By the time the cameras were switched off and the lights went out, it’s safe to say that the A-Leagues All-Stars did the league’s reputation little harm.
In front of a crowd of 70,174, an amalgamation of some of the league’s best players and brightest young talent went toe-to-toe with Spanish giants FC Barcelona, who played many of their best players throughout the match.
There is little doubt it took a while for the match to get going. The first half played out as many of the cynics would have expected, with few chances for either side aside from Ousmane Dembele’s first half strike, and a flat atmosphere that was punctuated by Mexican waves and light shows in the stands.
However, a change in mentality and Dwight Yorke introducing Nestroy Irankunda and Garang Kuol turned the game on its head, and a reinvigorated All-Stars team hit the front thanks to goals from Rene Piscopo and Adama Traore. 17 year-old Kuol’s barnstorming run almost brought a third goal, but it trickled agonisingly wide of the post.
Barcelona would end up getting the win, with their La Masia youngsters not wanting to be outdone; midfielder Gavi pulled the strings with a couple of assists and Ansu Fati scored the winner in the 77th minute. But, it’s safe to say that a large proportion of the crowd who initially came for the five-time European champions eventually warmed and got behind the team of local stars.
Social media in particular was abuzz with praise for Kuol’s second-half performance, with Barca manager Xavi singling him out for praise after the match, “He created many chances, we conceded two or three chances because of him, so a great player and a great future.”
Last night’s All-Star game certainly generated heavy conversation and debate in Australian footballing circles, and not just over which Adama Traore is better.
Fans and pundits have been divided over the merits of the game and on the impact it would have on advertising the league and this weekend’s Grand Final.
Critics would argue that the promotional aspect is negligible, as many of the fans that attend these superstar friendlies have a negative, preconceived notion of Australian football that won’t be shifted by one game, only taking away from much needed promotion of the Grand Final. Those in favour – or at least optimistic – state that having 70,000 people watching the league’s top players is objectively a good thing, especially if they can put on a performance like last night.
Both sides will have points that were vindicated. Whilst there were some advertisements and segments within the television coverage on Saturday’s Melbourne City vs. Western United Grand Final, it left a bit to be desired. There was also no mention of the coming final at the stadium, and it is said the commentary had a skewed focus towards Barcelona players and the club rather than on the positive performance of the A-League players.
Disappointingly, the game was also shown on Channel 10’s secondary channel, 10Bold, and viewing figures are reported to be below 100,000.
However, anecdotal and social media evidence would suggest that the second-half performance of the All-Stars did make many casual viewers stand up and take notice of the quality present within their local league. It’s likely that Garang Kuol has a few more Instagram followers as he wakes up today.
While it is impossible to know empirically how many fans may have been converted or compelled to follow the A-League more closely from this game, overall one feels that the APL would be pleased with the outcome of the match and overall spectacle from last night.
They know, and fans know, that more has to be done, however. When 70,000 Sydneysiders are turning up to a football match on a chilly Wednesday night, but the city’s three clubs couldn’t average over 7,400 to their games in the season just gone, you know there is a clear disconnect.
Sugar hits like the All-Star games and big name marquee’s can help if they are part of a wider program of measures taken to increase fan engagement and interest. The product on the field in terms of quality and entertainment is at a relatively high level, but the league has lost its way in the stands.
Those in charge have to take the steps to reignite the active support ecosystem that once helped feed a vibrant and thriving league. It was the unique feature and selling point of the sport that the other, larger codes could not match. It captured the minds of the masses and got people talking.
Clubs also need to work with stadiums to ensure that ticket prices are lowered to a level that entices casual viewers to take a punt on the league, and to ensure that, in this economic climate, the loyal fans stay loyal. The high prices of tickets at certain A-League clubs has been a massive detriment to the growth of the league as a whole.
These measures will help fans give their local clubs a chance; to help them stay committed, the APL needs to put more pressure on Paramount+ to fix the gnawing teething problems that plagued the season. If it’s too difficult for fans to watch games they won’t. And that goes for old fans and the new.
None of what has been highlighted above is news to long-term fans and indeed to the APL. The problem is, despite much noise made back in October that football was on the cusp of a new revolution has so far fallen flat. The APL has been criticised for not doing enough to shift momentum.
They have a chance to put things right, though. This All-Star game can be constituted as a sugar hit, if they work to make the off the field product more appealing to casual fans, and work to bring back the disenfranchised rusted on fans.
The APL must look back to the past to grow its future.