When we see the face of a child we it invariably makes us think of the future. In most cases it makes us want to ensure a positive future.
When the Football Federation of Australia was created in 2005, from the Australian Soccer Association after Soccer Australia had been placed into liquidation, there was a feeling throughout that the future of the game was suddenly brighter than it had ever been. The Australian Government of the day had given the ‘returning messiah,’ Frank Lowy, close to $15million to rebuild the game. Then when the Socceroos qualified for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in November 2005, after an absence of 32 years, it seemed as if the game was headed finally in the right direction.
The Socceroos made it out of the group stages at the World Cup Finals and returned heroes. The A-League was born, and had television coverage of every game. There was a great advertising campaign promoting the new teams and competition. Football in Australia had never been so good.
Yet while everything was going well at the top of the game no one, or rather very few, were watching what the FFA were doing about the next generation coming through.
The NTC (National Training Centres) program was rolled out around the country. This was a program “where young players could be assisted to prepare for the game at the highest level.” Players were cherrypicked from existing State League clubs to join the NTC programs, they would train more often than they would with their state league clubs, and were led to believe if they wanted a professional career, they had to be a part of such a program.
The NTC teams from each state, in various age groups, would participate in a National Championships in a centralised location. The supposed cream of Australian football was on display at the one time. Those who stood out at the Championships would then be invited to attend the FFA Centre of Excellence, formerly the Football program at the Australian Institute of Sport. Here it was expected that these rough diamonds would be polished not only as footballers, but also as young men, and would graduate to the major leagues across the globe, thereby ensuring that the Socceroos performances at the 2006 World Cup would not be a one-off, but a standard to which all future teams could achieve.
In 2008 the FFA launched the National Youth league. It was set up in conjunction with the A-League and the aim was to continue to develop young Australian talent into being capable of playing in the A-league as well as going on to represent the Australian national team and its affiliates at under 17, under 20 and under 23 teams. In the first season seven teams took part, with Wellington excluded. In 2009/10 Gold Coast United and the AIS joined the League. All players had to be aged between 16-21 and four over-age players were allowed so that the A-league clubs had someone for players returning from injury to play. The trouble was the National Youth League cost the A-League owners money they did not see as necessary. In 2015 the competition format was changed and the teams placed in conferences. Now they play eight games instead of 18 and an extra game if the make the Grand Final. It is a competition with little meaning and one almost feels that it would be more beneficial to return to the NTC format and have State teams selected to play over 10 days in a National competition.
One of the big criticisms of the Youth League was how few of the players selected to play for the A-League clubs in their youth set up actually went on to play professionally.
Adam Sarota was the first player of the year on the National Youth League, when playing for the Brisbane Roar in 2008/09. He is now 28 years old and he did go on with his career playing for Brisbane Roar and in the Netherlands as well as winning three caps for the Socceroos. Yet in seven years since he picked up that award he has only played 97 starts in League football, 13 games a year. He has played in total 6408 minutes of first team football, that is approximately 66 minutes a game.(Stats as per Transfermarket)
Panny Nikas who won the award the rolling year was not as lucky. Despite being named Player of the year and having debuted for the Central Coast Mariners in the same season he was released at the end of 2009/10. He was picked up by North Queensland Fury, but when they were thrown out of the A-League in March 2011, Nikes returned to State League football.
Now the move has seen the NTC program being taken over by the A-League clubs as they play teams in all of the age groups of the NPL competitions around Australia. Once again some clubs rather than actually developing these players have resorted to cherry-picking the ones they think are the best.
Regrettably this format has seen some young players get ahead of themselves. Once asked to play for an A-League club they already think they are on the path to a professional career; so too do their parents. The truth is of course very different, very few will ever make it. For some being taken away from the group of friends and the familiar surroundings of the club they have grown up playing with is disconcerting. It also takes the fun and enjoyment out of their game. Not every player wants to play professionally.
One of the questions that has been raised in recent weeks, since the announcement that the FFA Centre of Excellence will be closed down, is did, and have the FFA done enough to help develop players away from club football? In other words how successful have their programs been in schools.
It has been announced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics that football is the most played game in Australia. In the Australian Sports Commission’s report “Ausplay – Participation data for the sport sector,” Football comes second to Swimming when it comes to activities taken up by “Children organised out of school hours”
When it comes to “Club sport (Children)” Football is number one with 28.8% of club sport participation with AFL second with 17.2%. The interesting figures in this report show “2.5 million Australian children (54%) aged 0 to 14 are active at least once a week through organised sport/physical activity outside of school hours. Only 19% or 0.9 million children are active at least three times per week.” The deduction from this figure in the report was that “These findings highlight the critical role of sport and physical activity programs in schools to maintain satisfactory activity levels of Australian children.” The report also stated “Sport clubs are the primary 100% avenue for children to be active (except for children aged 0–4).”
So are the schools doing enough? Right across the country many schools have realised that they need to have football programs, as this is the sport children want to play, and are playing, both boys and girls. Many schools have for so many years had an AFL-centric approach that they did not have football coaches on their staff, so they have had to outsource high calibre coaches.
Ironically many of the schools have opted to employ those ex professionals who are running coaching academies of their own. The very same players the FFA encouraged to obtain their coaching badges but could not find the positions that kept them involved in the game. The FFA wanted to stamp out these private academies, or at least force all of them to be licensed to the FFA; another revenue stream no doubt. However the horse had bolted.
Now these academies are in fact doing the work for the FFA in the schools. These ex players who have their own academies may, in some cases, be giving the game in Australia more now in their roles through schools, than they realise. Some would say that they are also in fact doing a better job than many of the A-League academies, as their coaches have been there and done that. Many of the A-league coaches or even youth NPL coaches are keen, and have passed the exams to obtain accreditation, and some are outstanding coaches, but the ex player, if he is a good coach can inspire because he has been there. He can also impart knowledge and give advice that those who have not managed to obtain a professional contract, here or overseas, are not in a position to do. Let us state though, that just because you played the game does not guarantee you are a good coach!
Coach education is essential, but should not just be a revenue stream for the FFA. Any coach who wishes to up-skill themselves should be applauded. The million dollar question, and one being asked by many far better positioned than us is should the elite juniors in Australia be coached by these new breed? Or would they benefit more from players how have played elite sport?
Of course these academies do cop criticism. There are many who feel that they are taking money from parents who want their son or daughter to live the dream, as much if not more than the child does. So they will pay for the extra coaching. They key questions is are the coaches honest? Do they tell them that ‘little Johnny’ is never going to make it? That is on their conscience.
Some will argue, and fairly too, that they are simply trying to make a player who has the desire the best that he can possibly be. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as no carrot of a professional career is being dangled.
There is no shying away from the fact that these academies are big business in the same Australian Sports Commission report it was revealed that $2.3billion was spent on child participation in sport. Of that sum 38% was spent with sports clubs and associations and 19% on private studios or academies. One on one coaching accounted for 3% of the spend. While spending on sports activities within the education system accounted for only 4%.
One key issue here is that parents know what they are getting when their children sign up with a private academy. They can easily check the credentials of coaches now by using the internet. There have in the past been coaches claiming to have played for clubs back in England and the powers that be have not bothered to check. Now it is far easier to make sure that the knowledge claimed is in fact knowledge that was genuinely gained.
So have the FFA let a generation slip through its fingers? Was this because they failed to look at solid programs in schools before setting up the ‘elite pathway?’ Are the A-League academies really the way forward? Only time will tell on these questions, but the sport cannot afford to wait another ten years to find out.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously said “It is our moral obligation to give every child the very best education possible,” but surely it is also the obligation of every school to give every child the best introduction and basic grounding in sport. This will benefit the country, and the community in the future. This should not be left to underfunded clubs to provide at exorbitant prices, and where the large percentage of those fees goes back to the game’s administrators. It should be carried out in schools and then the clubs can polish the talent.