The recent sacking of Holger Osieck has caused the football world to explode with emotions and opinions. In amongst all the finger-pointing and accusations, important issues have been raised that go beyond the role of the national coach. Holger was symptomatic of much bigger challenges facing football in Australia. Arguably, Osieck had to go, just as when any problems surface they must be dealt with, however prevention is always preferable to cure.
As mentioned in Part I, the youth teams have been a crucial pathway for a large number of elite young footballers right through to the senior team. Traditionally the final initiation for most, before becoming a fully-fledged member of the senior team, has been the Olympic team. Australia like many nations has used this stage as a glimpse of what is to come for future squads.
A lot has been said of the abject failure of the last qualification campaign, where the Olyroos finished bottom of the group without scoring a goal while only conceding three goals from the six games. Statistically it makes bleak reading but as we all know stats only tell a part of the story. The full story doesn’t make much better reading.
Looking back at the last four Olympic campaigns for Australia there has been a gradual change in the trend of the selection policies. This is true not only for the Olyroos but every age-group.
A look at the last four campaigns of Brazil, Italy, and Japan as well as Australia is useful in illustrating how important the Olympic tournament can be in the transition of players to senior football.
Brazil is an interesting case because they are world-renowned producers of world class talent. Their domestic league while strong is still behind most of the top European leagues. In 2000 they used only three players based outside of Brazil and finished the tournament in a disappointing seventh. It got worse in 2004 when they did not qualify for the tournament. This saw a big shift in how they approached the formation of the team.
In 2008, they responded to the previous failures by taking a team consisting of twelve players based outside of Brazil with only two members not going on to get a senior cap (8 of the 2000 squad weren’t capped at senior level). The most recent team had ten overseas based players with only goalkeeper Neto not being capped at senior level. This team finished as runners-up.
Another football giant, Italy, is also known for developing gifted footballers but unlike Brazil, Japan, and Australia they also have one of the best domestic leagues in the world. For this reason, many of the top Italian players don’t venture outside of the Serie A. This has meant that of the three successful campaigns from the last four Olympics, only one player (American-born Giuseppe Rossi) was based outside of Italy.
Their 2000 squad that finished fifth in Sydney, introduced names such as Gattuso, Pirlo, Zambrotta, Ambrosini, Zanetti and even future Venezuelan international Margiotta to the world stage. Despite these big names, ten of that squad never went on to represent the senior Italian side. The 2004 and 2008 teams, which finished with the bronze and made it to the quarter finals respectively, had only 12 of the combined 38 players in those squads go on to be capped at senior level.
Italy failed to qualify for 2012, a situation touched on by Marcello Lippi who when talking about the influx of foreign players into Italy said;
“I remember when Ciro Ferrara was in charge of Italy Under-21. He had no other options but to call up players from Serie B and C.”
This of course is a problem unique to the Italian example for their league is less restrictive of foreign players than the other three countries. Also having one of the leading domestic leagues in the world, with their clubs competing in European tournaments, means that the pressure to get results and have a strong squad can often see long-term development placed in the background.
Regional rival Japan is the most similar case to Australia given strength of the domestic league and national team. Cultural issues and language barriers have traditionally inhibited many Japanese players from going abroad. Highlighted by the fact that of around eighty players used since 2000 for the Olympics only ten have been based outside of Japan at the time of their call-ups (six of these were in the last squad which claimed bronze).
Also less than twenty of the eighty have not represented the senior team. A strong indicator of the use of the Olympic team by the JFA as a stepping stone to the Samurai Blue. The impressive performance from the last Olympics was preceded by two bottom of the group showings. However, the 2008 squad did introduce the likes of Honda, Nagatomo, Okazaki, Kagawa, and Yoshida who are now considered very important players in the senior team.
From 2000 to 2008, only eight from the almost sixty players called up to the Olyroos did not go on to be capped at senior level. Even in 1996 in Atlanta only two players weren’t capped at the highest level. Australia clearly valued the Olyroo pathway as key to introducing the next generation of footballers.
Slowly the revolution of football which occurred in 2003 has seen a shift in selection policies. In 2000, fifteen of the eighteen in the squad were based abroad however they finished a disappointing fifteenth on home soil. In 2004 the number of local-based players doubled to six and the team reached the quarter finals while in 2008 Graham Arnold used nineteen players with eleven of them based in Australia, finishing third in their group.
As touched on above, the Olyroos did not get out of the qualifying stage in the London 2012 campaign. If qualification was achieved there may have been a different squad competing in London to that which had gained entry to the tournament. Just over twenty players were used in the qualifying sections this included a cameo from Tom Rogic. Around six of the players used have been given caps at senior level, and only two players were based abroad (Aaron Mooy and Kerem Bulut).
Players eligible that weren’t used included Matthew Leckie, Tommy Oar, Robbie Kruse, Michael Zullo, James Holland, Jason Davidson, Eli Babalj and Chris Herd. The argument for their non-selection was that the Olympic qualifiers were not on sanctioned FIFA dates so it would’ve been troublesome getting them back. At that time though not many of these players if any were regular starters in their teams.
The decision was made though that we had enough talent locally to qualify. In fact so sure of this were we that we decided to cap it at two players per team so no A-League team would be left with too much of a disadvantage. The rest is history and Aussie players and coaches were left watching the London Olympics’ football tournament from the couch.
So what can we learn from the examples of these four countries? Well, we can see that it is important to always put your strongest team on the pitch. Using national teams to promote other interests or agendas never ends well. It’s great if you have a league like Serie A to draw your squad from but the realities are that most footballing nations don’t have this luxury. It needn’t be seen as a blight on the domestic competition as the domestic game usually is where most players whether Brazilian or Australian get their start.
A lot can be said for earmarking a core group of talented players and sticking with them as they move up the ranks. Each stage used to integrate them more and more into the system and structure. One of the obvious advantages here is you have players coming into the senior side who are already familiar with each other and the expectations of the coaching staff.
Australia has strayed from it’s path somewhere along the way. We need to find our way back and can only do so through honest assessment of where we are. Do we lack the players to be competitive? I don’t believe so, but we probably haven’t utilised and fostered the ones we have as well as we did in the past.