Australia’s Asian Cup victory on the 31st of January was the perfect tonic for a nation that seemed to be teetering on the precipice. Ange Postecoglou continually reassured us disappointing result after disappointing result, lacklustre performance after lacklustre performance that things would come good. So many times we heard “judge after the Asian Cup” that it became a mantra repeated over and over to ease the stresses of a concerned public.
The Asian Cup has come and gone and Australia were the last team left standing. Asian champions achieved on our third attempt with arguably our least likely group of players. One has to give credit to Postecoglou as the architect of that achievement. He had a philosophy that he stuck to rigidly and most importantly of all brought back the spirit which had seemed to have vanished under previous managers.
Postecoglou and the Socceroos must now refocus attention to preparation for the World Cup qualifiers for as good as an Asian Cup victory is, failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup would be disastrous. Australia’s aim should be to become a nation expected to get out of their World Cup group not one that surprises by doing so. The best way for us to do this is to create an environment which can produce quality young players. Easier said then done.
The obvious starting point would be grassroots. After all, strong structures need a solid base and given the healthy participation rates of football in Australia there is definitely something to build on. The sports market in Australia is a competitive one but we shouldn’t let this distract us from the main goal which will lead to success of all the other goals if achieved, and that’s developing world class players. To do this we need more than just nine A-League clubs working towards this but every National Premier League (NPL) and state league club too.
According to CIES Football Observatory the Central Coast Mariners were the highest rated Australian club in the Player Development Rankings at 133rd in the world. The list was compiled of all the clubs who had a player represented at the 2014 World Cup and split into two categories, club-trained (minimum 3 years at a club from ages 15-21) and Under 23 matches (the number of senior games played for a club up until the age of 23). As our top club, the Mariners had one player in the club-trained category and a total of 195 matches played by under 23s.
The Australian league system was ranked 26th from the 59 countries that made the list; with 12 players club-trained and 964 under 23 matches by players for clubs in Australian leagues. France was the top-ranked with 56 club-trained players with 6255 matches, while Japan were the top ranked Asian nation at 7th with 26 players and 2689 matches.
As for the clubs, twenty four made the cut with seven from the Hyundai A-league (one being the now defunct Gold Coast United) and the rest coming from the NPL/state leagues. Only twelve of the clubs could claim a club-trained player with five of them being HAL clubs (CCM, Brisbane Roar, GCU, Melbourne Victory, and Perth Glory). The remaining twelve teams had World Cup players play for them while under 23. Gippsland Falcons were the last Aussie team on the list at 768th of the 821 teams to make the list.
Looking at Dinamo Zagreb – the ranked club in the world – who had just one less club trained player than Barcelona yet have around one eighth of the funds to invest into their youth academy would be a good start for most Australian teams. The one million Euros a year that Dinamo spend on their academy is beyond most Australian clubs but when they are regularly selling their youth products for sizeable fees every year they obviously feel it’s a worthwhile investment.
With the marquee system in place for A-League clubs in place to sign a big name on an unlimited contract, you might wonder why that million dollar salary couldn’t be better used towards player development? A marquee name is great to get people to come through the turnstiles but it is a short-term fix for the long-term issue of standard of league. Australian football fans are more likely to support a European club than one in their own backyard because they want to see high level competition.
In 2012, one of our most successful footballing exports, Tim Cahill, talked to Sportal.com.au about his thoughts on Australia’s football direction.
“I think with the A-League, it’s definitely a great competition but it’s also a commercial brand that maybe misses out on the grassroots and the basis of where kids at the starting level come from,” Cahill told Sportal.
“If there was more focus on the grassroots than the end product, it’d be a lot easier in 10 years to produce those players instead of trying to find them at a later level.”
The recent objection by the A-league franchises to a reduction in the number of visa players from five to four gives us a good indication of where their priorities lie. When most of these teams are battling for survival and making ends meet they can be forgiven for not wanting to put what limited resources they have towards funding the development of Australia’s next generation of football stars. In fairness, it is the onus of all involved in football to do this and not just the A-League teams.
As Cahill said, serious investment must be made and it needs to be directly into reformative programmes. At the moment the grassroots seem to be supporting more at the top with families paying up to $1500 per child at the elite level for little in return. The role of the FFA as steward of the game and A-League benefactor is one that gets blurred too often with the two often working in contradiction to each other.
As the only fully professional football league in Australia the A-League needs to be more involved in its’s own affairs as recommended in the 2003 Crawford Report:
Soccer Australia establish the NSL as a separate entity operating under a licence from Soccer Australia with a board comprised of independent directors elected by participating NSL clubs and with separate (to Soccer Australia) funding.
The TV rights of the A-League and the national teams should be negotiated and sold as different packages. All the money raised by the A-League TV deal should be put back into the HAL clubs and the money from the national teams TV deal redistributed back into the grassroots level. If the TV finances from the national teams along with the money from government funding is put into the grassroots exclusively we could make some inroads into addressing the infrastructure issues that we currently face.
Our future lies in developing players who will play at a level not only good enough to represent Australia on the national stage but also bring people through the turnstiles. Relying on visa signings and marquees is a short-sighted vision. A survey conducted by Professional Footballers Australia showed in 2002 when they were putting together their proposal for an Australian Premier League, behind lack of promotion one of the main reasons for people not watching or attending was “low standard”.
It is imperative then that we increase our investment in grassroots football and focus on where our future Socceroos and A-League players are coming from. Without the local quality to match the foreign flavour of the ever popular imports, the A-League will find itself struggling to retain what have been healthy crowds in its first ten seasons. A redistribution of funds from the top could create a widening of the player pool, increasing the health of Australian football in the process.