Heart's true desire

Melbourne Heart want one. Melbourne Heart need one. A big-name marquee to call their own.

When Melbourne Heart chairman Peter Sidwell spoke last week about his club-s desire to sign a big-name marquee, his words appeared to still carry some hurt, perhaps even some embarrassment, from the Lucas Neill backflip.

Having seen almost 14,000 flock through the turnstiles of AAMI Park to experience the Alessandro Del Piero roadshow, his words must surely now deliver true on the promise and deliver the club a marquee as close to the stature as ‘Il Pinturicchio- as possible.

If ever there was a litmus test to gauge the suitability of a big-name marquee at Heart, this was it. As good as the club-s efforts have been in attempting to penetrate the Melbourne market, it was an appearance from a 38-year-old football legend that delivered Heart its biggest home crowd outside the Melbourne Derby. Not only this season, but in its three-year A-League existence.

Crowds for the club have modestly improved year-on-year, with its first year average of 8,315 from 15 games surpassed by an average of 9,082 from a game less last season. With two more home games to come, Heart is on track to come close to last season-s effort, despite having only hosted the one Melbourne Derby this season.

The Melbourne Derby aside, Heart had only broken the 10,000-attendance mark twice before Del Piero visited Melbourne — in its A-League debut against the Central Coast Mariners (11,050) and in its first home match of the current campaign against Wellington Phoenix (11,007), although figures for that fixture are misleading given the venue played host to the Victorian Premier League Grand Final shortly after the Heart-Phoenix match.

Removing the derby attendances from the equation, Heart-s season averages make for more conservative reading, with figures of 5,828 (season one), 6,180 (season two) and 7,343 for the current season respectively. Heart-s last home match in Round 20 against Perth Glory just topped over the 6,000-mark — 6,096 to be exact. A few weeks before that, 7,181 fronted to watch John Aloisi-s men convincingly beat Adelaide United 2-0. And in its four matches after its season-high home figure of 26,457 against Melbourne Victory, Melbourne Heart averaged just 6,305.

It should be noted that those last four games at AAMI Park all carried as much significance as the clash against the Sky Blues on Sunday. At the time, Newcastle, Brisbane and Perth were all teams battling for the final two spots in the top six. They were all six pointers for the victor.

Therefore attracting a crowd some 7,000 greater than the non-derby average can only be attributed to one factor — or to one person, for that matter. And the encouraging aspect for Heart is that if such a number of fans — many of whom, mind you, had donned the club-s merchandise to paint the terraces in a sea of red and white — had ventured to AAMI Park to watch the opposition-s star recruit, how many more will front to watch their own superstar in Heart colours?

Sidwell told the Herald Sun that the club will “look even more aggressively than before about trying to get a player or players that will make a demonstrative difference”.

In Heart-s case, it has to be a marquee that delivers on the pitch while placing bums in seats. The question therefore is who?

Del Piero-s arrival in the A-League has given freedom to the most fanciful of thoughts. Mentioning names like Clarence Seedorf, Ronaldinho, Raul, Alessandro Nesta and Frank Lampard in the same breath as the A-League would have attracted ridicule in season-s past, and while it may still prove to be the stuff of pure fantasy for some to expect such names to grace the A-League with their presence, few would draw a red line through their names with absolute conviction, particularly when the man largely responsible for bringing Del Piero to Australia, Lou Sticca, claims “there is interest from Italy but it goes even beyond there”.

“Ale re-signing makes a definite statement. I am sure it will be big news in Italy and will make people sit up and take even more notice now,” he told The Australian after Del Piero extended his stay at Sydney FC. “There has been some interest from players in Italy, notably [Nicola] Legrottaglie, but what Ale staying in Australia does is send a clear message worldwide.”

Francesco Totti is a name that-s been bandied around amongst A-League fans even since Del Piero signed at the start of the season. Well known to Australians for his role in eliminating the Socceroos from the 2006 World Cup, he-s more renowned around the world for his decorated career and majestic talents. Del Piero may be more charismatic, but on the pitch, there-s little separating them. Both have been inducted in the FIFA 100 — a list of the 125 greatest living footballers. Both are World Cup winners. And both have a penchant for scoring the spectacular goal, crafting the perfect through ball and tormenting the opposition.

Unfortunately for Heart and the A-League, Roma are eager to extend Totti-s current deal (which expires in June 2014) until June 2015, therefore the likelihood of Il Bimbo d'Oro (The Golden Boy) arriving on Australian shores is remote at best.

It-s a similar tale for several other high-profile stars (Seedorf, Thierry Henry, Gennaro Gattuso, Miroslav Klose and Andrea Pirlo, among them), whose contracts expire either in 2014 or 2015.

Socceroo Mark Bresciano has often been linked with a move to Heart given his Melbourne roots, however a three-year-deal with Qatar Stars League side Al-Gharafa that expires in mid-2015 won-t see ‘Bresc- returning home any time soon. Ditto for Tim Cahill, who made it known last year he wasn-t keen to play in the A-League and will remain in New York until 2015.

Compounding the issue for Heart are players eager to feature at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Ronaldinho, whose contract with Atlético Mineiro expires at the end of this year, is eager to represent his country in front of his home crowd. The same applies for Lampard, should England qualify.

But there are options. Greece and Fulham midfielder Georgios Karagounis (35) is available at season-s end, while Japanese stars Shunsuke Nakamura (34) and Yasuhito Endo (33) will certainly add to the quality of the A-League with their passing ability and football smarts, just like their fellow countryman Shinji Ono. It-s doubtful, however, that these players will have the crowd pulling power Heart requires.

Del Piero has proved the marquee system works when done right. And with a greater pool of quality players becoming available after the 2014 World Cup, Heart shouldn-t be forced into a rash decision.

If he hasn-t already done so, Sidwell should be putting in a call to Lou Sticca to get the wheels in motion.