Pathways to the National Team

I was watching 14-15 year olds last week playing football every day in the Talent Identification matches at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra. Watching the kids play and looking for the ‘talented ones’ brought back many fond memories; catching up with former AIS scholarship holders such as Mark Rudan, Andrew Bernal, Ned Zelic, Ante Milicic, Ante Moric, Ante Juric and Michael Garcia made it a special occasion. A lot of our discussions compared the past with the present in many respects; playing, training, coaching, attitudes and inevitably development opportunities.

The development pathway for young players was changed about five years ago when the age groups were lowered for all programs that received funding from either government and or FFA. There were reasons for lowering the age group at the AIS, which some, myself included, disputed. For more than twenty years the AIS program focused primarily on the development players who could play in the national under twenty team and beyond.

After the ‘change’ the AIS focused on the ‘Joeys’ and the development of talented players, between the ages of seventeen and nineteen has become the responsibility of the ‘A’ League clubs. At the time I did not think the A League clubs were equipped to provide the same development opportunities that the AIS offered and I still hold that view.

For many years players have had different pathways to become a professional player and eventually play for the Socceroos. Many went through the AIS pathway, from there into the first team squad in the NSL or to a club overseas at the age of eighteen or close to it. Players became full time professionals, either way. Some players went overseas even earlier. Three players who come to mind are Mark Bosnich, Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill.

Over the past twenty years the number of players who became Socceroos after leaving Australia around 16 years of age was much lower than players who went overseas at 18 years of age or older, many of whom went through the elite player development programs before playing in the NSL or the ‘A’ League. Some players became Socceroos by virtue of playing in the NSL or the ‘A’ League alone. In the 2006 squad there were only three players who went overseas at 16-17 years of age, Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill and John Aloisi but John had played one season in the NSL before going overseas.

A review of the players who were recently brought into the national squad shows the trend has shifted in the opposite direction. The following players left Australia at 16-17 years of age to pursue a career in football and have recently been included in the Socceroos: Tom Juric (24), Jason Davidson (24), James Meredith (27), Bailey Wright (23)*, Ollie Bozanic (26)*, Massimo Luongo (23), Ryan McGowan (26)*, Aaron Mooy (25)* and Chris Ikonimidis (20), Jackson Irvine (22).

The players who were recently included in the Socceroos who played in the ‘A’ League before going overseas include, Tommy Rogic (22)*, Mathew Leckie (24), Trent Sainsbury (23)*# and Luke Brattan (25). Surprisingly only two of these players spent time in a State Institute of Sport Program (*) and only one went to the AIS (#). I would add that some of the players mentioned earlier, who went overseas at 16-17 years of age, spent time in a State Institute of Sport Football Program (*).

It is worth noting that the age of new players coming in to the national team is mid to low twenties. We do not have a player under the age of twenty in the current squad, which is a reflection of players developing later rather than sooner. Ivan Franjic came on the national scene via the ‘A’ League at 24 years of age; Luke Brattan did the same at 25 years of age, Josh Risden (23) recently made his debut. The point is where are the quality players aged 18-19 years? Have we got any? Is this because we are not producing ‘special’ players anymore or is the transition into the ‘A’ League too much of a step up for players under the age of twenty? Where is the next Paolo Okon, Ned Zelic, Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka or Lucas Neill who all played for the Socceroos as teenagers and went on to have successful careers in Europe?

I do not know the answers but I suspect there will be many contributing factors including, the identification of talent at a much younger age, input from more than one coach in the teenage years, the transition from the AIS to ‘A’ League clubs at a younger age than in the past, coaches forced to play one ‘system’, coaching methodology and a prevailing attitude that winning is not important anymore because youth football is about ‘style’ not results.

Whatever the reasons, the development pathway to the Socceroos is changing compared with ten years ago and more of the emerging players are being developed overseas than in Australia.

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