Still, there remains a part of most fans, deep inside, that craves seeing a player who has scaled the heights of the sport wearing their jersey.

But, is it representative of reality or fanciful video game-driven dreaming that fans talk of big-names making the A-League switch? Is it feasible that in the next season or two, each team will have a genuine marquee player?

Lou Sticca, the agent at the heart of sealing Del Piero's move from Juventus to Sydney FC 12 months ago says it is. While careful to not reveal names, Sticca confirmed high-profile players are currently in talks with A-League clubs, and believes the tendency toward big-name signings is a natural progression.

"In season one [of the A-League in 2005], having Dwight Yorke [at Sydney FC] as part of the inaugural season of this new competition gave it immediate credibility and exposure into a previously impossible mainstream market," Sticca told ESPN.

"The fact that he ended up playing that well that it reignited his international career leading Trinidad and Tobago to the 2006 World Cup was sensational, but for him to be purchased by Sunderland for seven figures on leaving the A-League to play back in the Premier League speaks volumes for the competition here.

"Having Alessandro Del Piero, Emile Heskey and Shinji Ono set the benchmark [last season]. The fact that all three have committed to another season in the A-League shows that they want to keep up their standards and, in each one's case, help their clubs go better than last season.

"I have no doubt at all that there will be more big names joining the A-League in years to come. I personally have been in talks with a number of well-known players and, whether they are signed this season or not, Australia and the A-League will become a more sought-after destination for world footballers.

"Marquee players like Del Piero, Heskey, Ono and Yorke bring media attention and that ultimately brings in sponsorship money, increased gate receipts, more in merchandise sales and greater value to television rights. Marquees will be inextricably linked with the A-League for many years to come."

The fans' speculation, then, is not entirely unfounded, but will remain dreamlike in nature as clubs increase their proactive approach to high-profile signings. Regardless, it appears the discussion over marquee players is set to rumble on and, with Del Piero's mate Francesco Totti coming off contract in 2014, may gather greater speed in the year to come.

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