Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell, and Lucas Neill are three of the most looked up to for our next generation. It is the dream of emulating these Aussie football heroes that drives many young players. However, is the path that these three legends made necessarily the best one to follow? Success via England tends to be the exception rather than the rule.
The opening of the Australian transfer window has seen a bit of movement this January with confirmed moves of Erik Paartalu going to Tianjin Teda (China), Michael Marrone to Shanghai Shenxin (China), and Tom Rogic to Glasgow Celtic (Scotland) arguably the biggest move coming out of the A-League so far this silly season. There’s much more speculation about possible movements of Aussies both at home and abroad and only time will tell if anything eventuates.
It just so happened that the other day I was talking to a UK-based player about whether or not he would be looking to move either on loan or as a transfer in order to get first team football that the subject of where players should go came up. This player after some impressive performances for Australia at youth level had received some interest from continental Europe.
Continental Europe is a destination that many people believe should be the preferred option for our young players because even if they don’t crack the first team it’s generally considered that they’ll get a good footballing education. Rightly or wrongly, a move to Asia is often criticised for being driven by money and a move to England is seen as being antithesis to the football we want to be playing as a nation.
There are many examples over the last 20 or so years of how continental European moves at the beginning of a player’s career have ended in more success than moves to England for Australians, especially at national team level.
One needs to look no further than Sydney FC’s, Jason Culina, who came through the Ajax youth system. Although he couldn’t crack the very competitive Ajax first team he eventually moved on to FC Twente where after an impressive season he earnt a move to another Dutch giant, PSV Eindhoven. This move was very successful for him at club and national team level as he became an integral part of both the PSV and Socceroo midfield.
While the careers of Kewell, Cahill, and Neill are what we would like all our players to emulate perhaps it is the examples of Culina, Paul Okon (Club Brugge, Belgium), Ned Zelic (Borussia Dortmund, Bundesliga), Mark Bresciano (Empoli, Serie B), Mark Viduka (Croatia Zagreb, Prva HNL), Brett Emerton (Feyenoord, Eredivisie) which should be followed.
Currently we have young players like Mustafa Amini and Matthew Leckie in Germany benefiting from the huge investment from German clubs in their player development following the 2000 Bundesliga report outlining all the problems within German football at the time. Even in Amini’s case where he isn’t seeing any time in Borussia Dortmund’s first team, the education he is getting is priceless for his development. Perhaps he may never feature in a Bundesliga game for Dortmund but many doors will open to a player having come through the Dortmund system much like Culina’s Ajax experience.
No need to look any further than the transformation of Robbie Kruse’s game in the last year which has been remarkable as he has made it almost impossible for his club and national team managers to leave him out of their sides.
Spain, Italy, Belgium, France, Holland, and Portugal are destinations where most Australian fans and pundits would love to see our best juniors develop if they were to bypass the A-League but why is it that we see over fifty Australians plying their trade across the four professional leagues of England and only around thirty in the aforementioned six Continental European countries?
There are various factors including language and culture, links and connections from those countries to Australian clubs, a player’s background, as well as economic and political factors which might explain this. However, the plethora of examples mentioned above show that there really is nothing stopping a player from choosing a move to continental Europe over England besides career advice and management.
Excluding Harry Kewell, how many Australian outfield players have come through the youth ranks of an English Premier League club to break into the first team and stay there? Perhaps only Chris Herd? Luke Wilkshire is one who despite not cementing a spot in Middlesbrough when there, went on to have a successful career in Europe. There’s also Melbourne Heart’s Richard Garcia (West Ham Academy) who eventually when fit was a regular member of the EPL Hull first team.
Of course there is nothing to say that any player’s currently contracted to an EPL club now or in the future won’t be able to work their way into a first team. But the smart money to get into the starting eleven of an EPL club as well as the Socceroos is via continental Europe, just ask Brett Holman, Emerton, Okon, Viduka, Robbie Slater, John Aloisi, Tony Vidmar, amongst others.