Youth development is to sport what sowing is to agriculture. In a perfect environment with the right conditions you can take a seed of talent and grow it into a fully-bloomed professional footballer, but without these optimum conditions you’re leaving it up to the randomness of chance. The odd gem can spring up against the odds but consistent results are needed to sustain the growth of a footballing nation.
Australian football has punched above its weight in this regard by producing talented young players who have consistently held their own against the best youth players around the world. By the mid-nineties we started seeing this translate into more and more Australian players appearing and making an impact in some of the best leagues in Europe. The semi-professional National Soccer League which was Australia’s domestic competition at the time had tremendous results given the well documented lack of exposure and investment in the game.
“Years ago Australia developed some of the best technical players in Asia. I believe the reason was from the first wave of immigrants that came over from Europe, the Croatians, Serbians, Italians, English, etc. so there was a huge influence by European families,” founder of T3 and highly respected youth coach, Tom Byer told Football Central.
“Fast forward a few generations and that European culture has been watered down. Hence I believe this is the reason or one of the reasons that Australia is not developing so many great technically gifted children any more,” Byer said.
“The families and cultures have been diluted and everyone believes that it’s a coaching and elite problem.
“I’ve always said, in the United States and Australia, the coaching is better than Japan and Korea. But the players are technically better in Japan and Korea. The reason is the culture and the fact that coaches are not often the result of good technical players.”
The game has come a long way since the days of the NSL with a professional league in place that offers Australian players a viable alternative to heading overseas. More opportunities at home are a great incentive for a young player to push on with his fledgling career. Clubs also have the ability to retain talent more effectively than in the past too.
However, youth development seems to have been lost in the clean out of the game at the top level. It’s been treated more as a financial burden than as the answer to the long-term sustainability problems faced by many clubs. As Tom Byer said above the problem is predominantly cultural and attitude based.
At the formation of the A-League entry conditions were put on would-be clubs from minimum annual budgets and stadium capacities to ownership structure and branding, but nothing was stipulated about having an academy system in place. Highly respected Croatian technical director Romeo Jozak told Soccer Anywhere writer James Davies, “Academies should be the heart of football” with only the most educated people running them.
Undervaluing the importance of academies at the top level has been to the detriment of our clubs and game as a whole in Australia. Ten years on and our A-League teams should be producing our next generation of talent but as it stands; from the 2014 World Cup no A-league team could claim more than one club-trained player which according to UEFA definition is three or more years spent at a club between the ages 15 and 21.
On the other hand, clubs the next tier down on the football pyramid, the National Premier Leagues, must all have junior programmes from U12s with many teams having younger teams as well as girl’s and women’s sides despite there being no requirement. Clubs with a fraction of the budget of their professional counterparts are being shouldered with the burden of producing our next generation with little financial support from the top which has enjoyed “grant/loan bailouts” since 2003 on the proviso of more support at the grassroots level.
Huge sums are not necessary to fund programmes either. According to a 2012 report by the independent European Club Association, most clubs in Europe spend between 6-8% of their budget on their youth academies with a tendency for smaller Category 3 clubs to spend a higher percentage of their budget than bigger Category 1 clubs. The realisation by smaller clubs of how important youth development can be for not only reducing costs from purchasing players from outside but also through transfer revenue gained from selling on academy produced players has been a driving force. Furthermore, up to 60% of the clubs surveyed in the report considered their academy a source of income rather than a cost. Many of the Category 2 and 3 clubs surveyed spent less annually on their academies than A-league clubs do on their marquees.
For over a decade football has had the highest participation rates of any team sport in Australia from juniors and up so the argument of not having a large enough talent pool is flawed. FIFA’s 2006 Big Count had Australia at 22 in the world (435,728) for registered players and 21 (3868) for clubs but our total player number which includes unregistered players has us at 51 (970,728). Even at 51 in the world we have more players to choose from than in more illustrious footballing nations such as Belgium, Portugal, Croatia, Uruguay, Ivory Coast and Cameroon. Conversely China, the U.S., India, Indonesia and Bangladesh are in the top 10 for number of players with Canada, the US, and South Africa in the top 10 for registered players. This brings us back to the culture and attitude argument. At the moment the pathways from U9s and up are not harnessing the talent effectively enough to see these figures flowing up to the elite level.
Melbourne Victory recently appointed Socceroo legend John Aloisi as their youth development coach which is a vital role in any club and upon his appointment he jetted of to Barcelona to study how the storied La Masia academy approached development. La Masia is arguably the most famous football factory in the world and has many admirers in Australia who hope to replicate it locally. This footballing Icarus Syndrome leads to many trying to fly much higher than artificial wings can carry.
“La Masia is a finishing school for the best young players in the world who Barca select to put into,” Tom Byer explains.
“Australia’s problems fall way below the elites. The average young player in Australia at U12 is just not technically good enough. The gap between the very best kids at U12 and the very worst is an ocean apart, making competition less fierce.
“Too many technically incompetent players at the young ages. In Spain, Italy, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, the average level is much better.”
La Masia has an annual budget of 20 million Euros which includes a Barca B team and an U19 team with scouts all over Spain and the world looking for the next Messi. This is just not realistic for Australian clubs to emulate and they don’t need to do so, with other smaller clubs around the world getting as impressive results with a fraction of the budget and smaller networks. Most importantly as Tom Byer mentioned, we need to start the process a lot earlier than U15s which is where we are now with our A-League clubs.
Former Socceroo Scott Chipperfield has experienced one of Europe’s leading academies first-hand in his time at Swiss club FC Basel as a player and now where his son is a part of the system.
“My son plays in FCB juniors so I have followed the set up the last two and a half years,” Chipperfield explained.
“Basel has a great youth setup and has had a lot of success with juniors breaking into the first team then being sold to leagues like the Bundesliga and Serie A.”
FC Basel do spend a lot in comparison to many middle to lower tier European clubs at 3 million Euros but the sale of youth product Yann Sommer for a reported 8 million Euros to Borussia Mönchengladbach more than covered this cost. In fact the three club-trained players they sold this season from the seven in total almost covered their total transfer spending for the 2014/15 season.
We are currently playing catch up but positive steps have been taken from some A-league franchises in this respect. Melbourne City have recently unveiled a state of the art football academy which would be even more beneficial if a junior programme from U9s and up was in place to take advantage of this investment. Other initiatives like Newcastle Jets’ Emerging Jets programme which was launched in 2012, and the Central Coast Mariners Centre of Excellence, and Sydney FC are believed to be launching their own plans for an academy in conjunction with the NSW government as early as this Friday.