While the growth of the A-League, and the continued international competitiveness of our national teams, the Socceroos and Matildas, remain key planks in the development of the game downunder, at the heart of the code’s growth over the next two decades is likely to be a continuing focus on youth and coaching development.
Only through sustained investment and commitment in these areas will the game reach it’s true potential, particularly in the face of the mega-bucks reportedly being thrown at youth and game development by the AFL in some parts.
For far too long and particularly since that glorious night in Sydney in October 2005, the under-financed FFA have gone for a top-down approach, relying heavily on the Socceroos to fund the game.
But it’s a strategy, as we’ve seen in recent years, that’s somewhat fraught with danger, as the Socceroos have gone from being the flavour of the month to a team struggling to regenerate.
For the sake of the Socceroos in 10 or 20 years time, it’s vital the FFA continue to invest in the areas of youth and coaching development.
While there has been a significant amount done already by our technical director, Han Berger, to set up the frameworks and pathways to feed the future growth of the game, you sense it’s just the beginning of a long process.
In recent times Berger and his national curriculum appear to have met resistance from some quarters, and the questions have only grown louder thanks to a string of poor results from our national youth teams.
The underlying feeling is that the game, at grassroots level, remains fractured, full of complex layers, and far too much politics.
Uniting everyone involved in youth development and getting them working to the same goal, remains a test of the FFA’s will and powers of persuasion.
Welcome, David Gallop.
The reality seems that this is a process only likely to reap benefits in a decade or two.
Patience and belief must remain the buzz words.
At the heart of what Berger is trying to achieve is a complete seachange in the way we think about producing players.
Rather that focussing on winning at all costs and having athletic and physical players, the pendulum is swinging towards encouraging the more skilful and technical players to come through.
Fundamentally, it is the right step.
The question though that many have posed is whether the national curriculum, which regulates the use of a Dutch-inspired 1-4-3-3 formation, is the only way to create these types of flair or ‘difference’ players.
While it is undoubtedly a progressive formation, encouraging the ball to be played through the three lines from defence, to midfield, to attack, the question remains whether it will create the type of players that can unlock opposition defences consistently.
And what happens in five or 10 years, if there is a worldwide shift away from the current vogue that is a 4-3-3?
One coach currently involved in youth development put it to me as such; “What it’s creating are players who are too robotic”.
“The curriculum teaches them that there’s a right pass to play in every situation, so it actually limits their creativity.”
What he advocates is a little more tactical and technical flexibility, teaching players various systems so they can adjust later in their careers.
Earlier this year I took in a game out at Valentine Park in north-western Sydney involving the NSW Institute of Sport (NSWIS), part of the FFA’s elite player pathway.
Here was a under 18s team made up mainly of 14 and 15-year-olds, competing in the under 18s competition in the NSW super youth league, and competing well.
What impressed me was how comfortable most of the players looked in the formation, even if the defenders struggled to consistently play out on what was effectively a cow paddock.
Despite the frustration they at least stuck to the formula.
What I was also impressed about was the proliferation of crafty, diminutive midfield types, comfortable at getting on the ball and spraying it about.
I refer to the likes of Kevin Ly, Liam Rose and Lo brothers, Tony and Martin, names we should be hearing more about in the coming years.
Such players might not have been identified or developed in times gone by, mostly likely considered too small.
It makes complete sense we fall into line with exactly what is going on around the world, from Japan to Germany in the past decade or two. Even England are now in on the act.
Germany, for example, were really struggling on the international stage at the turn of the century, offering very little flair. It was more about the power from the likes of Oliver Bierhoff, Carsten Jancker and Jens Jeremies.
Such was the dearth of talent coming through that the Euro 2000 squad featured Lothar Matthaus (39) and playmaker Thomas Hassler (34). Sound familiar?
They were stuck and took one point from their three group games.
Now you just have to look at the squad for the recent Euro 2012 competition to understand the progress: Mesut Ozil, Andre Schurrle, Mario Goetze, Thomas Muller and Marco Reus.
Of course, the big difference between Germany and Australia is that they are football obsessed nation, with all the resources and knowledge to make it happen.
But beyond that was the commitment. In a nutshell, they understood why there was a need for change, embraced it and made it happen.
Here, short on resources, there remains resistance and self-interest.
I recently spent some time with Berger in his Sydney office as he talked me through the framework and process changes that has underpins the national curriculum.
It has hitherto been a taxing process and you sense some of that frustration in Berger’s tone.
Fundamentally, what he is trying to achieve is a more uniform, streamlined and in-synch pathway.
Talking me through the development ‘building blocks’ in both the training phase (game discovery from ages 5-9, skill acquisition from 9-13, game training phase from 13-16 and performance phase from 16-20) and the game phase (small sided football from ages 5-12 and 11 versus 11 thereafter), you can feel Berger’s desire to get it right.
Already there are the Skills Acquisition Programs (SAP), Skilleroos and state institutes, which feed into the AIS and then Joeys.
Scattered throughout this system are former players like Milan Blagojevic, Ante Juric, Richie Alagich and Ivan Jolic. Much work has been done, but there’s plenty more to do.
Eventually we will likely see the A-League clubs adopt a significant role in the development process, and we are already seeing foundations put in place by the likes of the Central Coast Mariners and Newcastle Jets.
At the heart of this challenge is resources and Australia’s geography. That and a sheer lack of knowledge.
Having this season taken on coaching my son’s Under 6s side, I can see first-hand just how much has been achieved and how much work lies ahead.
While we are playing the excellent small sided football, the lack of coach education across the 10 Under 6s teams at this club remains clear.
Essentially, all the coaches are fathers or mothers who have volunteered or been volunteered.
While much of my focus this season has been on guiding my team to focus on their first touch, on controlling the ball, on understanding space and encouraging them to take their dribbling and passing opportunities, this is not the same story everywhere.
Too often you hear the parents imploring, even screaming at their kids to kick it long, get it down the other end.
This is exactly the type of ‘fightball’ we are trying to eradicate.
Constant coaching education remains the answer.
While our local club invested a few hours at the beginning of the season to run coaches through the fundamentals of running a training session, from warm up, to ball mastery, to game development, this is just scratching the surface.
There was very little discussion about the overall objectives of the curriculum.
The message is not being articulated to the base of the pyramid. Most are being left to their own devices.
Indeed, while the move towards small sided games has, in the main, been adopted across the game, the need to educate those involved in delivering the concepts remain paramount.
As important, there is still much work to be done on ensuring the game remains accessible and affordable.
For far too long parents have had to fork out exorbitant amounts to push their children through the system. Some, it’s been reported, have had to pay close to $3,000 a season in the state leagues. Quite ludicrous.
Even now, with the granting of SAP licensees for next season, the cost is over $1000 a season for the players considered to be the elite in their district.
When they get older it will be more than $2000 a season.
Only those fortunate enough to make it to Skilleroos and state institutes are spared the expense.
The FFA has to find a way to either subsidise their elite programs or encourage the cashed-up district associations to re-invest in their SAP programs.
No talented kid should be left behind due to affordability.
The same extends to making coaching education more affordable.
Another area that needs addressing is the proliferation of independently run youth academies.
While they do give youngsters more exposure to the round ball, particularly in an age where parents are time-poor, ensuring there is more structure around this remains another challenge.
If there’s one thing Gallop should aim to achieve throughout his tenure, it’s uniting the development structures to ensure Australia is significantly further down the coaching education and player development pathway than it is today.
This is the final installment in a five-part Solutions Series that ran all this week on The Roar. Our football experts have been answering this question with their own take on the game: “If you were in charge of football in Australia, how would you fix the problems you see and make football a bigger professional code – and could this help the National Team? What are your Solutions to the big issues Australian football is facing?”