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Jul 19, 2006

FFA willing to pay to get Socceroos home

Football Federation Australia is "ready, willing and able" to wear some of the cost of bringing home overseas-based Socceroos to play in the A-League, chief executive John O'Neill said on Thursday.

Clubs would pay half the star player's salary and the FFA the rest in proposals under consideration by the governing body.

While two veteran Socceroos have come home this season, defender Tony Vidmar expected to announce an A-League move from Holland this week and ex-Birmingham City midfielder Stan Lazaridis already at Perth, a third, Tony Popovic, is bound for the Middle East.

Defender Popovic, 33, who played against Brazil in last month's World Cup, this week switched from English Championship outfit Crystal Palace to Qatari club Al-Arabi.

The Popovic move prompted Newcastle Jets coach Nick Theodorakopoulos to call for the FFA to consider a central contracting system to lure home star players, who could then be farmed out to A-League clubs.

While O'Neill did not go as far as advocating central contracts, he said the idea had "merit" and that the FFA was looking at a system of top-up payments to achieve the same end.

"We are ready, willing and able within the confines of our current financial position to provide a top-up for some of the Socceroos who might come home," O'Neill told Radio 2KY.

"For some time now (FFA chairman) Frank Lowy in particular has wanted to repatriate Socceroos and to create a bit of a 'fighting fund' if you like to ensure if we can get them back and if a club can afford, say, half their salary then the FFA can provide the rest."

With the second A-League season just over a month away, O'Neill said he had two main yardsticks to measure success this year: increased match attendance; and financial stability for the eight franchises - which would be helped by an injection of television money.

"I think we averaged 11,000 (attendance) last year, it would be nice to be up to around 15,000 this coming season," O'Neill said.

"A number of clubs struggled financially... so I think we've got to be very acutely conscious that every club becomes financially sustainable.

"The new broadcasting deal done with Fox Sports really enables the FFA to subsidise the clubs to the tune of about $1.5 million each per year."

Although soccer's popularity soared thanks to Australia's exploits in Germany, O'Neill conceded it was now "back to reality", saying the sport had its work cut out if was to seriously rival AFL and rugby league for a market share.

"We've got to continue to earn our stripes and the A-League is well-placed but it's clearly not where the other competitions are but over time it will move into a more popular position."

O'Neill said a healthy A-League was one part of a "pyramid" that was the key to successful Australian soccer, the other two being the grassroots level of the sport, and the national team.