Why the Australian marquee ruling should return to the A-League

Del Piero glares at the Sydney FC bench after being substituted in January derby against Western Sydney

Alterations to the A-League’s marquee rules have been praised as a positive move to bring better players to Australia, but Joey Ratcliffe believes the previous criteria was better for Australian football.

When the FFA made changes to the A-League’s marquee rules, the move was lauded as a positive move in helping the league attract better players. But the original marquee system, which was one player of any nationality, wasn’t the reason that our league failed to attract the biggest names in the sport.

When Sydney FC signed Dwight Yorke for the first season of the revitalised national league, the former Manchester United star instantly gave the code attention in the mainstream media. That contract was signed with a single marquee rule but Yorke left the next season and was replaced a season later by the far less effective Juninho, a World Cup winner with Brazil in 2002.

The seasons after Yorke saw failed attempt after failed attempt to attract more quality international marquees.

Mario Jardel was a catastrophic failure for the Newcastle Jets and Ricardinho for Melbourne Victory wasn’t much better. The biggest issue was, of course, that the marquees weren’t living up to the stature expected of them – big names that attract local and global media attention. North Queensland Fury’s Robbie Fowler was one who did have a positive influence on the league, but his signing did little to grow the league in stature, especially considering the ultimate failure of his first A-League club.

In reality, the marquee is simply a player whose salary is not included in the salary cap; the name and concept detracts from what the marquee actually is.

The Central Coast Mariners have rarely had a marquee, but that’s not to say they couldn’t have one from their current squad. Current captain Nick Montgomery could be their international marquee, but because the Mariners are so short for cash they hover above the salary cap floor, a minimum total squad wage which is 90% of the total cap. Because the Mariners aren’t keen on spending all of their allowed $2.55m in the cap, there really isn’t any point in having Nick Montgomery as their marquee. Otherwise, it would mean they would have to spend more on players within the cap to bring their squad’s wages above the required salary cap floor.

Robbie Fowler was a big-name that excited the league, but it ultimately couldn't help North Queensland Fury.
Robbie Fowler was a big-name signing that excited the league, but it ultimately couldn’t help North Queensland Fury.

In 2010, as a swathe of our Golden Generation Socceroos began to enter the twilight of their careers, the A-League implemented the Australian marquee to attract them. Brett Emerton, John Aloisi, Nick Carle and Harry Kewell profited from that scheme and set the league in the right direction by creating an opportunity for stars of the Socceroos to play locally before their time was up.

We didn’t even know at the time, but something else happened in 2010 that instead forever changed the A-League’s marquee rule. In 2010, Brisbane Roar signed little-known German player Thomas Broich within the cap.

That season, Broich led the Roar to their first ever Premiership and Championship. By 2012 he had re-signed with the club as their marquee. The success of Broich led clubs with deep pockets to find ‘another Broich’ amid the failings of the league to attract players remotely close the ability and stature of Dwight Yorke.

The Broich-type player was a seasoned European professional that was little known on our shores, but could offer skill and experience far beyond their name or stature.

Despite this trend at the time, Sydney FC pulled off one of the most stunning signings in Asian football – they signed one of the greatest players of his generation, Alessandro del Piero.

A World Cup winner with Italy in 2006 and moving straight from Juventus to Sydney, Del Piero attracted more attention to the league than any player ever did or could. Suddenly, a lot of the football world took notice of the A-League and Del Piero obliged with some stunning goals despite his aging legs and waning ability.

After two seasons, Del Piero left Sydney and the club were on the hunt for another player of his prominence to continue their culture of ‘Bling FC’ international marquees. Also at the end of the 2013-14 season when Del Piero left Sydney, Brisbane Roar were faced with one of the toughest decisions an A-League squad could face. Having just won the double again, prolific striker Besart Berisha was looking for a pay rise but the Roar weren’t able to oblige with Broich already on the books as their marquee until 2017.

Of course, there was another marquee spot available but that was reserved for an Australian – Matt McKay.

Having parted ways with another marquee in Pablo Contreras, Melbourne Victory offered Berisha international marquee status alongside Australian marquee Mark Milligan. Suddenly, the Australian marquee spot was seen not as a benefit to the league but a hindrance to its growth and the ability of clubs to stay loyal to its best players.

After Berisha signed with Melbourne, Sydney’s new coach Graham Arnold decided to take the ‘Broich’ approach to signing a marquee player by bringing in Austrian international Marc Janko. Janko, like Broich, was a huge success despite not winning any silverware like the German – though he did finish with the Golden Boot. However, at the end of his year-long contract, Janko demanded more money.

Sydney FC had implemented a strict budget on marquee spending after the expensive Del Piero years and weren’t willing to budge. Janko left for Champions League football with Swiss club FC Basel and Arnold replaced the Austrian with another little-known European footballer in Beskitas’ Slovakian international Filip Holosko.

In the long term, is Sydney better off having club captain and Australian Alex Brosque as a marquee alongside an international, currently Holosko? Or should more foreign players see potential to line their pockets in a league with suddenly more room for clubs to offer them cash?

The new marquee rule was also partly introduced to allow our clubs to compete with the rich MLS, Chinese and Middle Eastern clubs, but the amount of marquees was never the problem. The problem was, and still is, how deep our pockets are.

This year, led by Brazilian World Cup winning coach Luiz Filipe Scolari, Chinese giants Guangzhou Evergrande signed Tottenham Hotspur midfieler Paulinho on a £14m transfer. As it stands, the A-League could never match that type of money, let alone in the foreseeable future. The same could be said with wages, as rumoured A-League marquees David Villa, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Andrea Pirlo and Steven Gerrard all signed permanent contracts with the MLS.

The change from Australian marquee to marquee wasn’t the change that was needed to be made to keep the likes of Berisha at Brisbane.

In the recent salary cap changes, the FFA also brought in a Loyalty Player allowance that allowed clubs to pay up to $200,000 outside of the salary cap to  a player who had spent more than five years at a club. That modification of the salary cap with the Loyalty Player wouldn’t have been enough to keep Berisha at Brisbane or move Broich to inside the cap. A larger amount and shorter term in the Loyalty Player ruling, on the other hand, may have.

Many are lauding the new marquee ruling, but criticising it for taking so long. However, if that had been brought in earlier, then it would have, hypothetically, created an issue with the club that profited from the misfortune of Brisbane.

Last season, Victory’s Fahid Ben Khalfallah was the signing of the season and he was under the salary cap. By mid-season, Khalfallah was pushing for a pay rise or marquee status that Victory couldn’t offer because of Berisha.

The Victory managed to negotiate a deal, and to be fair they must be commended for eventually being able to re-sign such a valuable player like Khalfallah under the salary cap. However, had Milligan’s marquee status been international, would Khalfallah have been able to push Melbourne to offload Milligan earlier?

Despite his form probably warranting a marquee contract, the Victory were able to negotiate a deal inside the salary cap.
Despite his form probably warranting a marquee contract, the Victory were able to negotiate a deal inside the salary cap for Khalfallah.

Victory held the upper hand because of the old Australian marquee ruling. They were able to re-sign Khalfallah under the cap when there was only one marquee position available to foreigners, but now with the departure of Milligan to Baniyas, Victory do have another marquee spot available and Khalfallah remains under the cap.

The Melbourne club should now be commended for rewarding Australian Oliver Bozanic’s good form in Europe with Luzern in Switzerland by singing him as their second marquee. With Bozanic, Victory now have a player who potentially has a long term future at the club. Being a native, presuming all goes according to plan, it’s likely that he’ll be happy to remain in Melbourne and not go searching for a big pay day abroad, like Marcos Flores when he left Adelaide.

The new marquee ruling puts the onus back on the clubs to make the right decisions regarding signing top players. But with European players, used to bigger pay cheques, playing in Australia year after year and willing to return home if they don’t get their way (think Ranko Despotovic), will the clubs be able to make the right decisions?

As the A-League continues to grow and mature, it’s important not to throw cash at players in the hope of a short-term return.

With the English Premier League being, arguably, the most popular league in Australia, there is perhaps a misguided belief that a strong A-League should be one flooded with foreigners and the next best thing found ashore. Foreign players will of course be necessary in Australian football because it is the world game, it’s inclusive of all cultures and the players bring their, usually, better experience and technical skills. Football is a game of many cultures. However, now and in the long-term, Australian players will be the bread and butter of the league and there is no argument against that. Especially in regard to the health and sustainability of professional football in this country.

In that sense, there should always be a position for an Australian in the marquee rules if the league is to maintain its identity as Australia’s premier competition.

About Joey Ratcliffe 32 Articles
Joey is a journalist that specialises in online sports content ranging from football to golf. Currently working full-time as a Digital content coordinator on the editorial page of Golf Link (www.golflink.com.au), the Sydneysider has also worked freelance with The Roar (www.theroar.com.au) writing news stories and creating highlights packages for AFL, NRL, A-League, the football World Cup and cycling. Often referred to as T-Rex on the football field due to his fast, yet strange technique of running, Joey prefers to dribble than pass or shoot.