A closer look at off-season friendlies as Manchester United, Celtic prepare to visit Australia

A-League sides are often asked to play as opposition to visiting teams, and are paid well to do so, but they are usually shunted out of the spotlight. Taking part can be a risk, as a heavy defeat can embolden the views of those who see domestic football as sub-standard. History has also shown that being involved provides no real benefits apart from a bit of extra cash. There have been rare exceptions, but it is simply not in the interests of foreign teams to promote their Australian colleagues, who in many ways are rivals for players, fans and sponsors. Since COVID, the expansionist aims of these clubs have become even clearer following the European Super League debacle. They would probably bring matches for points here if they could, and given the trends of modern football, that day may soon come.

Liverpool’s 2013 friendly against Melbourne Victory at the MCG alerted rival clubs to the potential of the Australian market.Credit:pat scala

As the worst A-League Men’s season to date grinds to a conclusion, teams like United, Barca and others could be seen as vultures swooping in to pick off easy prey. It is somewhat heartbreaking to see such pent-up demand for football but so little enthusiasm for the Australian version of it. This view is widespread among hardcore fans of the domestic game and is even shared by some executives at A-League clubs. For the first time, though, they’re actually doing something about it.

A-League clubs have taken on a more proactive role in the acquisition and structuring of these matches, and have been demanding access to ticketing databases in addition to other commercial rights in exchange for their involvement – instead of simply pocketing their appearance fee and moving on , as they have in years gone by.

This sort of information was closely protected by event promoters, but is now being shared so the A-Leagues can actually attempt to win people over after the event. It fits into the Australian Professional Leagues’ broader ambitions of trying to convince fans of European football – the ‘Eurosnobs’ – to follow the A-Leagues, a challenging task the game here has never quite pulled off consistently or effectively.

“For us, it’s a data play,” said APL chief executive and outgoing Sydney FC CEO Danny Townsend.

“We need to be able to capture all those people who’ve bought a ticket to go watch a world-class team come to Australia to play an A-League team, and then start to bring them into our world.

“Historically the issue has been – and it’s been a bugbear of A-League clubs – that the promoter has kept all the ticket data. You might have 80,000 turn up to watch Sydney FC against Arsenal, but those people don’t turn up when Sydney FC play Melbourne Victory because we don’t know who they are, and we haven’t been able to contact them.

“Now with the deals we’re doing in this space, we are getting all of the data capture rights, and we’re going to be able to ingest them into our data lake, start marketing to them, start sending them content, start drawing them into KEEPUP [the APL’s $30 million digital hub] and essentially the Australian domestic competitions.”

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While some fans have quibbled over the unavoidable timing of Barcelona’s visit to face the A-Leagues All Stars next month – three days after the end of the La Liga season, on the Wednesday of grand final week, meaning that players and coaches from Australia’s best teams won’t be available – the APL is also hoping to use it as a promotional vehicle and redirect as many eyeballs as possible onto their own showpiece event, which will be heavily plugged in the lead-up to and night of the match.

There is no way to stop European teams from cashing in on Australian visits once every couple of years, and no magic formula that will suddenly make people care about the A-Leagues. In a way, the domestic game is snookered. But at least now there is a remote chance that, when the foreign invaders pack up and leave town and the sugar hit wears off, they’ll have left behind something that Australian football might actually find useful.

WHO’S COMING TO AUSTRALIA THIS YEAR

Barcelona vs A-Leagues All Stars – 25 May, ANZ Stadium

Brazil vs Argentina – June or September, MCG*

Aston Villa, Leeds United – July, Queensland*

Manchester United vs Melbourne Victory – 15 July, MCG

Manchester United vs Crystal Palace – 19 July, MCG

Sydney Super Cup (Celtic, Sydney FC, Western Sydney Wanderers, TBA replacement for Rangers) – 16-20 November, Sydney

* denotes rumored or unconfirmed

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