Australia must develop youth culture to find lasting football success
"I think there's a big gap in terms of player development, I think that's a big problem. I think we're not producing players like we used to."
Breaking his long-cultivated air of mystery in an exclusive interview with ESPN, those were the words of Socceroos legend Mark Viduka when he turned his attention to Australian football's talent production line.
"There's something missing with the player development," Viduka continued. "When they did the A-League they concentrated more on getting the league set up, but this junior system that actually develops players, I don't think they paid enough attention to it."
In recent weeks, Australian football's coronavirus-influenced discourse has been dominated -- outside of Viduka's interview -- by short-term questions over the completion of the final games of the A-League's regular season, a brushfire conflict between A-League clubs and the players' union over player stand-downs, and plans for the Socceroos' World Cup qualifying fixtures and the Matildas' and Olyroos' Olympic preparation.
In the face of so many issues, it might seem churlish to speculate on the ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic on the fortunes of players who might be years away from ever kicking a ball in a professional contest. Yet, the impact of the virus on global football -- as on society at large -- will certainly linger long after the blessed day when safety can be assured and play resumes.
As football attempts to plan for a post-COVID-19 world, the benefits of fostering a stronger development system heading into an uncertain new future should be obvious. High-quality young players, be they plying their trade in overseas leagues or domestically, will improve the performance of Australia's national teams, bolstering the game's perception amongst the public and potential sponsors. Where the Socceroos and Matildas, two of Australian sports' most beloved brands, go, the health of Australian football will likely follow.
And in a marketplace in which Australian football clubs can't compete with the cheque books of their international rivals, youth is a cheap and highly emotive means of improving the quality of their team and league. Former English Premier League boss and current A-League advisor Richard Scudamore described the narrative of the local boy made good as "the holy grail" for clubs.
Still, given that the fruits of academy investment often take years to truly ripen, there are fears that academies and youth development programs could find themselves in the firing line of administrators seeking COVID-19-demanded savings.
"I think for all the kids and all the players around the world, it's a strange time when they can't get out and play and do something that they enjoy doing," Socceroos and Olyroos boss Graham Arnold told ESPN. "The coronavirus has obviously shut down all the football for now, but kids will come back; they will come back.
"If anything, there's a great opportunity at the FFA, all the state [federations] and for everyone involved to really have a good look at where things haven't been good over the last number of years. I'm having plenty of conversations. There are some great kids coming through."
But if COVID-19 is to provide Australian football with a potential developmental reset, a determination of what's at the core of this re-imagining would seemingly be a necessary first step.
It's a bit of a problem, given that most Australians probably wouldn't be able to agree on what the soul of their sport actually is. Some might wax poetic of a never-say-day air of grit and determination, while others will argue it's physically dominant sides that take the fight to anyone, or point to the joy and mateship embedded in the Matildas' game.
Perhaps it's Rhyan Grant's mullet.
"I've worked in most football countries around the world in some shape or form," new FFA CEO James Johnson told ESPN. "Wherever football is successful, for me, the common denominator is that football or the league or the clubs or the players, they have a very strong identity and they understand who they are. This is fundamental.
"If we were to go to Croatia, for example, they understand in a very meaningful way that they will never have a Premier League because they have a population of less than five million, they're surrounded by superpowers in Europe, and the clubs don't have the economic means to buy players. So they've understood what their position is, their position is to produce talent, and that's what they've done.
"Now, they're not playing in Croatia, they're playing in other leagues around the world. They've got a very national-focused competition; people follow Hajduk Split because they're from Split and they love the club. They don't follow Hajduk to watch premium-product sports; they watch it because it's a local competition. They have great pride in the national team because they have a great national team -- as we saw in the last World Cup.
"I personally think that Australia is very confused in terms of who it actually is. I don't think we have a clear understanding from the top of the pyramid to the bottom of the pyramid on who we should be in terms of our football culture.
"I think our challenge as a sport is to pool our resources together and develop a very strong identity on who we are. That's our challenge and I think that's got to be something we do as a starting point if we're going to iron out some of the issues that we are facing.
"In my view, and I think my view is important but it doesn't mean that my view is going to be the way it is, but my personal view, my professional view, is that Australian football, when we're at our best, is when we're producing talent.
"We have more registered players than Belgium, Croatia and Uruguay together. So why is it that Belgium is No. 1 in the world? Why is Uruguay No. 5 and Croatia No. 6 when we actually have more registered participants? What are they doing better than us?
"I think we can be a top producer of talent, I don't see why we can't. I think we saw a glimpse of that when we had the so-called Golden Generation which was produced a couple of decades ago. But I think we can go over and beyond that because there are examples, tangible examples of countries that have been able to do that."
Once the determination of what the nation's intent is, the process of moulding a future star begins almost as soon as they're able to take their first steps and kick a ball.
Access to quality clubs and facilities, how knowledgeable and qualified their coaching instruction is, and the physical and footballing attributes that are prioritised by those selecting representative sides, among others, will all play crucial roles as the youth ages and progresses through the developmental pathway.
"Since we made the World Cup in 2006, it's like... junior football, she'll be right, mate," president of Football Coaches Australia Phil Moss told ESPN.
"But guess what? She's not right. There's a missing generation in there.
"If we get that area right, that will open up opportunities for coaches -- and I mean really top-line, professional coaches that focus on those areas of the game. I think we've got to really look at the academy side of things, how they're structured and what opportunities are there for coaches.
"Coaches that coach at the junior level are so crucial to the game because they're the ones shaping players at such a young age. Our coaches, for me, play an absolutely crucial role. I don't think we specialise enough in that area, we don't remunerate well enough in that area; that's why it's become a stepping stone."
Pre-COVID-19, developmental coaching, even at a professional level, battled for respect and with perceptions that it was simply a stepping stone on a pathway to more lucrative postings in senior sides. One A-League academy figure bemoaned to ESPN that youth coaching wasn't consistently recognized as a specialized role with dedicated skills, while another recalled how his advice on how to best manage academy players was frequently brushed away by those with senior sides.
"I think we do need a sharper focus on coaching," Johnson said.
"One example I'd use there is Iceland. If you look at Iceland, they have a population of 350,000 people. Now, if you remember the 2016 Euros, Iceland was outstanding, they were beating big nations.
"If you actually break down in a scientific way what Iceland did over the past 10 years, they understood that in order for them to compete, their whole philosophy was around transforming parents who were coaching local clubs into qualified coaches; that was their strategic priority. I think the lesson for us is that if we're going to be a country that produces talent -- which I think we should -- one way that we can get there -- and maybe we don't see the benefits for a decade -- is to really invest and prioritise our coaching and lift the standards all over the country.
"Another point is the cost of football; this needs to be addressed. If the cost of football is too high, we obviously limit the number of people that will enter the sport. I think if you look at what our fees are in Australia, and you compare that to other parts of the world, I can say quite confidently we're on the very high end of the spectrum.
"We've got to take that with a grain of salt because we do live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world; this is also a factor. But I can tell you as a parent that had children playing in the UK and has moved here now and had children that were about to start playing in Australian competition before the virus, there's a big difference in terms of the fees.
"We need to look at this and I'm starting to look at the way the registration works here, and without getting into the nuts and bolts, I think there are many ways that the whole registration system can be transformed.
"From a development perspective, it should mean that we don't limit access to the sport for potential talent."
Importantly for a game that's always searching for funds, youth development also represents a potent potential revenue stream for clubs; 17-year-old Sydney FC prospect Cameron Peupion's imminent move to Premier League side Brighton & Hove Albion is the most recent example of Australian players earning a move overseas.
According to FIFA's Global Transfer Market Report, 18,042 international transfers (7,659 of which involved players aged between 18 and 23) were made in 2019, generating $US7.35 billion in transfer fees; and 9.4% of these transfers featured a sell-on clause -- a right to a percentage of a future transfer fee if a player moves to a third club retained by his original club.
Though it's all-but guaranteed that COVID-19 will enforce a sharp reduction in these numbers, possibly permanently, Australia's $US 1.9 million portion of these billions still retains obvious room for growth. Likewise, it's domestic transfer scene -- by design -- has previously been virtually nonexistent; intra-league transfer fees barred since the A-League's launch, and the compensation delivered to the National Premier League for their players a pittance, are a constant sore spot for clubs that are on the frontline of development.
"The transfer system -- we don't have one," Johnson told ESPN.
"A transfer system at its most basic essence, the whole system is about incentivising clubs to develop players. That's what it's about. At its most basic element, it's that when a club develops a good player, the player moves up the pyramid and a distribution comes down the pyramid.
"The fairness in all this is that while the top players move up, the clubs that develop and produce that talent gets a reward so there's a financial incentive; a healthy transfer system creates this environment.
"This is important for Australian football. Because what's happening at an NPL level or at a grassroots club, there's no incentive to develop players because, if a player leaves, they don't get compensated in a meaningful way.
"These things aren't easy to set up, but if we can set one up then in two or three years you're going to have hundreds and thousands of clubs all over the country that are going to focus on developing players because they know that when they lose the player, the player moves on, they're going to be rewarded for it. And that's a whole change in the psyche of a club, the way they think."
But even if youngsters are afforded the best footballing upbringing possible, with their junior clubs commensurately rewarded for their custodial work, they will at some point require a sufficiently taxing destination in which to apply their lessons. It's an area the A-League has struggled with.
Superficially, the introduction of extended benches for clubs that field a certain number of Australian Under-23 players and the addition of Western United into the A-League in 2019-20 had begun to alleviate this problem; Australian players aged 21 and under had recorded 32,597 minutes of action this season -- 14.16% of all minutes played -- and the number was on track to surpass 2018/19's totals.
Yet, with the median minutes played for those same players almost halving from 327 minutes in 2018-19 to 182, and the median amount of games played just six, a deeper dive reveals the bounty of opportunities hasn't been evenly distributed. More young players may have been seeing the field, but fewer were doing so in a manner that would achieve actual meaningful development.
Elsewhere in Asia, Japanese players aged 21 and under recorded 52,290 minutes across 823 appearances in the 2019 J1 League season, good for a 357.5-minute median; and in the K-League, South Koreans aged 21 and under logged 40,512 minutes across 643 appearances with a 337-minute median. Additionally, those leagues sit atop a pyramid of interconnected lower divisions with promotion and relegation; the lower divisions serve as landing spots for young players sent out on loan and a marketplace for top-flight clubs looking for talent.
"We can either use this coronavirus to sit around and wait until the game comes back or we use it as a time to look at what is right, what is wrong, what needs improving," Arnold said.
"I think, without a doubt, it's clear we need to get more kids on the pitch. Some kids are playing 10 games a season, if that. We need them to get them playing like they do all over the world, and get them playing 30-35 games in whatever system that is.
"No one knows where we're going to end up after [COVID-19]. But the only thing you can do is be positive. For me, this game's great across the world and we've got to make this game great, even better than what it has been.
"It's about getting all the people in powerful positions who make decisions, they've got to consider them as if they're making decisions on behalf of their sons or daughters and letting them have great footballing careers and a great life."
Of course, getting Australian football's various stakeholders together and in agreement is easier said than done; it might be easier to teach a mouse to successfully herd cats. But Johnson, who had planned to bring various stakeholders together for a summit to discuss the direction of Australian football prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, is confident it can be done.
"My style, in terms of my leadership style, I'm not the type of person that says 'this is my vision, this is how it's going to be and move forward'," he said.
"My vision... I think that needs to be tested, and I think that needs to be tested with a lot of people that have football acumen. Something we haven't done well in the past decade is that we haven't utilised the football acumen we have in the sport. I think we need to bring that to the table -- that would be the FFA table -- and really start to talk about how we can bring that to life. If we do that, I think we can bring clubs all over the country along."
With the head of the FFA already being one of the most difficult and thankless tasks in Australian sport, the outbreak of an unprecedented global pandemic would represent about as poor a hand as a new administrator could possibly draw. But the former Australia Under-17 representative's bona fides as a "football person" -- an almost mythical superlative at this point -- give him almost universal goodwill, which is almost unheard of for an Australian football administrator.
But the proof, as it is in all things, will eventually be in the pudding. Johnson has set himself a high bar. Now he just needs to meet it.