On the one hand, the A-League's top players skipped the All-Star game either by choice (Alessandro Del Piero), club preference (Shinji Ono, Emile Heskey) or national team call-up (Archie Thompson, Mark Milligan, etc.) and Manchester United crushed the All-Stars 5-1. On the other, 83,000 crammed into the ANZ Stadium, not to mention 20,000 more who paid to watch United train on Friday. What is the balance in making such a game worthwhile in future years or cast aside as a fun experiment that is not realistic for continued use?
Clearly FFA are committed to the concept, having altered standard player contracts beginning with next year's game to require selected players to represent the league. This top-down approach will certainly compel some players to wear the league's blue and yellow strip, but does it mean the game itself is viable? Or does it mean that as long as the game is in place, FFA will do anything to make it as relevant as possible?
Though the score of such exhibitions never matters, it is worth considering how a string of heavy defeats by foreign clubs could damage the A-League more than benefit it. Though the league's best players were not necessarily involved last night, there is little belief that had they been, the result would have been greatly altered. The odds will always be stacked against a Representative XI, in Australia or anywhere else, as opponents are comfortable playing together and understand the game as a step in pre-season development rather than the apex of a months-long crescendo.
Of course Representative XIs can, and do, defeat big European clubs in friendlies. A Thai group knocked off the same Manchester United side (minus Robin Van Persie) in Bangkok just days before the A-League game in Sydney. Indeed, the MLS All-Stars defeated Fulham (4-1), Chelsea (1-0), Celtic (2-0) and West Ham (3-2) between 2005-08 and Chelsea again last summer, 3-2.
That said, the MLS All-Stars also lost to Manchester United 5-2 in 2010 and 4-0 in 2011. Those games have much more in common with the A-League's effort last night, even if the latter were missing many of the league's top stars. That kind of defeat, even if in an irregular performance, leads fans to question the overall quality of the league when even the best players cannot defeat, or even compete with a single club, no matter its preceding reputation. The A-League bills itself as an up-and-coming endeavor that provides a high level of competition and produces players worthy of bigger leagues and clubs around the world. While that may all be true, losing 5-1 is no way to go about showing it.
"It shows how far the A-League has come for us to get these types of sides out here," said Michael Beauchamp after last night's game. Of course, Manchester United came to Australia in 1999, six years before the A-League's inaugural season. That players and coaches would say something similar is completely understandable, but by that logic, Thai, Vietnamese and Malaysian football have reached at least a similar level, regularly hosting Premier League clubs in the offseason.
Beauchamp continued, "Next year all the boys are going to be fighting harder to be a part of this squad. Matches like these give you the opportunity to play against quality players and you walk away with memories and that is what football is about."
The league made quite a lot of money, fans of Manchester United were rewarded with a live viewing of their favorite club for the first time in 14 years and the players enjoyed themselves, despite the score. On many levels, there is nothing at all wrong with providing all that enjoyment. But is all that what football is about? Making as much money as possible by bringing in a big-name club, even if defeat is almost certain? Advertising the opponent more than the league's own team and charging AU$15 for training sessions?
There is no denying the business side of football, particularly in emerging markets like Australia. There is too much to be potentially gained by bringing in major European sides in the offseason for a financial windfall. But perhaps more games like Melbourne Victory's Wednesday friendly against Liverpool are the better way to promote and develop the league. It's true that a significant European club is unlikely to travel to Perth or Wellington, so not every club has the same possible benefits. But the reality is, improving the individual member clubs through experience, competition and yes, even spectacle, is more likely to improve the league as a whole than a top-down exhibition like the All-Star game.
In time, perhaps the value of such games will prove to be worth the trouble or not. For now, fans of the A-League must hope that the All-Star game is taken more seriously in future years in order to provide a legitimate challenge for world competition and thus create a better platform from which the A-League can announce its development. If not, though the money may be good, the games will do little to improve Australian club football or showcase what improvements have been made.