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For the third time in a row, Australia finished its World Cup campaign without progressing beyond the group stage.

But don’t worry, folks. All is well in Australian football.

A-League expansion is coming

The FFA announced the 10 successful bids that have been shortlisted to contend for two available expansion spots from 2019-20.

Predictably, the bids mostly come from Melbourne and Sydney – making up six of the 10 bids. Canberra made the cut, while Tasmania was axed, with Wollongong and Ipswich the regional representatives. Brisbane City took up the last spot.

Football Federation Australia delayed the announcement by three weeks, presumable to conveniently coincide with the end of the Socceroos World Cup campaign.

There is no question that the A-League needs more teams. Whether those teams should be borne out of private franchises or promoted from the leagues below alongside the establishment of a national second division depends on your personal viewpoint.

But the fact the FFA continues to use A-League expansion as the shining light at the end of what has felt like a long, dark tunnel for Australian football over the previous two or three seasons demonstrates once again the lack of any underlying strategy or vision for the game in Australia.

No one can deny that the creation of a larger national competition with a much greater national footprint is vital to the long-term success of the game – but it is merely one small piece of the puzzle.

As we stare down the barrel of another disappointing World Cup campaign, we cannot afford for the conversation to be completely hi-jacked by what’s next for the A-League.

We can no longer feign shock and disappointment that the Socceroos failed to make it out of the group stage again. Over a 12-year period, Australia has secured just six World Cup finals points, and failed to make it out of the group stage once.

The problem is so much bigger than just the Socceroos coach and first-team and it’s bigger than the A-League.

A broken system

The FFA’s top-down approach to football has left the grassroots gasping for air.

The country is over-run with clubs, players, and administrators – no other sport in the country touches football when it comes to sheer participation numbers – yet the absence of clear and definable structure in almost every element of the sport continues to harm its chances of converting participation into end product.

Australia remains one of the few countries where the game operates like some sort of topsy-turvy parody.

Semi-professional and community clubs have bigger junior football academies and operations than the elite clubs.

Money comes into the top of the game via broadcasting deals and commercial sponsorships and is seemingly locked away at the top of the tree, while the bottom of the pyramid – which supplies the top with its next generation of players – essentially must fund itself.

On top of that, the one truly successful national program for the identification and development of elite football players in Australia was shut down in 2017.

The AIS program which played a vital role in the development of the likes of Mark Viduka, Mark Bresciano, Vince Grella, Ned Zelic and so many others of Australia’s 'Golden Generation' is no more.

In fairness, the program that was shut down in 2017 had changed markedly from the one that blossomed under the watchful eye of the likes of Ron Smith – who so many have given great credit to for their own personal development as footballers over the years.

Nevertheless, this proliferation of player development without any one true pathway linking the grassroots to the elite has done untold harm to the ability of Australia’s ability to produce world class talent.

The A-League currently has 10 teams, each allowed a senior squad list of up to 26 players (minimum 20), meaning there are only 260 professional full-time contracts on offer for players in Australia.

Factor in visa players – each club is allowed up to five visa players – the real number can be as low as 210.

Even with two expansion clubs – both of which will almost definitely be in the big markets of Sydney and Melbourne, doing little to expand the geographic footprint of the top-flight – those numbers will only increase marginally.

Each A-League club also has a National Youth League team, which will also play in the National Premier Leagues (NPL) competition in their relevant state, offering more opportunities to young players to develop in more professional environments.

Eventually, the A-League clubs will have teams competing in their local NPL competitions from under-13s up.

But the A-League has been around for 13 years now. Why has this crucial element of any long-term success for the national competition and the national team – the development of the next generation of talent – been left seemingly unattended or in the hands of semi-pro clubs for so long?

The cost of this top-heavy approach has been that player development in Australia comes down to sheer dumb luck and/or the willingness of the individual to gamble and persist through the toughest of odds.

Player development on the back burner

Current Socceroo Mathew Leckie is perhaps the poster boy of this haphazard approach to player development.

He was plucked from relative obscurity with Bulleen Lions when Adelaide United decided to take a gamble on the pacey winger. He has since gone on to represent Australia 56 times and forge a successful career in Germany’s Bundesliga.

Another good example would be Socceroos captain Mile Jedinak, who was 22 when he signed his first professional deal in Australia, despite having impressed year-in, year-out for his local side Sydney United 58 FC. It was a gamble on a move to Croatia with club Varazdin that eventually prompted A-League interest.

With so few opportunities available to players like Leckie and Jedinak over the last 13 years, one wonders just how many other players may have been missed or ignored.

The A-League is about winning senior championships first and foremost, so it’s no surprise that the development of academies has been the last thing on the list for most of its clubs.

For the most part, the responsibility for the development of the next generation of talent has mostly lied with clubs competing in the NPL competitions across the various states and territories for little, if any reward other than the warm, fuzzy feeling of being able to say they helped to produce a new Socceroo.

These clubs are hampered with exorbitant licensing fees, face real challenges when it comes to facilities in a league which, while claiming to be national in scope, is administered and regulated completely differently from state to state.

The implementation of the NPL was perhaps well-intentioned, but it has been remarkably flawed.

The formation of the Australian Association of Football Clubs – which boasts a membership of over 100 clubs from the NPL across the country – recently conducted a roadshow which highlighted the frustration of members.

Of course, a lot of these clubs have their own proud histories to maintain – some even competed in the old National Soccer League. They want to remain successful, regardless of the competition they play in, so is it fair that the burden of producing the next generation falls on these clubs? 

Furthermore, does it make sense to entrust these clubs with such a large proportion of that burden?

In essence, these clubs are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Do they chase glory with their senior teams to prove their worth on the national stage through the FFA Cup competitions or perhaps even winning an invitation to the A-League via expansion?

Or do they focus on youth development, knowing that any talent they do produce will eventually move on to the A-League or overseas for little – if any – compensation? This problem in particular will only worsen when A-League clubs begin competing with them in junior competitions.

The flooding of NPL teams with ex-A-League players in the twilight of their careers has only further hampered the abilities of these clubs to promote the youth within their ranks.

When you bundle all these issues together, it’s little wonder that Australia has struggled to consistently produce players good enough to excel in the A-League and overseas.

Should we continue to be surprised by the fact that Australia failed in its efforts to qualify for the knockout rounds of the FIFA World Cup? Hardly.

Bridging the gap

Just like in 2010 and 2014, the 2018 World Cup Socceroos have proven that they have the attitude, the drive and the athleticism to mix it with the best in the world. This team has the skill to keep the ball under pressure and dominate opponents, but lack the quality in the final third to make the most of those periods.

The frustration so many football fans in Australia feel is because every time our teams go to the World Cup, we’re filled with hope because the players put in extraordinary performances – seemingly beyond their individual talent – that suggests the gap between the Socceroos and the best teams is not insurmountable.

In fact, the Socceroos deserve credit for qualifying for a fourth straight World Cup Finals and for performing as admirably as they did.

The FFA’s top-heavy approach has allowed the creation of a Socceroos set-up which provides the best of the best of everything for those who make the grade. Great coaches, great facilities and great support. It allows the players and the staff to put together a team that looks and feels competitive.

But until the cracks and leaks at the bottom of the pyramid are fixed the quality of players required to make the grade will continue to slip and Australia – for all its players, fans and resources – will never fulfil its potential as a footballing nation.

And no amount of A-League expansion alone will ever fix those problems.

Categories: Opinion | A-League | Socceroos | Local

socceroos, a-league, football development, a-league expansion

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