Former world champion sprinter Usain Bolt garnered headlines around the planet on Friday when he made his debut as a professional footballer for the Central Coast Mariners.
Bolt came off the bench and played 19 minutes as the Mariners smacked a Central Coast Select side 6-1 in a pre-season friendly. It was a match that drew almost 10,000 fans in Gosford and was broadcast live to 40 different countries, all because of the Jamaican. The interest in what was essentially a nothing friendly was incredibly high precisely because of the famous Olympic gold medal winner.
But first, the context. The Mariners are the smallest club in Australia’s A-League, in the smallest market in the country. They have struggled for the past few years and desperate for publicity and to attract bigger crowds. The A-League itself is a relatively new competition, only 13 years old, that struggles for attention ahead of the NRL, AFL and cricket’s Big Bash.
Enter Bolt. The runner has long wanted to break into football. After previously publicly pondering a career in cricket, he has sought to enter the beautiful game after hanging up his spikes. So far he has spent time training with Germany’s Borussia Dortmund, Norway’s Stromsgodset and South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundowns, but nothing came from the spells. Most viewed them as pure marketing exercises for Bolt’s main sponsor Puma.
Interest has grown since the spinner was first linked with Central Coast in July. Some of the media reporting has been fawning, and at times, embarrassing. And this week, after a stint training in the area of New South Wales north of Sydney, he received his first minutes for the Mariners. The problem with all of this? Bolt can’t play football. At all. Not by any discernible degree.
On Friday he touched the nine times and managed just one pass. His first introduction when he came on the field was comical, with him making a run into the box and the ball bouncing off the back of his leg awkwardly. Bolt’s fitness was poor and he barely had possession. He looked out of sorts, like Bambi on ice. And this was against a team of pure amateurs.
According to those who witnessed him train with the team last week, Bolt is a just “a very, very ordinary amateur player, hopelessly out of his depth even at the Mariners”. While his fitness will certainly improve in the next few months if he keeps training with the club, his touch, vision and awareness, at the age of 32, won’t. He could keep training every day for the next five years with Barcelona and they’re unlikely to improve to a level good enough to be a professional footballer. Bolt is a specialized athlete and there is little to no similarity between sprinting and football.
The A-League might be somewhere between the 22nd and 30th best football league in the world, depending on your view. It certainly isn’t the Premier League or La Liga. And on Friday Bolt was against amateurs in pre-season and still looked terrible. How would he fare in actual A-League game, against the likes of Keisuke Honda and Adam Le Fondre. Not well, to put it mildly.
So far the Bolt episode has received huge media coverage and interest. The Mariners are loving the publicity. People who have never heard of the club or the A-League, who aren’t football fans, watched his debut. That’s all great. But what will the end result be? Will they keep coming to Central Coast Stadium, keep watching the A-League when the Bolt experiment backfires, as it undoubtedly will? Hardly.
This is a publicity stint in the vein of professional boxing. The sweet science has been doing this kind of promo work for decades. From fake feuds, to joke fights (think McGregor vs Mayweather), trash-talking press conferences and the like. All done to hype up the bouts and sell more tickets and pay per views.
That’s fine. We all like to go to the circus on occasion. But when the circus dies down, and leaves town, what are we left with? Is there a lasting effect or legacy? No there isn’t.
Bolt’s sad attempt – and let's be completely blunt here, it is sad – to be a professional footballer will do nothing for the A-League in the long-term. It is a gimmick. Sure, it will put in on the map for a short amount of time, and maybe will even sell a few extra tickets, but when this episode fizzles out in the next few months, or weeks, there won’t a prolonged impact. It is a quick fix, a fast food takeaway, if you will. What the A-League and Australian football needs is major surgery, not a placebo, to solve its many problems.
Letting Bolt on to the field in a professional environment, just because of his running achievements, is also slap in the face to the thousands of hard-working young footballers across Australia chasing an A-League spot. While hundreds head to Europe each year to trial for clubs, from Armenia and Scotland to Portgual, Greece, Turkey, Holland, Serbia and elsewhere, a rare place is taken up by a celebrity wannabe. What message does this send, to the kids who are practising day after day in parks in Blacktown, St Albans, Joondalup and Hamilton, in the hope and dream of one day being pro footballers?
Usain Bolt dreams of one day playing for Manchester United. Good on him. So do many other millions. But what separates him from the Juan Matas and Paul Pogbas is decades of work, perseverance and determination, along with amazing skill and immense talent. So enjoy the Bolt circus act, enjoy the bear driving the little car, if you will. But let’s not forget what this really is, and what is really happening on the Central Coast.