A-League must tread carefully with Usain Bolt experiment

This weekend saw one of the world’s most famous athletes, Usain Bolt, jet into Australia to begin a indefinite trial period with the A-League’s Central Coast Mariners.

The 100 and 200 metre world record holder, now 31 years of age and retired from athletics, has spoken for many years about his ambition to become a professional football player.

Embed from Getty Images

In the past, the Jamaican has trained with Bundesliga giants Borussia Dortmund and Norwegian side Stromsgodset and has made appearances in various charity matches.

This link up with the Mariners is something more than all of that though; Bolt is being given a legitimate chance to earn a contract.

“I’ve said all along this is for real and I’m here to show what I can do,” said Bolt upon arriving in Sydney.

“I know what I’m capable of and I know what I can do, so this is the opportunity.”

Cynics, and there are plenty of them, will point out that, based on footage of Bolt in action, he has very limited ability and is merely being signed to entice sponsors and bring positive media attention to the A-League’s worst team.

It’s hard to argue with them when, upon announcing the agreement with Bolt for the trial, Mariners CEO Shaun Mielekamp didn’t shy away from the fact that there is monetary gain for his club.

“We’ve been inundated with sponsors’ calls this morning which has been exciting,” he said.

Mielekamp also stated that Bolt would be treated the same way as any other trialist, which is hard to believe when the grass at the Central Coast Stadium had a giant lightning bolt cut into it to welcome the new arrival.

The Mariners are no strangers to left field signings; a couple of years ago they enticed former Liverpool and Spain forward Luis Garcia to the Central Coast and played up the then 38-year-old’s connections to Anfield in a bid to get more bums on seats.

To put things into perspective, Garcia’s last game before agreeing to play in the A-League was for a “Liverpool Legends” side made up of retirees.

The difference between Garcia and Bolt though is massive, starting with the fact that the former is a career footballer while the latter is trying to break into the game in his early 30s.

Mariners officials and supporters will counter the naysayers by saying that more eyeballs and positive attention in the direction of the round ball game can’t be a bad thing, and they are right to an extent.

It’s a tough climate with so many sporting codes competing for participants and supporters, and football is largely ignored by the mainstream media unless there is a negative narrative.

There is lots of excitement and anticipation before a ball has even been kicked by Bolt, with any friendlies involving him sure to attract crowds many times more than they ordinarily would.

To their credit, the Mariners have also picked up a number of young players from the National Premier League (NPL), Australia’s second tier, in the offseason to counter accusations that the novelty signing of Bolt would only serve as a barrier to promising local talent.

Embed from Getty Images

While it would no doubt have been tempting, Mielekamp has played down the possibility of creating Bolt merchandise during the trial but the Jamaican will do plenty of community appearances and make the most of fan engagement opportunities.

If Bolt, as expected, boosts the website and social media hits of the Mariners and the A-League, can they really afford not to sign up, even if his talent on the pitch isn’t up to scratch?

Of course, there is the possibility that Bolt will in fact be good enough to be part of the Mariners’ 2018/19, which poses a problem for football in Australia – how good is the top flight if someone who has never played the game at a decent level before can just stroll in and earn a full-time deal?

Eight weeks out from the start of the A-League season, “Bolt Fever” has very much arrived on the Central Coast.

The rest of Australia, and beyond, will watch with intrigue as an outstanding athlete tries his best to fulfil a dream.

The Author

Neil Sherwin

Co-editor of BackPageFootball.com. Writes mostly on Premier League and A-League with contributions to other sites including TheFootballSack, InBedWithMaradona and Bloomberg's BSports. Has featured on The Guardian's Football Weekly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *