In yesterday’s Australian Newspaper Ray Gatt wrote an excellent article on the demise of Australia football at world youth tournaments. (Australia’s Youth Soccer Teams Have Become Used to Failure)
As was pointed out in the article the Olyroos (under 23s) made the semi-finals at the Olympic Games in 1992 but haven’t qualified for the past two Olympic Games.
Since leaving Oceania and entering Asia the move may have benefitted the Socceroos, but Australia is regularly failing to qualify for the Youth World Cups at under 17’s and under 20’s, whereas previously not qualifying was rare. As covered previously on this site, when they have qualified they have then failed to get out of the Group stage; the Under 17’s in 2015 being an exception. Worryingly the Young Socceroos have not won a game in the group stage since 2003.
The article in the Australian saw former youth coach Les Scheinflug highly critical of the FFA and their decision to adopt the “Dutch method.” He is quoted as saying “We brought in Dutchmen as technical directors. But what did these guys achieve? We were told things would be better in 10 years. That hasn’t happened.”
He is absolutely correct.
To be fair to one of the Dutch Technical Directors, Rob Baan, he said that unless the youth of Australia played football all the year round they would never keep up with the rest of the world. He said that in 2007, almost ten years ago. Take a look at the elite clubs around the country and ask how many NPL clubs have their juniors still playing when the season is over?
Sure in Europe the climate makes it easier to play longer seasons of “winter sports,” and here in Australia there is a very clear cut off from Winter to Summer sport, but Rob Baan was right. Some will argue that young players should be given the chance to play other sports. True, they should, and it has been proven that this does in the long term enhance player skills, but young footballers if they want to match the rest of the world need to be playing at least nine months of the year.
Playing at a young age is crucial, and another move that has to be detrimental in the long term, is having A-league clubs cherry pick the best players in each age group and have them play for their youth teams rather than the existing teams. The basis of the idea is a good one in that many will receive better coaching, however with all the NPL teams required to have qualified coaches that is now questionable. In some cases there are bound to be better youth coaches at NPL clubs, than the A-League clubs.
Where the premise also falls down is when A-League clubs are allowed oversize squads. In one age group an A-League club has 24 junior players (U15) registered. That cannot be good for player development as it means ten players each week are not getting a game of football, and not just any ten players, ten of the supposed best players in that state.
The trial system for players to be picked up by the A-League clubs is also heavily flawed. How many representative teams are selected based on trials? All of the A-league clubs should have scouts who are going around watching football not only in the NPL, but at schools, at lower level clubs, amateur clubs trying to identify talent. Then as they whittle down the players to finalise their squad they should hold trials. At present there are far too many talented young players slipping through the net because there is a lack of a scouting system. IF you want confirmation of this, look at Tom Rogic. Why was he not on the radar of a single A-League club until he won “The Chance,” and a place at the Nike Football Academy? Former AIS Coach Ron Smith who oversaw “The Chance” in Australia said that the day he saw Rogic he knew he would win the overall competition, which he did. Only then on Smith’s recommendation did Graham Arnold sign Rogic at the Central Coast Mariners.
What is also wrong is that these talented young players are still having to pay registration fees, albeit discounted, when they join most A-League clubs. This is wrong. If the club believes in the talent then they should subsidise that talent, as after all once they have nurtured it and it has blossomed they are going to claim the transfer fee when the player moves overseas.
The structure that was put in place was supposed to be a pathway for the best players to be able to make it to the top, the cost of playing junior football in Australia has however made it prohibitive to many families and almost made the game elitist. There are many families who have pulled their children out of the game simply because they cannot justify the cost in tough economic times. So the pathway is no freeway. It is no fast track to the top. In fact the pathway is now seeing people deviate to other sports.
The other controversial move that was made on the Dutch Technical Directors watch was lowering the age of players at the Australian Institute of Sport. In Smith’s day when he nurtured many of the “Golden Generation,” he will tell you that they were already good footballers when they came to the AIS, they just needed polishing. Their time at the AIS made them ready to walk straight into what was then the National Soccer League and play first team football as well as prepare them for a move overseas.
By lowering the age, the current graduates are now left in limbo for one or two years, and many are lost to the game soon after. These players are now entering the AIS at 15-17 years of age. Funding for the program is in excess of $1million per year so surely we should be demanding better results on that investment?
In the 2013/14 National Youth League competition Marc Marino was the leading goalscorer for the AIS. He is 20 years old now and is on the books of Adelaide United. After leaving the AIS he had two years with Melbourne City, played nine games and scored two goals. All of those appearances were coming on as a substitute and he has made one appearance so far as a substitute for Adelaide United. This is a player that was earmarked as one of the best in the country, hence he was given a scholarship at the AIS. Yet in two seasons and three years he has only made an appearance in nine first team games and has not been able to cement a first team start. Was this because he was too young coming out of the AIS?
Dylan Smith is another 20 year old who was at the AIS with Marino. He too is at Adelaide United and in two seasons has seen just 13 minutes of action as a substitute.
Yet in the same class at the AIS there are some who have made a breakthrough, interestingly at a struggling Central Coast Mariners. Liam Rose made his A-League debut at 17 years of age and has made over 30 appearances for the club. When he made his debut in 2014/15 The Mariners were sliding down the table and it appeared the club was all about saving money, hence the young boys were selected, yet credit to Rose he performed. However the Mariners only won 5 games that season, and won just three last season when they came last.
Another player given a chance by the Mariners was Anthony Kalik, at sixteen he was the youngest professional in the A-League. He made his A-League debut at 18 and then was loaned to Hadjuk Split in Croatia, on Josip Skoko’s recommendation, and the 18 year old signed for the club in May this year. So maybe if these players are given a chance they will prove that they are good enough to make it. However, sadly the reality is that the A-League coaches, with their jobs on the line and limited other coaching opportunities if they are sacked, are loathe to give youth a chance.
IT is great that the Mariners gave these young players an opportunity, but how much has losing regularly affected them? Is losing regularly good for player development? If we look at the NPL in WA where Perth Glory field a young side in the senior competition, in 2016 they won just six of their 22 games, five in 2015 and four in 2014. There is improvement, but only winning 15 of 66 games in three years cannot be good for young players. As the heading in the article in the Australian said teams have become used to failure.
This is not Perth Glory’s fault. This is the fault of the competition rules which were we were led to believe put together by the then FFA Technical Director Han Berger. Perth Glory under the competition rules have to play a team with all players born post 1996, however they may include a maximum of 4 players who were born in 1995 or earlier. Approval for an over age player though must be in writing and granted by both FFA and Football West. Although quite how a player on a first team contract can play in a seperate competition under FIFA laws is another argument. They may also play a goalkeeper who was born in 1995 or earlier provided that the goalkeeper has not started more than 2 Hyundai A-League games in the previous season.
Despite the team playing in the top flight struggling, it should be pointed out that the Perth Glory teams playing in the Reserves competition, who are under 20 years of age, along with the Under 18’s who are playing in their proper age group have performed well. The under 20’s were 3rd in 2014, won the league in 2015 and were fourth in 2016. The under 18 side finished third in 2014 and 2015 and were second in 2016.
Interestingly these results throw up arguments for and against players playing in competitions above their age group. It is clear that the the Perth Glory’s first team, made up predominantly of under 20 players, struggles against men. Yet in their own age groups, as expected, they are very strong. As any coach will tell you some players have the skill, and the physical ability to play against men, or in an age group higher than their own, others don’t. Therefore to make a whole team play above their age seems foolhardy. Equally foolhardy is the attempt to hold players who can play above their age group back. Written permission has to be gained from Football West prior to an under age player being promoted and “such a request may be granted after the player has been assessed by Football West.” Ask any top flight player if he played above his age group when he was young and almost all will tell you that they did. Many will tell you that being smaller or not as physically strong they had to learn skills to compete that held them in good stead in their later careers.
Scheinflug said in the article that he has tried to meet with the FFA’s current Technical Director Belgian Eric Abrams, but has never received a response. Surely it has to be worth meeting a man with such a wealth of knowledge and experience, as you are bound to glean some information that could be beneficial in the long run.
Sadly the junior development was another area that the administrators at the FFA, when they took over running of the game, opted to change almost immediately, rather than evaluating it thoroughly. As a result of that haste now the game is paying the price at youth international level, and in ten years that could impact at senior level.
“We have had non-football people at the top … rugby, rowers, AFL, cricket … they knew nothing,” Scheinflug told The Australian. “They got rid of the national youth league. We lost a generation of young players and we have struggled to recover.” It is hard to argue with his view.
The question is will there be an admission that maybe the path chosen, and some of the rules implemented have not been right? Will change come about before it really is too late? Or will pride and arrogance see everything stay the same? Then when the current decision makers have left the game here, their successors will be left to try and right the listing ship. The signs are there, and have been for a long time that all is not right.
Change needs to happen soon to get the Youth of Australia performing again at Youth World Championships. If we look back at the Olympic team from 1992 that made it to the semi finals and ultimately finished fourth, only five of the 20 man squad never earned a contract overseas in Europe. This group included the likes of Mark Bosnich, Tony Popovic, Ned Zelic, John Filan, Shaun Murphy, Tony Vidmar, Paul Okon and Damian Mori. Only three members of the team never went on to play for the Socceroos. This shows that the development worked and that these players were able to perform at all levels of the game. Having been selected, they had what it takes to be competitive in their age group but also to go on and play full international football. Surely that is the goal of a development program.