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Free Kick City? It might not be a bad thing

Manton St Tales

All of a sudden, Melbourne City appear to be the darlings of the FFA. And for many fans, that makes them The Team We Love To Hate. But, Paul Marcuccitti argues, City might be the villain the A-League needed.

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It’s not often that Adelaide United is the sideshow – and the Reds don’t always carry most neutrals’ support.

But both were the case on Friday night. Because there’s no doubt that we were witnessing confirmation of a new reality in the A-League: Melbourne City has become one of the competition’s most polarising clubs.

It was quite the week for the City Football Group’s Australian operation: an FFA Cup semi-final triumph against crosstown rival Melbourne Victory on Tuesday night (and Football Federation Australia deciding the final will be played in Melbourne giving City home ground advantage over Sydney FC); gaining Yoshi’s support on Thursday; and recording its third win in four league matches the next day.

Players representing the Hyundai A-League football teams, (L-R) Matt McKay of the Brisbane Roar, Vince Lia of the Wellington Phoenix, Nikolai Topor-Stanley of the Western Sydney Wanderers, Rostyn Griffiths of Perth Glory, Nigel Boogaard of the Newcastle Jets, Eugene Galekovic of Adelaide United, Nick Montgomery of the Central Coast Mariners, Alex Brosque of Sydney FC, Bruno Fornaroli of Melbourne City FC and Carl Valeri of Melbourne Victory, pose for a photograph with Hyundai Australia CEO Charlie Kim, mascot Yoshi, and FFA CEO David Gallop, at the launch of the Hyundai A-League 2016/17 Season, at ANZ Stadium, in Sydney, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. The 2016/17 A-League season kicks off this Friday with the Brisbane Roar playing the Melbourne Victory in Brisbane. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts) NO ARCHIVING

A-League ‘mascot’ Yoshi, centre, has picked Melbourne City after researching which team he should support in the league’s ‘You’ve Gotta Have A Team’ promotion. Photo: Dan Himbrechts / AAP

And all this comes after the free kick City was awarded in the off season: being able to sign Tim Cahill as a “guest marquee”, which really means extra marquee. That allows the club to pay three players outside the salary cap this season, one more than the normal limit. FFA is subsidising the Socceroos’ all-time leading scorer’s wages too.

If City wins silverware this season, expect social media to be flooded with fans suggesting it was handed to them

City have been getting a few generous free kicks on the field as well, the most recent example being the penalty awarded for handball against Adelaide United’s Sergi Guardiola. The Reds then had a better case for a penalty turned down. (And in Tuesday night’s Cup clash, City’s opening goal should surely have been ruled out for offside.)

All these things, together with pictures of Cahill (rested for the clash with United) hanging with Yoshi in the stands, have convinced supporters of rival clubs that Melbourne City is the FFA’s pet.

Melbourne City players celebrate their win after the round 4 A-League match between Melbourne City and Adelaide United at AAMI Park in Melbourne, Friday, Oct. 28, 2016. (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY

THAT WINNING FEELING: Melbourne City players celebrate after defeating Adelaide United on Friday night, leaving the Reds without a win from four starts. Photo: Tracey Nearmy / AAP

As in other sports, fans have a tendency to find simple explanations for things they don’t like. For many, it’s something like this: FFA is looking for a big return on the Cahill investment so it needs Melbourne City to succeed and, to that end, Yoshi was probably pushed to favour the club – and referees have been too.

Many will also ask why a club that already has a massive advantage, thanks to the City Football Group’s ability to tip in millions of dollars it never needs to see again, should receive more favours.

Frankly we would have begged for a Melbourne City years ago

So if City wins silverware this season, expect social media to be flooded with fans suggesting it was handed to them and that the FFA got what it wanted. The club, once seen as an underdog, will be the league’s new villain.

And… that would be absolutely fantastic.

Because frankly we would have begged for a Melbourne City years ago.

Since the Abu Dhabi-based City Football Group bought the then Melbourne Heart, it has made a massive investment in Australian soccer.

Last year it opened a stunning training centre at La Trobe University, put its youth team into Victorian state competition and entered the W-League for the first time.

And Melbourne City did that properly too. Rather than see women’s competition as an irritant (as several A-League clubs have), it used the salary cap to sign top players and build a team good enough to go through the season undefeated and win the championship.

(While the W-League cap is $150,000, its floor is $35,000. No prizes for guessing which end of that range most clubs’ spending is closer to.)

City also gave its W-League players access to the same training centre the A-League team used, something most others won’t do.

Melbourne City FC celebrate their win in the Melbourne City FC and Sydney FC W League grand final at AAMI Park in Melbourne, Australia, on Sunday, Jan. 30, 2016. (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY

Melbourne City FC celebrate their win in the W-League grand final in January. Photo: Tracey Nearmy / AAP

The City Football Group hasn’t just made this women’s soccer investment in Australia either; in England, Manchester City has run away with this year’s FA Women’s Super League title.

Of course, it’s easy to splash cash when you have the deepest pockets – and that creates plenty of resentment – but there are benefits worth discussing.

It’s not a term we use much in sport but, essentially, this is foreign investment. And it’s employing Australians. In soccer.

And if that investment results in A-League championships, it’s more likely to continue. It might also encourage more overseas interests in the game here.

We complain that the sport doesn’t have enough coaches, training grounds and other infrastructure. We expect people and organisations – often unreasonably – to do more about those shortfalls. So why wouldn’t we welcome this gift and hope there might be more like it?

I don’t suggest we should follow Yoshi’s lead and become Melbourne City fans. But I do see a bigger picture if the club is successful. Indeed, while fans profess to prefer an even competition, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that overdogs don’t reduce interest.

England’s Premier League boomed when Manchester United was all conquering; Germany’s Bundesliga continues to have attendance figures other leagues could only dream of despite Bayern München winning the last four titles. Other fans may despise dominant teams but they flock to see them when their clubs host them.

We might not want Melbourne City winning trophy after trophy. But that might also see the A-League rise to another level.

Paul Marcuccitti is a co-presenter of 5RTI’s Soccer on 531 program which can be heard from 10am on Saturdays.

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