The new talent drain from Australian football

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The news that Matildas’ manager Tom Sermanni has taken up an offer to coach the US women’s national team has been met with mixed responses.

Guy Hand commented excitedly that the appointment is ‘the equivalent of the Socceroos’ coach being offered the chance to take over Spain or Brazil’.

Meanwhile, various Matildas have taken to social media to express their shock at the decision and wish Sermanni luck in his new role. Both Lisa De Vanna and Melissa Barbieri thanked ‘Papa Smurf’ for his role in shaping their playing careers.

Indeed, Sermanni’s presence has loomed large in the women’s game in Australia. Universally liked and respected by his players and the media, Australia’s loss is the United States’ gain.

Sermanni has presided over a ‘golden generation’ of Matildas, guiding them to Asian Cup success in 2010 and two consecutive World Cup quarter finals.

While Sermanni will be missed, this isn’t the first time he has left Australia for an overseas coaching position.

In late 1996, Japanese club Sanfrecce Hiroshima simultaneously lured away the coaches of both the Socceroos and Matildas, leaving Australian football rudderless. The news shocked the football community, which was becoming increasingly frustrated at the talent drain from Australia.

As football rapidly globalised during the 1990s and quotas on foreign players eased throughout Europe, Australia lost many of its players to overseas clubs.

Furthermore, the rise of Asian football in the 1990s provided lucrative conditions in emerging leagues in Japan, Singapore and Malaysia, luring many National Soccer League players away from Australian clubs.

It was an unprecedented change in Australian football. For the best part of the 20th century Australia actually imported rather than exported football talent.

The adjustment proved difficult to get used to. As early as 1991, writers worried about the effect of the talent drain on the local game.

The Australian and British Soccer Weekly labelled Australia ‘the bargain basement’, with senior writer Mike Johnson commenting that Australia ‘cannot afford to give our best soccer players away for next to nothing’.

The player drain in the 1990s also provided the genesis for the club versus country dilemma that still plagues Australian football.

In 1996, Terry Venables and Raul Blanco talked tough about picking their best eleven, and promised there would be no ‘pussy-footing around’ on Socceroo selections. That year the Socceroos were even divided into ‘Travelers’ and ‘True Blues’ to determine the best overseas-based and local talent.

It was in this context that Tom Sermanni first left the Matildas. He leaves now in a very different environment, however many of the same issues remain.

While the player drain is a seemingly permanent reality, Australian coaches are still yet to make the great leap. While there have been a few exceptions, Australian coaches generally remain landlocked.

This is set to change as a new generation of younger, better qualified and better connected coaches discover opportunities abroad.

Already, Lawrie McKinna has left the A-league for the Chinese Super League, with questionable results, while Tony Popovic briefly worked as assistant coach for his former club Crystal Palace.

Although Popovic has returned to coach the Western Sydney Wanderers, it is his generation of coaches which is most likely to move abroad.

Popovic, along with still-green coaches Graham Arnold, John Aloisi, Steve Corica, Paul Okon, Ange Postecoglu, Aytek Genc, Aurelio Vidmar, Mehmet Durakovic and Ante Milicic were all part of the first wave of players to leave Australia to play professionally overseas in the 1990s.

These individuals have retired from playing with a wealth of experience after playing abroad in different leagues and under several different managers. They are better qualified as managers, and now have an attractive career path through the A-League.

However, with only ten A-League clubs, there remains limited space in Australia. Don’t be surprised if they leave again, this time as coaches.

Tom Sermanni’s departure is arguably the first ‘big move’ for Australian coaches. It may also be the start of a new talent drain from Australian football.

Joe Gorman is a football journalist with a particular interest in sports history. After completing his thesis on football in Australia, Joe started with The Roar in October 2012. He tweets from @JoeGorman_89.
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