Big steps have been taken over the last few years in Australia in terms of youth development, and the fabrication of a modern national footballing identity and philosophy. Three nations highlighted in the FFA’s National Curriculum whose own philosophies were used as a blueprint were Spain, Germany, and Holland. Not bad choices considering the high caliber of players as well as teams they’re able to produce regularly on the international stage.
There are many upsides to having a uniformed approach particularly amongst the elite pathways such as the AIS and national training centres around the country. But despite the investment in this area, the lure for young players to test themselves abroad is likely to remain very strong resulting in a lot of talent being drained from the domestic game. It’s often painted by some that players moving abroad too early can be detrimental to their progress which can be true to an extent. However, moves abroad should in fact be embraced by the Australian public, albeit tentatively.
Let’s take a step back though and look at this at a slightly less generalised view than the “moving abroad too early is bad” argument. Destination of a player must count for a lot. If the Curriculum has in itself borrowed from that of other countries then it stands to reason that a player choosing to develop their game with clubs and coaches in systems with a better track record and much more experience is beneficial . Therefore, it isn’t the journey abroad that should be the issue but the destination.
As it stands the UK is still by far and away the most popular destination for Australian players with over sixty players currently playing across the professional and semi-professional ranks. Language, culture, exposure, and contacts could be amongst the reasons for this choice of destination. It is something that many in Australia fear because of the some times oversimplified view that UK youth development isn’t up to scratch compared to nations such as Spain, Holland, Germany and so on. While this thinking isn’t completely inaccurate it does ignore the fact there are some exceptional trainers in England such as Michael Beale who was recruited specifically by Brendan Rogers to head up the U15s and U16s age groups at Liverpool such is the regard he is held in youth development. This again comes back to the issue of destination being key and in the UK case it is very much about choosing the right coach and club.
The other nations already mentioned though arguably have a better track record given the performances of not only their national teams but also the clamour for their players, coaches and technical staff around the football world.
Two such destinations that perhaps players and their representatives should look to more are Holland and Belgium. Currently there are just over a dozen Australians playing in these two countries and those playing there can not speak highly enough of the footballing education they are getting.
“I’d recommend Holland for young footballers because it teaches you a lot about the technical and tactical side of the game. You have to be good on and off the ball,” SC Telstar’s Andrew Marveggio told OS Aussies.
“As a young footballer, you get chances to play in the senior squads also, not being in the reserves until you are 21 or 22 as they do in some other countries.
“The Dutch develop their players by sharing a vast knowledge on tactics and positioning. Of course they also focus a lot on the ball too, but most players are very aware tactically.”
Marveggio is now in his third season in Holland and couldn’t be happier with his development. Overcoming some injury concerns that plagued him last season, he is now seeing more playing time and is reaping the rewards of it.
“I can’t believe how much I have learnt in a short space of time,” said the midfielder.
“I have developed all facets of my game from first touch and passing to tactics and positioning.”
Recent NAC Breda signing, Alistair Quinn, revealed that he and his agent considered many issues before settling on the Netherlands.
“My agent and I discussed the best countries for me based on my playing style and characteristics and combined with the excellent history of player development in the Netherlands, as well as, the cultural similarities and the fact that pretty much everyone speaks English we decided that the Netherlands would be the best place for me to develop my game,” Quinn said.
“We also considered the Flemish speaking part of Belgium, again largely for the cultural and language benefits, as well as their player development history. But we opted for the Netherlands as the first choice and fortunately it’s proven to be a good move .”
Much like Andrew, Adrian highlighted the preparation of young players for the rigours of professional football as something that stands out and encouraging the players to play without fear.
“The thing I have noticed the most is that from a young age the Dutch players are taught to play with what the coaches call a ‘good feeling’, which I guess is the combination of both confidence and composure,” the former Roar player said.
Switching over to Belgium ad the story doesn’t stray too much with culture, language, and focus on youth being the draw cards for the two Belgian-based Aussies.
“The Belgians really focus on the physical side of the game and really try and prepare the young players coming through the first team to rise to the physical demands throughout all the divisions, if not more in the lower ones,” shared FC Dender”s Steven Pepper.
“They always want to play high tempo football and everything needs to be done at a high intensity. The technical ability in Belgium is very good as you can see with their national team, all extremely talented players.”
“I would recommend Belgium highly to young Aussies because the leagues are all very competitive and all the teams are fairly even in all divisions. It’s also a very easy place to live with most people being able to speak some sort of English, which helps with integration.”
Socceroo goalkeeper and former Central Coast Mariner Mathew Ryan sees the Belgian Pro League as an ideal launching pad for young Aussies. Former Socceroos Graham Arnold, Aurelio Vidmar, Paul Okon and Frank Farina are just a few names who have enjoyed success and had doors opened by their time in Belgium.
“It’s a competitive league and a shop window for bigger clubs. If you can come here and do consistently well, then the opportunities could be endless,’ said Ryan.
He also has noticed the value placed on the young players both on and off the pitch for Belgian clubs.
“Well talking from personal experience I see a lot of young boys playing at a lot of clubs here. Not only at the small clubs but the big clubs also. The clubs are very much aware of the potential financial gain of selling young players to bigger clubs and have no hesitation in throwing them in the deep end.
“I guess the coach has no hesitation of giving the young guys an opportunity to gain experience playing on a regular basis.”
Rather than try and convince players to stay in Australia, which is almost impossible, we should be educating them on the choices out there and showing them that not all roads need to lead directly to the UK. After all, many English Premier League teams as well as teams from the Bundesliga, La Liga, and Serie A and more scout these competitions regularly as they do from other leagues such as Swiss, Croatian, or Portugal.
TF14, a player management group, revealed that they were “focusing on countries with better football development histories and processes such as Holland, Belgium and Denmark” while taking into account that English is widely-spoken in these countries too making the cultural adjustment easier.
The aim of course is that more pathways for young Australians will be not only be open abroad but also at home. There is no shame though in admitting that we are not there at the moment and it’s possible that a young player can get a better education at some of the best footballing academies and in some of the best nations for developing young players.