Hispanic influence lifts the A-League

It is now beyond debate that, despite the fall in attendances and TV ratings, the technical quality of the A-League is the highest in its history.

Cirio Isaias

Isaas and Sergio Cirio of Adelaide United celebrate an A-League Round 25 goal against Central Coast Mariners in late March Source: AAP

Recently a Hungarian journalist emailed me to inquire about Perth Glory’s Krisztián Vadócz, asking about his performances and whether I thought he deserved to be picked for Hungary for EURO 2016.

I replied I was not qualified to know whether he was good enough to play for Hungary. What I did say, though, was that Vadócz was succeeding in a high quality league that has high intensity, tactical maturity, is fast and physically tough (ie. of a higher standard than Hungary’s top division, the NB1, which I have sampled many times in recent years).

Another testimony is that A-League players are increasingly being selected for Socceroos squads, something that will only grow in the near future.

But what has caused this recent upsurge in the technical standard of the A-League?

There are a number of factors, chief among them better coaching. Take a bow the FFA’s technical department, which now prohibits A-League teams being coached by those with less than the required qualifications and coaching licences. This was not the case in the league’s early years when any boofhead could have got away with coaching an A-League team. And boofheads is exactly what some of them were.

It shows. Young locally bred coaches like Tony Popovic, John Aloisi and Kevin Muscat are men with the best qualifications and are among the leaders in A-League coaching. Graham Arnold and Scott Miller are not far behind.

Another factor is the better care clubs now take when choosing what players they import. Missteps are still being taken (such as the case of Federico Piovaccari of the Wanderers) but mediocre, journeyman imports are now few and far between.

A-League clubs have imported some serious quality in recent years. I speak of men like Fahid Ben Khalfallah, Marcelo Carrusca, Andy Keogh, Besart Berisha, Gui Finkler, Matthieu Delpierre, Bruno Fornaroli, Harry Novillo, Miloš Ninković, Leonardo, not to mention Thomas Broich.

But the biggest impact has been from the importation of Spanish influence, via both players and coaches.

Two leading clubs now have a Spanish coaching influence, either as head coach (Guillermo Amor at Adelaide United) or as assistants (Pau Marti at the Reds and Andres Carrasco at the Wanderers). One of those clubs won the Premiers' Plate, the other finished as runner up.

Then there are the players. There were now no less than 12 Spanish players in the A-League, spread across five clubs - half the league. They are the biggest ethnic contingent among the league’s imported players.

They were Isaias, Sergio Cirio and Pablo Sanchez (Adelaide), Corona and Javier Hervás (Brisbane), Diego Castro (Perth), Andreu, Dimas and Alberto Aguilar (the Wanderers), Alex Rodriguez and Albert Riera (Wellington) and Luis Garcia (the Mariners).

The league’s top two clubs (based on this season’s table positions) have both undergone a technical transformation by adopting the Spanish influence. It all began with Josep Gombau, an ex-Barcelona staff coach, taking over at Adelaide in 2013. It was under him that Adelaide morphed into one of a completely new technical philosophy. It was he who brought in Isiaias, Cirio and Sanchez.

Soon Tony Popovic, in a case of the penny dropping, followed suit, appointing Carrasco, another ex-Barcelona man, as his assistant and importing Andreu, Dimas and Alberto.

The reasons for the Spanish influx are twofold. One is economic. The downturn in Spain’s economy means the lower-tier clubs are struggling and cannot afford to pay the kind of salaries paid in other countries. One report claims that in the Spanish second division the average player salary is €80,000 per season ($115,000).

So Spanish players can be got cheap and can easily fit into the A-League’s salary cap. One source told me the three Spaniards at Adelaide, when they first arrived, were all on salaries less than $100,000.

But for all their low salary demands, Spanish players provide high quality and value, because they are technically very highly educated.

Spain in recent years has overtaken the Netherlands and France, perhaps even Brazil, as a producer of quality football talent. It’s not just La Masia at Barcelona that produces them. All Spanish clubs have fine youth academies operating under a uniform technical philosophy.

I am guessing that, especially given the successes of Adelaide, the Wanderers and Brisbane, the trend to bring in Spanish talent will only continue and grow.

And long may it do so.

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5 min read
Published 19 April 2016 at 11:36am
By Les Murray
Source: SBS