The story of New York City FC is now a familiar one to most City fans; former player Claudio Reyna at the helm, Frank Lampard making his way to the Big Apple via Manchester, and a whistle stop tour to England where they faced off against St. Mirren and Brondby. They even took Shay Facey back with them for a loan stint.
But what of City’s two other outfits; Japan’s Yokohama F Marinos and Australia’s Melbourne City. There’s perhaps a uniqueness to the New York story, a brand new MLS franchise as opposed to their sister clubs; both well established in leagues J and A respectively.
But there’s more of a story to Melbourne City, more of a story to top flight football as we know in Australia. It’s evolving, and it’s not just fodder for Soccer AM to mock Robbie Fowler in his twighlight years, or a cash cow for messieurs Yorke, Heskey and even Del Piero.
Australian club football has found itself in dire straights in the past, playing at best third fiddle to cricket, Aussie Rules and both codes of rugby (depending which State you were in). In particular Melbourne; where the AFL game dominates the newspapers and workplace chatter – not just of a Monday morning, but right through to the next weekends games.
At the turn of the century, Melbourne rife with gangland killings had trouble on the terraces as well as the streets. Today, it’s a City that plays home to 180 nationalities and speaks over 230 different languages. It’s a City that used to be a hotbed of football hooliganism, with racial factions aligned to the clubs.
The reinvention of football, or ‘soccer’ as it is called in Australia is remarkable, not just off the pitch but in the stands too. ‘Soccer’. Grates doesn’t it. But tell that to a Melburnian, and they’ll tell you AFL is the oldest codified form of football in the World.
It’s not playing third fiddle anymore though. A cleaner organisation has taken Australia from making up the numbers at international tournaments to almost emerging as shock qualifiers at last years World Cup. The Socceroos lost all three games but were expected to be whipping boys in a group that contained Chile, Spain and Holland. The results didn’t tell the true story of their performances though.
Football is the most played sport in Australian schools. Place this nation, this population in a far less remote location on the planet, place it where South American or European talent would flock to, and you’d raise the standard markedly. It would rub off on the national side no end. At this point in time, there isn’t the continental competition to tease players away from Champions League ambitions. The Asian equivalent just doesn’t have the same draw.
But Australian football is making strides, as witnessed in their Asian Cup triumph, and a large part of that is due to league’s revamp. In Melbourne for example; Italian, Greek, Chinese, Croatian, English and Australian factions were drawn together uniting behind City’s rival Victory.
In 2003, Frank Lowy, the man behind the Westfield shopping centre took the game by the scruff of the neck, and now it thrives. 12 teams make up the top flight spanning across all six states as well New Zealand.
It’s change to a summer sport, in line with European competition has cultivated interest too, and although a play off system remains, the season climaxes with who finishes top of the pile.
The three Melbourne derbies held at the Etihad (capacity 55,000) took no less than 40,000 each time. The third of those games was a play-off semi final that attracted larger numbers than AFL’s Friday night game at 100,028 capacity MCG.
The Socceroo’s Asian Cup success in the New Year only added fuel to a now burning fire of interest in the game.
City now have a foot inside the Australian game. But why Melbourne Heart? Victory, playing at the Etihad Stadium, in blue, surely seemed the natural fit. 18,000 members, it has the fan power and revenue stream to fit the City Football Club model. Perhaps City are playing the longer game.
Salary caps prevent CFG from investing in their Australian outfit in the way they did with Manchester City just a few years back. There’s a presence globally now though; Europe, America, Asia, Oceania. Where next? South America? India? Surely that’s just a matter of time.
Manchester and Melbourne City teams will meet for the first time in July, hosting a friendly in the Gold Coast before facing Real Madrid and Roma at the MCG – fans in Australia will expect a level of entertainment the friendlies Sydney had with Chelsea and Tottenham. 1-0 score lines are the reason Australian game has struggled to get off the ground in the past.
The MCG will house over a quarter of a million people during the three games as it turns from footy to Football venue for just over a week. To comprehend City undertaking this tour ten of fifteen years ago would be laughable. Instead Manuel Pellegrini will lead a side made up of Joe Hart, Sergio Aguero and David Silva. Paul Bosvelt and Trevor Sinclair just wouldn’t put bums on seats in the same way.
So is the progress of City, as far as PR tours go, it’s as big as they get. The questions remains though; will both City clubs, Manchester and Melbourne, profit from this or is the ‘soccer’ in Australia just never going to truly compete with Aussie Rules?