Australian sport’s slumbering behemoth, the fledgling national soccer competition – the A-League – begins its new season tonight in Sydney, aiming to build on credibility it has garnered over the past two seasons and to make further inroads into the popularity of the established winter sports, AFL, rugby league and rugby union.

And it is fitting that the opening match is being hosted by Sydney FC, which will unveil its star signing Juninho, the Brazilian World Cup midfielder and clearly the best-credentialled player to have been recruited to the national league since its formation in 2005.

Juninho, 34, a World Cup winner in 2002 who will wear the No.22 shirt, replaces Dwight Yorke as the club’s marquee signing. While he has been in Australia for barely two weeks and will tonight recognize some teammates only by the colour of their shirts, Juninho is expected to help Sydney shrug off the misery of last year, when the club sacked coach Terry Butcher after its defeat in the opening week of the finals, and challenge premiers Melbourne for the season’s major honours.

With Branko Culina at the helm and former Socceroo Tony Popovic as its new captain, Sydney is up against Central Coast tonight but goes into the match on the back of a woeful pre-season, which included a 2-1 defeat last Friday by local side, Penrith Nepean United.

Melbourne Victory, which has been embraced by the city after a spectacular 2006-07 season which culminated in a 6-0 belting of Adelaide in the grand final, is setting the pace both on and off the field. The club’s membership is now about 16,000 and closing in on some of Melbourne’s AFL sides, such as Melbourne and the Kangaroos, proof to many that the established Australian sports will soon be under siege from the world game.

The Victory begins its title defence on Sunday with an away game against Wellington Phoenix, the recently-formed New Zealand franchise that has replaced the disappointing New Zealand Knights.

While Juninho’s signing has been the competition’s greatest coup, it is the decision of former Socceroos Craig Moore, Danny Tiatto and Popovic to return home from the UK in the off-season and play in Australia that has really given the A-League credibility. They are three of seven current and former Socceroos to return to Australia after lengthy overseas careers, Melbourne captain Kevin Muscat having led the charge back in 2005.

All three – Moore played with Glasgow Rangers then Newcastle, Tiatto with Leicester City while Popovic captained Crystal Palace – could have played out their careers in England and earned far more money than they’ll be earning in Australia, but chose to support the local league.

The addition of Moore and the feisty Tiatto will significantly strengthen Queensland Roar and, with Frank Farina as coach, the Roar would appear to have a realistic chance of joining inaugural champion Sydney and Melbourne as A-League premiers.

And wouldn’t that bring a smile to the face of the men from the Football Federation of Australia? Could there be any better way to spread the gospel of the round-ball code, in this country dominated by oval-ball sports, than by having its first three championship trophies shared among Australia’s three largest cities?

See here for Juninho highlights.