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A-League 2021 – What does the league look like in five years?

The thing about having a ‘new’ league is that there is always a constant projection of what comes next.

With the amount of false starts, stutters and growing pains that the A-League has had, it’s impossible to know if it will suddenly burst into mainstream bloom or continue to slowly stagger towards wide acceptance.

But where will we be five years from now?

Imagine if you fell into a coma tomorrow and woke up in November 2021, seven odd weeks into a new A-League season. Consider this an experiment in projection of where the A-League could be heading in the mid-term.

Who is the best player in the league and where will they come from?

Answering this question is difficult for a range of reasons. Being a feeder and journeyman league in some respects, it’s hard to nail down who’ll be at the top of their game in five years with so much traffic in and out of the competition.

Who’s the best player now? Bruno Fornaroli? Diego Castro? Milos Ninkovic? Marcelo Carrusca?

Bruno Fornaroli of Melbourne City (Photo by Jason Heidrich/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Bruno Fornaroli of Melbourne City (Pic: Jason Heidrich/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With those in the equation now, its clear game-changing creative foreigners in their late twenties and early thirties are the most influential players in the league. That probably won’t change either.

While Australian players must move elsewhere and learn the trade at a higher level for the sake of the Socceroos, the first three years of the A-League had Australian Johnny Warren Medal winners (Bobby Despotovski, Nick Carle and Joel Griffiths).

Nathan Burns won two years ago at Wellington, but he’s an anomaly as six of the last seven have been foreigners.

This isn’t a flag-waving complaint, but a suggestion that the next Australian to do that will be someone coming home and winding down from the peak of their powers.

Will the Mariners and Jets win a title in that time?

Feel free to @ me at some stage of the journey to tell me I got this wrong – but they won’t. That doesn’t mean I don’t admire the toil of working with a shoe-string budget and fighting out results, but they’re in serious competitive strife.

In the early years of the A-League, both sides clawed their way to the top of the heap despite a lack of resources and respectively embarrassed clubs from the metropolitan areas.

But this was pre-Western Sydney Wanderers and pre-petrodollar backed Melbourne Heart/City, which has in turn motivated Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory into spending action in order to defend their turf.

Mariners and Jets - still way off the radar. (Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

Mariners and Jets – still way off the radar. (Pic: Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

Add in a Perth Glory side which is hell-bent in cracking Asia, and that’s five of your six consistent finalists in the next few years.  And that’s without considering the ever-successful Brisbane Roar.

The Mariners Centre of Excellence will see the club continue to pump out quality youth, but as they are still making substantial amounts of revenue from on-sells of transfers (Trent Sainsbury and Matt Ryan in the last year alone), their motivations will be to move on players for profit as soon as possible.

Expect one of Mark Jones and Paul Okon to take their side to at least two finals campaigns, but whether they have enough to tough it out with the league’s East Coast metro elite is another question entirely.

Who’s the biggest marquee in the league?

Perth Gl-, I mean, Atletico Madrid's Fernando Torres. (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

Perth Gl-, I mean, Atletico Madrid’s Fernando Torres. (Pic: Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

While I’ve had a four-year running joke about Fernando Torres eventually lining up for Perth Glory, he’d be 37 in November 2021. So expect him to show up in September 2019.

Ideally, the age for a show-stopping marquee is 35. It has to be either a considerable name or someone who has strong football pedigree.

But with the sort of money touted for the next TV rights deal and the FFA setting up a fund for clubs to chase players, expect it to be all about the big names.

Here’s a list of world class players who’d be 35 in 2021 – Manuel Neuer, Diego Godin, Sergio Ramos, David Silva, Claudio Marchisio. Considering they’re cream of the crop, you’d assume China or the MLS vacuums them up.

Some other 35 year olds in 2021 – Carlos Bacca, Oliver Giroud, Mario Mandzukic, Yohan Cabaye, Hulk.

It’s a cop-out answering a question with another question, but I’ll do it anyway – in 2021, will we be established enough to not need ‘names’, and able to bring someone in just on the calibre of their football?

I hope so, but probably not.

How many teams will we have in the league?

We’ll have 14 teams. Take it to the bank there will be a South Sydney side and a second Brisbane team in the competition by 2021.

Wollongong and Tasmania will likely have the other two spots, with everyone else having to wait another five years before promotion and relegation is rolled out in 2026.

Will refereeing still be a problem? 

Yes, and we have to own it. Turn post-match Fox Sports interviews into a ‘safe-space’ for managers to vent and sell it to advertisers.

Out of these home-grown managers, who will have the most success in the next five years –Postecoglou, Muscat, Popovic, Aloisi and Arnold?

Victory coach Kevin Muscat talks to Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou. (Photo by Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images)

Victory coach Kevin Muscat talks to Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou. (Pic: Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images)

Straight out of the gate, Ange Postecoglou and Tony Popovic are in the best positions for a promotion elsewhere. Continental trophies sell themselves and they’ve built reputations that they can draw on when times are tough to buy time.

But will they succeed in their next ventures?  If it’s club football and Ange has time to implement his vision, I can see success. Popovic needs a national team job – his pragmatic and short-term bursts would suit international football.

Muscat and Arnold are big fish in small ponds at this stage, and are yet to prove themselves elsewhere. Both will probably get another gig elsewhere off the back of domestic silverware, but they’ll have to continue to reinvent their styles to crash through their respective ceilings.

John Aloisi is the dark horse – e’s producing good football at the Roar and has a lot of growth left as a manager. His Heart stint was good for him and within one season has already reconsidered the type of football he wants his team to play. It’s healthy self-criticism and evaluation.

The short answer, the order of success in the next five years – Popovic, Postecoglou, Arnold, Aloisi and Muscat.

Will we have any starting Socceroos who are playing in the A-League?

Jason Geria (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Jason Geria (Pic: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

The ideal answer is none of them – they’re all at European clubs and producing quality football in better leagues.

Outside of Nathan Burns coming home and being an Aritz Aduriz-esque late bloomer,  there’s a list of steady A-League players with room for gradual growth – Brandon Wilson, Brandon Borrello, Jason Geria, Chris Harold, Jonathan Aspro etc.

I could imagine at least one of those (or another player in a similar position) still plugging away in the A-League, before getting a national team chance and going on from there.

That’s what we need to want the league to be in five years – a strong enough competition that offers at minimum one wildcard spot into the Socceroos squad.