Australian Professional Leagues (APL) chief executive Danny Townsend doesn't envisage the A-League Men (ALM) adding further major marquee names ahead of its new season, but has said the luring of high-profile signings remains a part of its strategy moving forward.
Coming off a season in which significant COVID headwinds and a series of self-acknowledged "own goals" compounded waning fan interest, Townsend revealed in May that the APL had drawn up a list of 35 "world-class" players it would target in the offseason in order to put "bums on seats."
Marquee names had been hit and miss in recent times (Daniel Sturridge's calamitous period with Perth Glory in 2021-22 an example of the latter) but in concert with the leagues' investment in a digital arm, a COVID-restriction-free season and its newfound independence from Football Australia, the belief was that it was in a much stronger position to capitalise on these global names.
A month on, the first of those "sugar hits" arrived when Melbourne Victory announced the signing of Portugal international Nani on a two-year contract, with the attacker since demonstrating an early commitment and desire to compete not always seen with marquees.
However, with ALM clubs rapidly finalising their squads ahead of the new season, the 35-year-old former Manchester United star remains the only signing that fits into the Alessandro Del Piero-style archetype that Townsend spruiked three months ago.
Amongst others, Western Sydney Wanderers has signed Brazilian defender Marcelo Guedes, Sydney inked Slovakia international Robert Mak and Brisbane Roar had brought English striker Charlie Austin before Nani's arrival. But while they all look to be potentially shrewd signings on a football pitch, none possess the sheer star power that a four-time Premier League winner does.
"There always are [negotiations], they're ongoing," Townsend told ESPN. "I think I'd be surprised if anyone comes in for the start of the season, but the January window will present another opportunity. And then there's guest players depending on who is coming off contract after the World Cup.
"That has been a challenging part for us. Relocating your family to another part of the world when you're looking to play in the World Cup. A couple of players we were talking to, who were keen, found that timing a real challenge. They wanted to stay in situ in Europe up until the World Cup and then make a decision on their careers post that.
"I think we'll see a lot of players come back onto the radar after the World Cup. It's an ongoing process."
Nonetheless, after declarations of "let's get lots of sugar [into ALM]" in May, the competition, at this stage, appears to be on more of a health kick.
This is hardly a disaster from a footballing perspective. The likes of Milos Ninkovic, Thomas Broich and Besart Berisha all arrived in Australia with relatively little mainstream cut-through but became legends of the competition. Western United's major international names during their championship-winning campaign in 2021-22 inspired more wins than mainstream headlines.
But from a strategic perspective, the leagues' stated objective to bring in players that can "move the needle" and lure lapsed, disinterested or European-focused fans from outside of the A-Leagues bubble in to be converted, thus far, remains unfulfilled. Townsend, however, observed that the present offseason just represented the first step on that road.
"We made a point at the beginning that we've got a three-year strategy surrounding marquees, at a minimum," he said.
"We've got a commitment from our board to invest in marquee player talent. It's not an easy thing to do. It's a competitive landscape for that calibre of talent that is going to move the needle from a marketing perspective. We've got great players in this league: Marquee players don't stop you from putting on a great product.
"What we're trying to do is reach into that curious fan and turn them into a core fan, and they do that by bringing names that are well known to the average public. It's certainly still part of the plan.
"We're working hard continuously. Even seeding ideas for next season for players currently contracted in Europe and other markets around the world.
"I think it's disappointing [to miss out on players this window], yeah. It's a lot of work. We're putting in a lot of work to try and bring them in. But we always knew it wasn't going to be easy, which is why we threw the net out so wide.
"We were very close to getting [Cesc] Fabregas, that one was sort of a verbal yes that turned into a no, which was really frustrating after a long, protracted negotiation. But that's football. It happens with non-marquee players."
Heavily linked to Macarthur FC -- who have since added former Socceroos starlet Daniel Arzani -- at the same time Victory was finalising the Nani deal, Fabregas instead signed a two-year pact with second-tier Italian club Como, declaring at his announcement that "I wanted to remain in Europe and I believe this is the right project for me."
Elsewhere in the Harbour City, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Sydney FC had been in negotiations with 105-time Belgium international Dries Mertens, who eventually signed with Turkish giants Galatasaray.
"I think it's probably three or four," Townsend said when asked how many players he felt had slipped through the league's fingers.
"You get to a stage," he said, "Dries was a good example: There was certainly interest, his agent was doing his job and fishing around markets and we had genuine conversations with him but they ... you get to the old, I think the two words that kill marquee player conversations in football are 'Euro net' [net salary] and in this case that was one of those. But those things are going to happen.
"There were very few [targets] in the newspaper that I read that were incorrect. If you go back through a lot of the innuendo, most of it was pretty accurate. I don't think there were many players that came up that we weren't talking to during that period of time.
"Players like [Edinson] Cavani and others were certainly spoken to and had serious conversations with. But again, the timing wasn't right and we still remain keen to talk to players of that calibre."
And these future conversations won't just be conducted with potential additions to ALM, with Townsend confirming to ESPN that the APL was still discussing potential high-profile additions for the A-League Women competition.
The league has already made a number of sizable gains this season, adding Western United as an expansion side for the 2022-23 season, tapping Central Coast Mariners for entry in 2023-24 and outlining its imminent move to a full home and away season. The halo effect of the 2023 Women's World Cup will also glow brighter with each day the tournament draws closer.
The vast majority of high-profile Matildas, however, will remain signed to overseas clubs during the coming season. Melbourne City had expressed an interest in bringing in England international Jill Scott, but the newly minted European international announced her retirement last week.
"We're doing some work at the moment in the A-Leagues football department to try and work through who may be available and who will have a similar effect in attracting interest to the A-League Women going into what is a really critical season," said Townsend.
"It's an amazing opportunity for us with the 2023 Women's World Cup coming up.
"But importantly, with the expansion of the competition, the extension of the competition, we're committing a lot of funds to grow the women's game here and we want to see it get the attention it deserves and marquee talent can certainly play a role there."