In an age of ‘metrics’, where the round ball game is now a significant industry across Australia, what can’t get lost, if the game is to thrive, is the need for the focus to be on the pitch, where it matters most.

Every day, millions of dollars are thrown around the game. We’re paying for a foreign marquee, bringing a Socceroo back for a superficial marketing ‘fix’, paying consultants to go around sourcing a national team coach, paying out a contract after yet another bad football decision, drawing up a short list of expansion franchises, or a parent is forking out exorbitant fees to clubs and private academies to turn their little lad or lass into a star.

As we reflect on the Socceroos’ exit at the group stage of the World Cup for a third consecutive time, it’s time to bring it back to a key focus, and that’s on the field. 

So much money, every day, is being poured into the game, particularly by parents and fans, but at the moment it feels like these ‘customers’ are lining pockets of individuals and companies selling them hope rather than a genuine feeling that the game is really moving forward on the pitch in a united way, with everyone on the same page. Much money and energy is going to waste.

The issue here is that there doesn’t appear to be anyone driving the technical direction of the game, and that comes down to a head office where objectives appear more about the business of the game, and protecting selective interests, than the on-field game itself.

Right now, the most important people, at least in their eyes, appear to be men and women in suits, reactionary TV pundits and many hangers-on. A lot of this, of course, is driven by ego, politics, agendas, cronyism and control.

When decisions are made not on football merit but on mateship, access and influence, then you have a fragmented structure that works for some, not for others, but ultimately only achieves part of its potential.

Division reigns, and everyone just goes about doing what’s in their best interest rather than the interest overall. It’s everywhere. 

This is what Judith Griggs, who has been tasked with chairing the FFA Congress review working group has to contend with, and sort. 

The outcome ought to emphasise that the most important part of the game happens on the field, and that’s right down to how we first develop kids when they start to master the ball, to how we structure the pathway linking grassroots to elite, so the entire system can flourish.

After what appeared to be a period of united purpose soon after the introduction of the National Premier Leagues, Skill Acquisition systems and A-League academies, it has again been fragmented by an induced pathway pecking order that isn’t genuinely connecting NPL clubs and the elite, and which has many feeling left out. 

Meanwhile, decisions such as cutting funding to elite development programs have been made by people happy enough to enjoy the spoils, as if they and friends own the game. The tone of self-interest starts at the top.

For Australian football to build on some of the off-field foundations laid over the past 13 years it needs a pipeline of quality talent not only being developed to be technically proficient in the key learning years before age 12, but then they need a genuine pathway into a national competition that serves the purpose of being a vehicle to give consistent game-time to our most talented youngsters with an eye to selling to bigger clubs, here or overseas. 

Only when Australia is developing and selling players consistently to some of the big clubs, as we once did, can we start to be satisfied with our place in the game. 

Right now there are no guarantees the Socceroos will even be in Qatar in four years time, particularly when you assess the regression at youth level in the past decade or so and the investment and improvement across Asia over the same period. 

We have to realise that our end game as a developing football nation is to get the development of football right, and that the A-League, expanding the professional opportunities across a second tier, and free-market system that encourages clubs to invest, climb the ladder, develop, and sell is all part of what makes a thriving football system work. 

Of course the A-League is a development league. You only have to look at the make-up of the current national squad and see what the impact of a couple of good years here for the likes of Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic, Mat Leckie, Mat Ryan, Dimi Petratos, Andrew Nabbout, Trent Sainsbury and many others can do.

Go back to the National Soccer League and you’ll see how the likes of Mark Viduka, Frank Farina, Graham Arnold, Robbie Slater, Ned Zelic, Mark Schwarzer, Paul Okon, Scott Chipperfield, Brett Emerton, Zeljko Kalac, Jason Culina, Vince Grella, Marco Bresciano, the list goes on, all gained valuable first team experience in the national competition before moving on.

Many of these, including the next national team coach, Arnold, were strikers, and will reflect fondly on the grounding the national league pathway gave them to go on and make it overseas, which ultimately led the national team fielding Golden Generations of abundant talent for two decades ore more.

Today, A-League front thirds are littered with foreigners, with many over the 13 years struggling to add genuine quality and taking up spots that would otherwise be better used for local kids. I wrote about this over 18 months ago, warning our number 9 options in Russia were limited, so much so that in the end Bert van Marwijck had to invent Nabbout into a 9 just to serve a purpose. 

All the while, in the A-League, players who have had a shot and are never likely to make it are recycled from team to team at the expense of youngsters impressing one tier down in the NPL.

These leagues get stronger and stronger due to the lack of professional opportunities, but given the lack of connection to the top tier, who would know it?

Is it little wonder, then, that we lament an inability to finish off chances when our national team is showcased on the ultimate stage. Even then, we chop and change from one strategy to the other, as I wrote before Russia, having no longer-term guiding path.  

And even when we analyse a campaign, as many have done over the past couple of days since the loss to Peru, we speak about an inability to score goals when the whole idea of bringing in 'Pragmatic Bert' was to tighten the defence, which we did well in part, but not consistently enough.

We go from one thing to another, never quite nailing it.  

This is where a technical director comes in, with a job to drive a united football direction. Of course we had a crack at this via Han Berger and the Dutch model when the national curriculum came in in 2009. For the past four years we’ve have Belgian Eric Abrams here to oversee the elite youth player development and coach education strategies.

Given that a key part of Abrams’ role was to work with A-League clubs and state federations to ensure our programs are “aligned and world class”, and given that this is not looking remotely like coming to fruition four years on, and that both Abrams and FFA are so silent in this space, genuine questions have to be asked.

What this country’s football needs is an authoritative football voice driving the technical direction and bringing everyone along for the ride. 

Importantly, to execute, it needs an FFA Chair and Board that understands that an emphasis shift to the football, rather than the business, is the key to long-term success.

The voices that drive the narrative need to change if the game is to move forward, and the technical director and chair ought to play a key education role.

Ultimately, the overriding message should be consistent and clear – focus on the football first, get that right, and the business of football falls into place. 

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

football development, socceroos

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