Thursday, April 18

The Socceroos are in a state of paralysis. Australian football has a lot to learn | Emma Kemp

There is a special corner of Twitter which spends much of its time lamenting the flaws of football in this country. It is referred to – in equal parts affection and frustration – as #SokkahTwitter. This inebriating sphere of pandemonium is a silent-but-deafening concoction of joy, rage, intellectual acuity and utter nonsense.

But it is also, almost unanimously, in agreement on one core belief: player development pathways in Australia are fundamentally flawed.

This online conversation would barely register for the many Australians who tune in only to watch the national team play the big games – the matches trumpeted as those that matter. So they buy a ticket or turn on the TV and then, in a flash, are hit with it, overcome by the heat of an oven opened in their faces.

As it stands, after Thursday night’s 2-0 defeat to Japan, the Socceroos are hurtling inexorably towards some place other than the World Cup. They are on the road not to Qatar 2022 but an arid oblivion not experienced since the finals in South Korea and Japan 20 years ago. They have just lost a home World Cup qualifier with a result riding on it for the first time since 1981.

The casual fan may not hear or read the stream of analyses – #SokkahTwitter or otherwise – dissecting Australia’s performances in many a Fifa window. They come away with only what they have seen in front of them. And perhaps this is not an entirely irrelevant lens through which to consider the Socceroos’ predicament – a mortifying mess which is also confusing because this team which symbolises so much to so many people now looks like bric-a-brac of a past era.

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There were a couple of positives to appreciate, such as the classy Ajdin Hrustic and, for the most part, Mat Ryan. Viewers certainly would have sighted the hosts’ disallowed first-half goal and deduced that, had it stood, the complexion of the contest might have shifted. Mostly, though, they would have seen Takumi Minamino rip through Australia’s defence and Kaoru Mitoma score a brace in the final minutes.

Of course, there are caveats – Australian football loves a caveat. Key players were unavailable for this match and the ones who were played in a manner befitting an XI which has spent little time together on a pitch.

There are also viable questions around tactical and selection missteps. There will be further debate about Graham Arnold’s future. Separately, there have already been queries about the wisdom of a Covid-positive head coach walking his dog at the beach instead of isolating at home. Then there is Covid in general – travel restrictions enforced by the pandemic have ensured an even more mentally and physically arduous qualifying route.

But at the crux of what has gone awry over the past 15 or so years is the bottleneck of player development. The paucity of opportunities for young, talented footballers to fulfil their potential and a resulting lack of national-team depth. This problem is evident at all levels of the domestic game but it is the most perceptible at the top of the inverted pyramid.

Connor Metcalfe runs with the ball during Australia’s loss to Japan in Sydney.
Connor Metcalfe runs with the ball during Australia’s loss to Japan in Sydney. Photograph: Steven Markham/Speed Media/REX/Shutterstock

The A-League Men has been heavily relied upon to produce high-quality players and yet there remains no solid, collective plan in place for this to occur. The coaches, understandably, prioritise their own teams, an issue compounded by a policy of not breaking for international windows.

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In 2018, when Arnold was managing Sydney FC, he said “I don’t see the A-League as a development league”. In 2019, after he was appointed Socceroos head coach, he called for the urgent establishment of a national second division or A-League reserves competition so players between the key development ages of 17 and 22 had somewhere to play.

Still there is no second division, nor promotion and relegation. The FFA Centre of Excellence, a talent factory for the golden generation, has long been shut down. And it is worth asking whether those golden-generation players, that class of 2006 against whom every performance since has been measured, may have laboured just to break through in this iteration of the domestic league.

Would a young Mark Viduka have been given a game? The same goes for Harry Kewell and John Aloisi. Yes, these are examples of attacking players, but the development of local talent in front-third positions has become particularly problematic given clubs are increasingly signing imports as their regular starters in these sexier roles.

Primarily because of this, the Socceroos are in a state of paralysis. For years many believed they were punching above their weight, achieving wonderful things against the odds. Years later they should be accomplishing wonderful things but are instead falling demonstrably short as a rapidly developing Asian confederation ploughs full steam ahead.

Much of the focus around Australia’s upcoming playoffs has been around the formidable South American tie which now looms as the final hurdle to Qatar. We are getting well ahead of ourselves. Before that is even a consideration Australia must beat the other third-placed team from Group A in a sudden-death playoff. At this stage that is likely to be the United Arab Emirates, who knocked the Socceroos out of the 2019 Asian Cup.

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And this should be cause for serious introspection. Japan have built a very good team on the back of three decades of development through the J. League. Its model ensures most players have a sound technical foundation at a young age and progress systematically through a pyramid of underage teams, from which J. League sides select their senior squads. The country has set the benchmark for youth development in Asia. Australia’s loss was predictable, and for that it has much to learn.

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