Monday, March 16, 2009


The Benign Drain

There has been plenty of hand-wringing in recent times over the "Asian drain", with a number of high-profile A-Leaguers jetting north in search of sufficient off-season action (and, in a nasty twist of the knife, Joel Griffiths helping Beijing Guoan overcome Newcastle in their Asian Champions League opener). With the expansion of the competition, and the consquent much-needed lengthening of the A-League season, these problems should begin to abate somewhat. But there is another, more subtle "drain" happening in the opposite direction, which is worth a passing mention.

Yesterday I attended a very enjoyable NSW Premier League match at Jensen Park, in which Bankstown City overcame last year's premiers Sutherland 4-2, despite going an early goal down. Bankstown is, of course, a Macedonian-backed club, but as one of their supporters remarked to me at the final whistle, "It was the Lebanese boys who scored!".

Indeed it was. Specifically, Ibrahim Haydar, now back at Bankstown following his heroics with the Sydney FC youth team, scored the first with a well-placed far-post header. Then it was the turn of Bankstown's Lebanese international Hussein Salameh to grab the spotlight: he scored the penalty that put the hosts ahead, after his clever dummy had set Shane Webb free on goal to be fouled in the Sutherland area, and then combined sweetly with Haydar before scoring a gem of a third, sliding the ball deftly past Sutherland's advancing keeper.

When Sutherland pulled themselves back into the game with a goal from substitute Matthew Villazon, it was Bankstown sub Hussein Akil - another player of Middle Eastern descent - who restored the two-goal cushion, with some muscular help from Richard Luksic (a defender whose authority and acumen frankly dwarfs that of many A-League centre-backs).

Salameh was the star of the show, his movement, touch and eye for goal causing Sutherland endless problems. He did, it must be added, indulge in some shameful play-acting at times. But it's fair to say that Bankstown have gotten themselves a worthwhile asset for 2009 up front.

Each successive wave of European migration has, of course, helped Australia greatly in a footballing sense, and players of Middle Eastern heritage are just starting to make their presence felt in the game here; many of the talented young players in the state leagues, not just in NSW but elsewhere, are the children of Turkish and Lebanese migrants.

But the other good news is that a few Middle Eastern players are beginning to find Australia a land of new opportunities. Marconi's Ali Abbas, an Iraqi international, is the most high-profile addition to the local competition this year, but Salameh looks a certain crowd-pleaser as well. As we have seen already in Asia, players from the Gulf and its environs can, with their neat, nimble skills, provide plenty of entertainment.

What price a step up to the A-League for one of them?

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