By Matthew Hall, in New York
On Monday afternoon I stood with Tim Cahill in the player’s tunnel at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey, the home stadium for his new team New York Red Bulls.
Cahill sighed that he’d had a whirlwind week since the deal to join the Major League Soccer side came into play. Six or seven plane flights, including a trip to Montreal to arrange a work visa (expedited by a U.S. Senator, no less) and a rigorous seven-hour medical.
It was eight years since I stood with Cahill in the tunnel at Goodison Park just after he’d joined Everton from Millwall. Then, he’d appeared wide-eyed about his Premier League arrival but confident he had the ability to fit in. As any Everton fan (and statistics) will tell you, he did more than fit in, on and off the pitch.
Cahill is a dream signing for any club. He spouts loyalty and dedication to its cause which instantly gets fans – the lifeblood of a club – immediately onside. Cahill knows this, too. This is what he said on his introduction to New York Red Bulls fans:
“Fans are obviously something that mean a lot to me, and I’ve got to win them over.”
Cahill picks and chooses his words very carefully which is why his answer to a question I asked him during Monday’s press conference was maybe more surprising than the initial shock of the move from Everton to MLS. Then again, maybe it wasn’t.
Asked if the A-League was ever considered as an option, Cahill was blunt: No. And it would not be in the future, either. And he had never spoken with any A-League clubs. And while we’re on the subject of Australia, upcoming games for the national team may not be a priority. In Cahill terms, those quotes are the equivalent of hiring a sky writer. He said them again when I sat in on an interview with ESPN. These were not off hand quips.
Football Federation Australia may ignore Cahill’s comments, which is all well and good, but they do reveal a peculiar reality and challenge. None of Australia’s top Socceroos, the brand that drives the sport in Australia and what much of FFA’s revenue is based upon, have any interest in playing in the country’s showcase league.
Mark Schwarzer told Football+ magazine last year he would not play in Australia when his European adventure ends; Harry Kewell came and saw and left; Lucas Neill is in no rush to pull on any boots in his hometown; now Tim Cahill has expressed no interest, preferring what he describes as the facilities and professionalism of the US to playing for, say, the Western Sydney Wanderers start-up.
It’s a conundrum no other sport in Australia faces and one that Football Federation Australia must come to terms with as it tries to continue to convince media, sponsors and potential fans of its merits. The country’s best-loved players don’t love it, or at least love the A-League, back. FFA might want to ask, why is that? And does it matter?