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Aug 20, 2011

How Harry got to the A-League

The Harry Kewell-to-Melbourne Victory deal - perhaps the biggest signing of any Australian football code - started with dinner at a Melbourne restaurant in June.

It ended with a phone call to Victory coach Mehmet Durakovic on Friday night - more than two months later.

"Mehm, it's Harry Kewell. I've just agreed, I'm coming to Melbourne Victory."

In between were negotiations as complex as the final deal reached - driven by Kewell's agent Bernie Mandic and eventually parked successfully by the Victory's fledgling board.

Kewell, Mandic, Victory chairman Anthony Di Pietro and board member Robert Belteki first sat down to eat at a restaurant in bayside St Kilda as the Socceroo and his agent visited Melbourne on business.

There they would discuss a unique deal.

The 32-year-old would play for a base salary, plus a big cut of any revenue he brought to the club in terms of memberships, jersey sales and sponsorships.

A baseline would be agreed using previous year's figures.

Above that, Kewell would get 80 per cent of the rest.

No one knows exactly how much Kewell will earn. It is a deal with no bottom line, a deal no one can yet put a figure on.

But with the cheapest Victory memberships costing $190, 10,000 extra memberships sold off the back of Kewell's decision to link with the club would net him a cool $1.5 million to kick off.

Because Kewell is a marquee player - all his wages sit outside the salary cap.

So basically he can earn whatever the Victory are prepared to pay him for the privilege.

The upside for Kewell, the Victory and the A-League is massive.

In terms of world soccer fame, the A-League's previous big-names Robbie Fowler and Dwight Yorke had Kewell covered.

But in Australia, Kewell's public reach stretches far beyond the competition's two previous top marquee signings and far beyond soccer fans.

Kewell isn't just talent with a ball at his feet.

He's the most instantly recognisable footballer of any code Australia-wide.

A filthy rich, good-looking, leather-jacketed, designer-stubbled, Australian-made-good overseas, capable of inciting media hysteria wherever he goes in this country.

For all its faults and failings, soccer in Australia transcends the state lines of AFL, NRL and rugby union.

Instantly that gives Kewell a broader church of appeal than Gary Ablett, Darren Lockyer or Quade Cooper.

Those who don't even necessarily follow sport - and that includes a sizeable contingent of red-blooded females - will now take more than a passing interest in the A-League and the Victory because Kewell is here.

And he has never played senior club soccer in Australia, having been whisked to England to play for Leeds United as a teenager on his way to a 15-year career in Europe.

All is good news for Australian soccer, and good news for a competition which desperately needs a kick-start.

The knock on Kewell throughout his career has been a plague of injuries.

His groin threatened to send him into early retirement during his stint with Liverpool, and his biggest injury battles seem to coincide with the Socceroos' biggest on-field battles.

Harry-watch - the playful nickname given to the media speculation on Kewell and his latest ailment - has dominated the Socceroos' preparations at the last two World Cup finals.

Yet the reality is Kewell has been a far better ambassador for Australian soccer than many will have you believe.

He has played injured and sick for his country, and even when battling an injury has always attempted to make himself available when the Socceroos needed him.

How Kewell is received around the league - especially in his home town of Sydney which he has shunned to join the Victory - will be the biggest sub-plot of the most anticipated of the A-League's seven seasons.

The deal wasn't done without angst and plenty of false starts which have tested fans' patience.

A promotional side deal with Football Federation Australia threatened to derail things, as well as a battle over image rights, and potential Kewell third-party agreements with sponsors in direct opposition to the FFA's big three - Hyundai, Qantas and Optus.

There was also Mandic's claim on Melbourne radio the deal was dead - saying Kewell wanted a 30-70 cut (that's 70 for Kewell) of away gate receipts.

Goodwill for Kewell was shredded by that.

But hopefully all will be forgiven, the protracted negotiations forgotten, and the big picture focused on.

As Di Pietro said when announcing Kewell's three-year deal: "Football in Australia is now a mainstream sport. This now elevates us to the next level.

"Harry Kewell is an iconic sporting superstar in Australia, and he's coming back when he can deliver something very special to this sport in this country."

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