There has been so much going on in world soccer and it feels like an age since we last saw the Phoenix.

Their A-League kicks off tomorrow against Sydney FC in Wellington, bringing the Italian superstar Alessandro Del Piero to town. What a wonderful way to start the season, at home, with a player of his class in the opposition.

Del Piero, the new-look Phoenix and a generally good buzz around football - what with the Premier League just under way in England - should pull in a crowd of 15,000-plus at Westpac Stadium. Unless a bad injury run strikes, a finish outside of the top four must be regarded as a failure, but there are good reasons for optimism.

The financial situation is completely different this season. The money woes last year must have impacted on the players, many of whom have only soccer to rely on for their living. In places like Britain, professionals can eye other clubs, but Phoenix players would need to leave New Zealand to find new employment. The uncertainty would have been particularly tough on older and married players.


The pre-season trip to India enabled coaches Ricki Herbert and Chris Greenacre to sort playing issues, and such tours help build team spirit which is vital as the season goes on.

I think the squad is stronger this year, because every position is covered and there are strong signings led by Stein Huysegems, with 15 internationals for Belgium, Benjamin Totori, who adds pace, as well as All Whites Jeremy Brockie and Michael Boxall. The Phoenix have the most well balanced defence in the league.

There are issues of course. Discipline has to be improved. They incur needless, silly bookings resulting in suspensions. The message must come straight from Herbert, that players are letting down the club, the jersey and the fans. This is the only team in New Zealand, and they are role models. They have got to change their mindset. At full or close to full strength, the Phoenix are the equal of any club, but suspensions really hurt when you have a limited squad.

The club still lacks a midfield playmaker, something that will be compounded initially by the injury to Paul Ifill, one of the league's best. There are, however, excellent young players in this country to be developed in that role and I would expect Louis Fenton to play sooner or later.

How exciting to see Del Piero in the A-league. This man is a class act, a type of elegant Roman emporer. The $2 million man is no broken down star desperate for a job in his mid-30s. Premier League and Bundesliga clubs still want him.

I'm more excited about Emile Heskey's arrival at the Newcastle Jets, however.

Heskey was an England striker just a year ago, and his style is more suited to the A-League than that of Del Piero. Heskey's problem can be a lack of goals, but he works hard, makes goals and has never let a club down.