Australia have been slipping down the world rankings since 2006, shortly after the old NSL was dissolved and the A-League was introduced. Does the A-League need to focus more on youth development as top clubs around the world do with junior development systems?
The first generation of the new, improved Socceroos are just finishing primary school.
The under-12s are the first age group to go through Australia’s revamped development system. Football Federation Australia hopes this new breed will have the technical and tactical qualities their forebears lacked. But these kids are a decade away from their international debut. And in the meantime, the Socceroos are losing ground.
Since peaking at 14 in 2009, our FIFA ranking has dropped to 76. The 2006 World Cup squad boasted 15 players in first division of the English, Italian and Dutch leagues – names like Kewell, Viduka, Neill. That number has now fallen to three.
Why is the national team getting worse when domestic soccer has never been stronger? And what will the Socceroos look like in a decade?
To look into the future we first need to look to the past, says the FFA’s head of high performance, Luke Casserly.
The old National Soccer League had many problems, but it was a successful incubator of young talent. The top NSL clubs had youth teams that stretched all the way down to primary-school-aged soccer players. Talented kids quickly rose through the ranks to the first team before heading overseas.
When the NSL was scrapped and replaced by the A-League in 2005, that model took a hit, says Casserly. The league chose to focus on developing crowds rather than youngsters; money was put towards promotion rather than youth development.
“We had a national competition where every club in the comp had a junior development system,” Casserly says.
“Our current national competition, the clubs don’t have that. We’ve now got a 10-year gap where the leading professional clubs in the country don’t have a junior development system of their own.”
Adelaide FC coach Josep Gombau spent his early coaching career overseeing the wunderkinds at Barcelona’s youth academy at La Masia.
Barcelona’s youth system mirrors that in place in much of Europe, with junior teams operated all the way down to the age of seven – just as the NSL used to operate.
“For me I was very surprised when I arrived in Adelaide and I saw that we just have a youth team, just one,” Gombau said.
“This is something that really for my knowledge, for what I saw in all my life, is something strange for me.”
Meanwhile, the AIS football school has fallen into decline.
Between 1981 and 1989 the AIS pathway produced 23 Socceroos with 458 international caps between them. Between 1990 and 1999 – the golden age – the pathway produced 28 Socceroos who earned 933 caps between them.
In the 14 years since then the AIS has produced only 23 Socceroos with 301 caps between them.
“That was a world-leading football program,” Casserly says.
“Twenty years ago not a lot of countries had a full-time football program like that. But 20 years on the kind of investment that other countries are making in football has gone way beyond what we have the resources to do. The football economy globally has changed massively.”
Those problems gestated over a long period of time, but we’re seeing their rotten fruits now. Australia’s young sides have been failing at the highest level for some time. Since the turn of the millennium there have been seven FIFA Under-20 World Cups. Australia qualified for six of them.
Four of those campaigns have ended without Australia winning a single game. You need to go all the way back to 2003 to find the team’s last victory.
Yet in 1991 and 1993 Australia finished fourth. Those teams contained players who would go on to form the backbone of the Socceroos’ golden generation – players like Paul Okon, Tony Popovic and Mark Bosnich.
The players who grew up during Casserley’s lost decade are the ones currently representing the Socceroos – they’re a veritable lost generation.
What future then, for the current crop of youngsters, the ones who couldn’t win a game at 2013’s tournament?
The unfortunate reality for a developed country like Australia, one taught to expect sporting success as its due, is that unlike the Olympics, in soccer there is almost no link between a country’s wealth and the success of its international team.
“Population and GDP are useless for prediction … none is a meaningful predictor of ranking or success” says Dr Stephen Woodcock, a sports modelling expert at Sydney’s University of Technology.
“The intangible and harder-to-measure factors of sporting culture seem to be bigger drivers.”
That means we can’t simply expect success – it has to be constructed.
The good news is that overhaul is possible. Germany used its failure at Euro 2000 as the catalyst to rebuild its youth system.
The Bundesliga required every club to operate a youth academy with a full-time youth coach. A central fund was set up to support less-well-off clubs’ youth development. And the league set up its own independent academies across the country.
Germany, like Australia, operated a league short on technical quality, which led to international players with developed physical rather than technical abilities. The transformation in youth development now sees German teams play some of the most attractive, attacking football in the world.
Australia is attempting the same trick, rebuilding its youth development pathway from the bottom up.
The holy artefact at the centre of this effort is the FFA’s National Cirriculum, created by Han Berger. It argues Australian football has stood still while world football’s quality – especially technical quality – has developed to a “breathtaking level”.
The curriculum calls for young teams to play technique-oriented football, and for clubs to focus on development, not winning. Underpinning that is a plan to replicate a key pillar of Germany’s success and develop a large body of highly qualified development coaches across Australia.
The curriculum imagines a future Socceroos squad staffed with creative playmakers playing possession-oriented football, with a high level of technical and tactical skill right across the team. Think Harry Kewell over Mathew Leckie, or Marco Bresciano over Mark Milligan.
Casserly is watching the first children at the very bottom of the development system start to come through that technique-oriented training – and he’s excited by the results.
“We’re actually starting to create position-specific players,” he says. “We actually create out-and-out wingers … with excellent one-v-one dribbling attacking skills. We actually create a No.10-type player with those creative type abilities.”
But older heads strike a more cautious note. Berti Mariani, the man who brought through golden generation players at the Marconi Stallions, doesn’t see the buy-in from Australia’s competitive clubs.
“The A-League is a business,” he says. “It was set up without any youth programs. At the moment there is this question between the survival of a club in a competition and the need also for that club to develop players.”
The A-League is a top-down organisation, one imposed by the federal government over the top of an existing system. That perhaps is part of the problem the FFA has had in imposing its vision on state-based federations.
Mariani points out that, despite the FFA’s focus on development over winning, New South Wales just separated its youth and first-team competitions and brought in a system of promotion and relegation for youth teams.
”You actually have this crazy situation where 12-year-olds are playing for promotion for his club,” he says. “That is one of the conflicts.”