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So many have talked and written about the lack of a striker or strikers, or Bert van Marwijk’s selections, or his reluctance to make any substantial change to his starting line-up from the first game, but most people who watch football closely in this country would not really be surprised at where things ended for us at the 2018 World Cup.

Some might even say they were surprised we got there in the first place. 

That’s not a reflection on the Socceroos under Ange Postecoglou, but it is a reflection on the view of many that our elite development just hasn’t been up to scratch for some years. Some have been saying it for years; and it’s pleasing to see that now almost everyone with a keyboard is finally thinking the same way also. 

One very high profile and lauded current coach in Australia said to me ahead of the 2014 World Cup in the context of a discussion about being fortunate to be at Brazil: “It’s even worse for 2018. We’ve got no-one coming through. We’ll be lucky to make it at all.”

And so it proved to be. We travelled farther, played more games and more minutes than any other participant at the World Cup, and we were the last to qualify.

While many attempted to sheet the blame home to Postecoglou and his tinkering with formation to achieve a more attacking approach, and what some unfairly (and incorrectly) refer to as his existentialist grief about his role, the fact is many coaches and former players were of the view as long as nine years ago that Australia dropped the ball on elite player development and we would inevitably face the consequences. On this basis, it's all credit to Postecoglou and the players for making it to Russia 2018 in the first place. 

It is also not to take anything away from the current crop of Socceroos players. No-one can question their effort, their commitment, their willingness to leave nothing out on the park, or the fact that they bleed green and gold. But it was many of these players who did not benefit from the type of elite player development that had previously been available in Australia.

We have also not made the two most recent Under 20 World Cups, the 2016 Olympics or the most recent Under 17 World Cup. 

Player development

The die was cast when FFA cancelled the National Youth League in 2004 as a cost-cutting measure. What followed was nothing. A void for more than four years. 

Australia’s most successful youth coach, Les Scheinflug, described the decision to stop the national youth league as “… probably the most short-sighted decision” taken by the then new Lowy administration. 

“It was one thing to make the break from the old NSL to the new A-League, but by shutting down the youth league for four to five years, we gave almost a generation of young elite players nowhere to play and not enough opportunity to play. The view at FFA at the time was that a national youth league was too costly and all the resources had to go into the A-League and the Socceroos. It was short-sighted.  It was not in the best interests of football. And it literally threw out the babies with the bathwater," according to Scheinflug. 

If players reach their peak between 25 and 30 years of age – and obviously there are outliers both ways – then Australian players in that age range today would have been between 11 and 16 years when the National Youth League was cut. 

With no youth league, no national second division and no A-League academies in place, it left potentially elite players limited opportunity to play or develop their game.  

To make matters worse, there has been constant tinkering with the Australian Institute of Sport program, described by Ray Gatt in The Australian as a “massive breeding ground” for Australia’s top players, and it is now closed altogether.

Eventually, FFA reintroduced a small national youth league in 2008 based around the A-League clubs only. The clubs and the structures, such as the AIS, that had nurtured the players were left out on a limb – discarded as surplus to requirements by FFA.  

In 2012, in response to an increasing concern about the lack of player depth, as well as growing unrest amongst the community-based clubs who had helped build the sport in Australia, FFA announced the establishment of the paradoxically named National Premier League (NPL) competition, with a specific objective to improve elite player development for both men and women.

Five years on, NPL clubs are of the view that the inconsistent implementation of the NPL by state federations and the poor-to-no resourcing of it from FFA has diluted clubs’ effectiveness and capacity to support that objective. In fact, the money goes the other way, with NPL clubs contributing almost $9 million ‘up the line’ to state federations and the FFA every year. 

In their own recent five-year review of the NPL, the Association of Australian Football Clubs (AAFC) determined that there are: 

  • too many levels of NPL competition
  • too many NPL clubs, some of whom have no experience or expertise in elite player development yet are required to deliver on it 
  • conflicting priorities with A-League academies who are able to pick ‘the best of the best’ which further dilutes the number of genuinely elite players at NPL clubs
  • insufficient quality players in regional areas, and
  • the training compensation system isn’t working.

A national second division to underpin and complement the A-League is urgently needed to provide more opportunity for more players as an important strategy of elite player development. 

Participation

To compound this failure of development, the pool of players is getting relatively smaller according to data released earlier this month by the Australian Sports Commission.

While the good news is that the number of participants aged 5-14 years in both indoor and outdoor football (total 663,400) has increased by almost one-third from 2012 to 2014, the proportion of 5-14 year olds playing football (participation rate) has declined from 24.2% to 21.9% for boys and from 7.4% to 5.9% for girls in that time. The overall participation rate has declined from 16% to 14.1%. (The rate of decline in girls' participation helps explain the high priority in relation to the 'turbo-charge' solution of the 2023 Women's World Cup bid).

By way of comparison, the participation rate for Australian Rules football in the same period has increased from 8.1% to 8.8%.

Time for change

I have written about the time for change in governance of the game in Australia for years – and have been criticised roundly for daring to do so by many – but more than anything these two failures of development and participation reflect the game’s governance.

Most football associations around the world do not run their sport as well as their domestic national league. The focus on running the ‘business’ side of the game as Tony Tannous referred to here, as opposed to what is needed to keep the game running, has been to the detriment of football.

It may have been appropriate in 2004, when FFA was re-fashioning the domestic league but the business model of building the shop front – ie. the A-League – and assuming that the quantity and quality of players would automatically materialise is not sustainable. The business model has to change to encompass domestic player development. 

The fact that most FFA Board members and Member Federations have failed to challenge this orthodoxy over the past 15 years – just as they failed to ask questions about the use of taxpayers’ money in their name – is an indictment on all of them.

It is not the players or the coaches who should be the subject of our commentary, but the Board members and Member Federations who have ruled over the game and not done so in the best interests of the game.

It’s not just time for change at the highest levels of football in Australia, it’s time for almost everyone who has been at the top table to go. 

This is why the work of the Congress Review Working Group, headed by Judith Griggs, is so important. It is not merely about who’s in charge in the Board room; or how many stakeholders are represented at Congress – the wider the group, the better; or the management personnel and structure at FFA; but about ensuring the right set of people are in place for three different, but important and inter-related priorities over the next 15-20 years: 

  • To lead development of the game, rather than just building a shop front – the FFA Board;
  • To build and shape the A-League and a national second division – a separate A-League/Championship entity or entities; and 
  • To constantly challenge those who are the custodians of the game in an open, transparent and accountable manner on behalf of all of us – the FFA Congress.

Categories: Opinion | Socceroos | A-League | Football Business

ffa congress, governance, football development, a-league, socceroos

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