BRISBANE, Australia (AP) – The schedule makers in Australian football's A-League must have had a marketing executive's premonition when they penciled in Sydney FC to play the Melbourne Victory on the opening day of the 2011-12 season this Saturday.
Six weeks ago, the teams signed two of the country's biggest overseas-based stars to return-home contracts - the Victory picked up Harry Kewell and Sydney FC got as their marquee attraction Brett Emerton.
Kewell, the former Leeds and Liverpool winger who has never played topflight football in Australia, signed a three-year deal with the Victory. Emerton, at 32 the same age as Kewell, was released early from his contract with English Premier League's Blackburn to sign for three years with Sydney.
However, the anticipated matchup of two of Australia's most high-profile footballers may never have happened if Australia coach Holger Oseick had chosen Kewell and Emerton for his squad for two upcoming games against Malaysia and Oman.
The new star signings are welcome good news to the start of a troublesome seventh season for the domestic competition plagued by dwindling crowds the past three years, the loss of a team due to financial difficulties and a late ownership change.
The A-League's inaugural season of 2005-06 saw average regular-season attendance at 11,281 rise to a high of 14,608 in 2007-08. But it's been declining ever since to a low of 8,393 last season.
And it won't help this season that the league's biggest attraction, former Liverpool star Robbie Fowler, has left the Perth Glory and is now playing in Thailand.
While Melbourne Heart became the league's 11th team last season, the competition is back to 10 clubs this year with the late February folding of Fowler's former club, the North Queensland Fury.
Two weeks ago, Football Federation Australia said the Wellington Phoenix would play under new ownership after its founder, financially troubled property developer Terry Serepisos, agreed to step aside. The only New Zealand-based club in the league will be taken over by a consortium of local businessmen.
Osieck decided to overlook Kewell and Emerton in the Australia squad for the Socceroos' friendly on Friday against Malaysia and the World Cup qualifier against Oman on Oct. 11, allowing both stars to play in their teams' opener.
Osieck stressed that he wasn't sitting them out from the internationals so they could be available for the big match at Melbourne. He said both players lacked match fitness and he wanted to take the pressure of them.
''People obviously have interpreted a lot into the situation which was not necessarily on,'' Osieck said.
''He (Emerton) played his last competitive game in Saudi Arabia and by the time we play he has been out for four weeks and I think there's a lot of other things coming onto him, Osieck said.
''I decided to give him, again like Harry, the opportunity to get settled in his new environment. I don't want to over-stress him and I think it's the best solution from my point of view and I'm very comfortable with that.''
In other matches Saturday, Newcastle Jets host the Heart and Central Coast Mariners travel to Brisbane to take on the defending champion Roar in a replay of last season's grand final. On Sunday, Gold Coast plays Wellington and Perth hosts Adelaide United.
Brisbane, which will be looking to extend its unbeaten streak to 29 matches, has been bolstered in the offseason by three international signings - Albania striker Besart Berisha, Bahrain defender Sayed Mohamed Adnan and Canadian international Issey Nakajima-Farran.
''We are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were last year,'' Roar's captain Matt Smith said. ''We have had key players join us, the team is confident, training has been intense and the boys are buzzing to go.''
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