Football needs the exhibition match sugar hit

Here we go again. On the eve of two of the biggest exhibition games we have seen in Australia in recent memory, the recurring question resurfaces, right on cue. Why?

Here we go again. On the eve of two of the biggest exhibition games we have seen in Australia in recent memory, the recurring question resurfaces, right on queue. Why?

Within the next six days, Manchester United will fill ANZ Stadium, and Liverpool will, most likely, fill the MCG. They are the two biggest stadiums in the country, and this is deep in the Hyundai A-League off-season, and right in the heart of the AFL and NRL seasons. Not to mention the distractions of the British Lions and State of Origin.

So in the white heat of perhaps the most competitive sporting market in the world apart from the US, football has muscled its way into the headlines. That’s why exhibition games still have value in Australia, and will do so for the foreseeable future. Football needs the sugar hit. It’s about building the case, brick by brick.

But if you think it’s only about marketing, think again. Granted, it’s 90 percent hype. But the other 10 percent is becoming increasingly relevant. That’s the football dimension. More on that in a moment.

First, an historical context. Clubs sides have been coming to Australia since 1927, when Bohemians Prague played five matches against the nascent Socceroos. And it’s fair to say for many decades, as the game here evolved, we needed them.

More than 60 different club sides have toured Australia in the last 80 years, and for every Manchester United, AC Milan, Arsenal, Juventus, Santos and Red Star Belgrade, there has been a Wisla Krakow, Blackpool, Penarol, Malmo and FK Austria. Some games have barely attracted a few thousand people, while others – among them Hajduk Split (1949), Everton (1964), Juventus (1984), Manchester United (1999) and Los Angeles Galaxy (2007) – have basically filled stadiums.

Have all those games been worthwhile? No. Sometimes the interest has existed only for a small ethnic community. Other times visiting clubs sides, and their promoters, have taken liberties. Manchester United aren’t innocent in this regard. In 1984, they lined up against the Socceroos with Steve Pears in goal, the likes of Mark Dempsey and Arthur Graham in the line-up, and three guest players (Frank Worthington, Peter Barnes and Tommy Hutchinson) also on the teamsheet. Not quite in the spirit of the occasion.

Good or bad, however, these experiences were all part of the learning curve for the game – on and off the field. For instance not since 1999, when Manchester United last toured, have the Socceroos played against a club side. Credit the administration of the time for taking the view that national team needed to be placed on a pedestal, despite what – at the time – seemed a significant commercial risk. And when club sides have toured since, the contractual agreements have been tightened considerably to make sure they don’t leave their best players behind, and they fulfil their promotional commitments as well.

Thankfully, we haven’t seen a repeat of AC Milan’s infamous 1993 escapade – when they walked off pitch halfway through the second half of the match at Princes Park to catch a bus for Melbourne airport. Nor are we likely to. Which is how it should be.

Respect. That’s the word that matters. Over the last couple of decades, and particularly since the advent of the Hyundai A-League and the end of the World Cup drought, our football has earned the credibility it deserves. Our hospitality is reciprocated, not abused. Would we have got to this point without the mistakes, and the disappointments, of the past? Probably not. Are we now in a position to profit from our experiences? Absolutely. Having Manchester United and Liverpool here within the space of a week, playing against the Foxtel All-Stars and Melbourne Victory, is proof of that. They’ve brought their best-available squads, and they are treating the matches for what they are. Solid pre-season hitouts. It’s all we can ask.

Which brings us to the football. If you’ve purchased a ticket for either game expecting EPL, or even Hyundai A-League, intensity, refund it. If you’ve bought a ticket hoping to study the intracacies of Steven Gerrard’s, or Rio Ferdinand’s, game, or to measure the progress of A-League players such as Mike McGlinchey, or Pedj Bojic, or Mark Bridge, against quality opponents, you’ll get your money’s worth.
That’s the context of the match, and that’s what will make it a worthwhile experience. For fans, for players, for coaches, and for our game in general.

In recent years, our clubs have played against the likes of Juventus, Fulham, Everton, Blackburn Rovers, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Celtic, and stacked up well. Inch-by-inch, you can see the gap narrowing, and that’s progress. If we can pull a full house into the bargain, and share in the reflected glory, even better. The right kind of exhibition games, at the right time, still have plenty of merit. And will for some time to come.