For Melbourne Victory’s young gun Vince Lia, the A-League experience has lived up to its promise this year. It is, as the slogan goes, “Football – But not as you know it”. Vince certainly doesn’t know it because he hasn’t played a full competitive game for months.
In fact, for Lia and a bunch of other young aspiring Socceroos in A-League squads, the slogan should read “Football – Not at all”.
Blokes like Sydney keeper Justin Pasfield, Adelaide left-back Adam van Dommele and Queensland’s Ben Griffin (also Young Socceroos) have all been virtually unsighted so far this season.
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With no reserve competition and a summer program that puts it out of sync with the various state leagues around the country, the A-League’s young pros are stranded in a football no-man’s land that leaves them idle at a time when they should be working hardest to get the best out of themselves.
For someone like Lia, it’s a dreadful dilemma. A young talent who has represented Australia at two Under 20 World Cups, he can see his dream of taking his place in the Olyroos team in Beijing in 2008 slipping away.
Having played in 17 of the 21 games last season, Lia has managed just 41 minutes of game time in total this season. That’s not just in the A-League – that’s any game.
There are claims that the introduction of foreign imports such as Victory’s “trio from Rio” and Scottish professional Grant Brebner, and ageing stars at other clubs like Benito Carbone at Sydney FC and Brazilian legend Romario in Adelaide, is starving local players of opportunities.
It’s an argument that doesn’t hold much sway with A-League coaches or clubs. Victory Boss Ernie Merrick’s imports have been a massive part of the club’s transformation as competition leaders.
Merrick was the subject of a sustained campaign of criticism at the end of the inaugural A-League season by the Olympic Park boo boys who wanted his head on a stick in Federation Square for failing to get his team to the finals.
His job was to win games for Victory and if that meant shopping off-shore to find the players to do it, then so be it.
With a spot in the Asian Champions League on offer, A-League teams are having to put club above country in pursuit of glory. And rightly so.
The A-League can’t be a sheltered workshop for aspiring Socceroos any more than it should become a sideshow alley pantomime for ageing stars to be wheeled out as curiosities.
Vince Lia and other young Australian players should have to fight for a place in their teams against all comers. But they can’t fight for a spot in the starting eleven while sitting in the stands. A genuine reserve grade competition is the only way they can really prove themselves.
Francis Leach is the Match MC at Melbourne Victory’s home games.