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Jul 15, 2011

Kewell capture key for A-League

The name Harry Kewell has been sullied, topped Twitter trends, and could be placed back at the pinnacle of Australian sporting icons all within the space of a week.

Reports in Australia suggest that Kewell's switch to an A-League club, likely to be Sydney FC or Melbourne Victory, is imminent. However, the lead-up to this point has created fierce - and necessary - debate about the game in Australia.

Bernie Mandic, the Paris-based agent charged with looking after Kewell's career, promoted the idea that his client was on the verge of signing for an A-League club some weeks ago. Recently, though, Mandic gave a rebuke to Football Federation Australia, claiming they were unable to facilitate the demands of Kewell - a claim since denied by Australian football's governing body.

The subsequent public fighting and, as many see it, deliberately misleading information distributed by Mandic has left a bitter taste in the mouth of many a staunch football devotee. But, despite this, Kewell's ultimate capture would help not only restore any lost faith in the player's reputation, but could be the answer to the A-League's perceived woes.

Firstly, it may help to explain why bringing a 32-year-old with a history of injury problems back to the A-League is such a hot topic Down Under.

Since bursting onto the scene as a precocious talent in the mid-90s with Leeds United, Harry Kewell has represented the ideal footballer in the eyes of many Aussies. Playing in a talented young Premier League side, Kewell showed a worldwide audience that Australians aren't all uncouth oafs happy to "lump it long and get it into the mixer".

No, this cocky kid instead breezed by some of the world's best defenders using a nuanced drop of the shoulder. He displayed technique and poise comfortably the equal of Australians such as Paul Okon [Lazio] and Ned Zelic [Borussia Dortmund] before him, but as an attacking player who scored scintillating goals, he captured the hearts and minds of football fans in his homeland like never before. His goal for the Socceroos in the 1997 World Cup qualifier against Iran to silence all inside the intimidating 100,000-capacity Azadi Stadium sealed his place as a hero.

So, for Australians who have been following the game for many years, Harry Kewell isn't simply a talented national team player returning home after an extended career in Europe, as so many have already done. He is a representation of the best the nation has to offer, and is therefore a yardstick for recruitment decisions made by all A-League clubs. He offers on-field ability, off-field marketability and a name to draw people through turnstiles.

Indeed, when Kewell turned up in Newcastle in 2007 to do nothing more than say a few words and wave before the Jets v Adelaide match, he attracted the club's first attendance of over 10,000 for the season. That is the kind of people-pulling power Australia's top-flight could certainly use right now.

The A-League is in definite need of a jump-start to restore crowd figures and public interest after the downturn over the past 18 months. And this upcoming season provides the perfect platform for such an injection, given the extended off-season to allow for the new October kick-off of the competition.

Right now, from the A-League's perspective, is the perfect time to bring a player like Kewell home. So the FFA's eagerness to get involved in his recruitment is understandable, if not orthodox. They have offered a reported $250,000 incentive for Kewell to return home, which would sit alongside the player's additional earnings from increases in club sponsorships and memberships. The FFA, like everyone else, can see how Kewell being used as an A-League ambassador would impact on the bigger picture of Australian football.

Many pundits have argued against the governing body becoming involved in negotiations between the player and clubs. Others have heavily criticised the bait-and-switch methods used by Kewell's manager. But, ultimately, whatever the technique used to get the Socceroo to come home, the debate created in the meantime must be used as a catalyst to invigorate what should be an exciting and dynamic competition.

When the A-League began in 2005, it was the place every 20-something wanted to be, and had the image that many sports in the Antipodes have since tried to emulate. It was young, fresh and cool. It had a funky soundtrack and swagger in its step.

And that is the crux of the issue. Clubs and Federations are remembering what brought the A-League success in its fledgling years, and subsequently realising that there is no need create a new identity for the competition within the vastly competitive Australian sporting landscape. It already has the perfect persona, one that other sports with older demographics would love to have. The football community, led by the very people trying to lure Kewell back home, need only keep this vibrant, youthful notion alive.

Harry Kewell, the footballer who has embodied that same dynamic spirit, is the perfect man to remind the masses of Australian sports fans why the A-League is here to stay.

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