How the FFA got youth development so wrong

Athos Sirianos Roar Guru

By Athos Sirianos, Athos Sirianos is a Roar Guru & Live Blogger


32 Have your say

    Australia’s group atage exit from the FIFA World Cup amplifies what has been the code’s biggest problem for the last ten years.

    Youth development.

    Two words which have been the catalyst to debates among fans for the last ten years, and rightly so, for the gap between football at a professional and grassroots level continues to grow without a bridge allowing promising players to take the next step.

    This bridge was called the AIS and put some of Australia’s greatest Socceroos on the right path but has since been burnt through FFA interference.

    Since it’s implementation in 1981, the philosophy of the program was around developing individuals and preparing them for football at a professional level.

    The AIS would select players eligible to play at a U20s level and those coaching the program were not involved in selecting the national youth team.

    Instead, their responsibility was selecting young players across Australia to develop into future professionals who were then selected for national youth teams and beyond.

    Mark Rudan nailed it when he referred to the program as the golden ticket for helping youth transition from a semi-professional standard to a professional one.

    The players in Australia’s ‘golden generation’ were dubbed as such through receiving the proper development which allowed them to make the transition into professional football.

    In 2009, with the A-League having got off the ground, the FFA sparked into action by taking over the program which became known as the FFA Centre of Excellence.

    With the A-League expected at the time to grow, the FFA anticipated clubs would set up academies for players to feed through instead of going through the AIS.

    With this in mind, the governing body altered the centre’s philosophy, lowering the age intake and changing the way players were developed.

    All of a sudden, it felt as though the centre’s main priority was moulding and selecting players for youth World Cups instead of taking the time to prepare these individuals for the professional game.

    The AIS was about the bigger picture, something the FFA failed to acknowledge in their takeover.

    Mark Viduka, one of Australia’s most prolific strikers, was a product of the AIS.

    Viduka was developed in the program and within two years by his 18th birthday, he was a starter in the NSL for Melbourne Croatia before moving on to Europe.

    No player’s career path is the same, but at least the AIS provided structure and a starting point for many, who like Viduka, would go on to great things.

    Ten years on and the FFA Centre of Excellence has shut down with the justification being A-League clubs would create academies for youth to filter through.

    But did the centre have to close down so soon?

    Creating such academies is not something A-League clubs can do overnight and keeping the centre up and running would at least ensure some kind of professional developmental program for players.

    For a nation which has qualified for the last four World Cups, one would have thought youth development would be something the nation excels in, but they are instead falling behind.

    Tom Rogic

    (AAP Image/David Moir)

    It is not as though there is a lack of players, football is the most participated sport in the country but the players who want to take the sport seriously are let down by a lack of structure.

    Putting the onus on the A-League, W-League and NPL clubs to develop players so soon is not suffice. These clubs are out to win silverware and should not be obliged to have youth feature in their team for the sake of it, especially when these players might not be ready for professional football.

    In an ideal world, all clubs would have these academies which would see hundreds of players across the country receiving professional treatment, but the country nor the teams are ready for this yet.

    While closing the Centre of Excellence has upset many, questions should be raised as to why the FFA interfered with the program in the first place.

    Even before the ‘golden generation’ Australia were producing multiple stars who were playing at a high level in Europe, most of whom were products of the old AIS philosophy driven by coaches like Ron Smith.

    It was said the stream of talent had dried up with fewer graduates from the centre going on to professional careers post FFA takeover, but one must wonder whether this would have been the case if the FFA had not intervened.

    Australia is falling behind in this area, especially considering how far Japan has come as well as there being significant progression in southeast Asia.

    Eventually, clubs will create these academies, but until then it feels as though the nation’s job is to keep digging to find those diamonds in the rough landscape which is Australian football.

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    The Crowd Says (32)

    • Roar Guru

      June 29th 2018 @ 8:32am
      Griffo said | June 29th 2018 @ 8:32am | ! Report

      I would say we need multiple AIS programs – of course ideally with clubs – to produce a greater critical mass of players than before.

      Interestingly Tom Byer believes we have all we need within, and need to look what worked for us in the past, to create our own style based on our culture, rather than import from outside.

      If the AIS was reincarnated it would need to be bigger, as in multiple intakes, and certainly not like the CoE which saw FFA trumpet the players prep for a youth World Cup only to perform abysmally.

      It would take FFA an admission of wrong-doing and funding at a time they have got their hands firmly grasped on the ship’s wheel. It’s not going to happen overnight. I doubt it will happen at all at this point.

      Keep using FNR and other mediums as a platform as it’s needed. 👍🏼

    • June 29th 2018 @ 11:04am
      Lionheart said | June 29th 2018 @ 11:04am | ! Report

      I’d like to see a list of AIS graduates and know how many went on to big things. We shouldn’t overlook the State institutes either, who have all produced quite a number of A League and national players (men and women), and below that there is a growing number of sports high schools that include football in their curriculum. I’d like to know how their success numbers compare to the NPL club academies with their fee to train philosophy.

    • June 29th 2018 @ 11:43am
      MQ said | June 29th 2018 @ 11:43am | ! Report

      I think this might be a touch simplistic.

      Taking Dukes as an example, I would put it to you that his club, Melbourne Croatia, had as much to do with his development into a quality player as the AIS. At the time, Melbourne Croatia (and probably Sydney Croatia) were developing socceroos hand over fist.

      Who can forget that famous final group game against Croatia in 2006, when almost half the pitch comprised Croatian-Australians, including a couple playing for Croatia! (Josip Šimunić was a junior with Croatia Deakin Soccer Club, same club as Ned Zelic, before joining Melbourne Croatia).

      And there you have it in a nutshell. The crucial thing the FFA did in ensuring youth development took a backward step was crushing the ethnic clubs in its bid to go mainstream.

      • June 29th 2018 @ 12:36pm
        Redondo said | June 29th 2018 @ 12:36pm | ! Report

        That could well be true. It would be interesting to know what happened with the first generation of ‘ethnic’ youth affected by the move away from ethnic-based clubs. Did they drift away from Football, for example.

        Others on here might know…?

        • June 29th 2018 @ 3:59pm
          MQ said | June 29th 2018 @ 3:59pm | ! Report

          Good question. I wonder if anyone has ever looked into this. The final year of the old NSL was around 2003/04. In 2006, a vast selection of graduates from the various Croatian NSL clubs were on display in the one game (for both teams).

          That’s exactly 12 years ago, who were the 16-18 year olds coming through the ranks back in 2006? They’d be in their prime right now, who are they?

          I went looking through our U20 team which made the youth world cup in the Netherlands back in 2005 (we haven’t made it too often since).

          Plenty of these players would have been viewed as being talented back then, but not too many of them kicked on.

          Vuka and Milligan are two who survived to the present day and were in our most recent WC squad.

          Leijer came through Melbourne Croatia, showed early promise, also made the OLyroos, signed with Fulham, but never kicked on.

          Vince Lia came through South Melbourne, kicked around the various youth squads, but never made it.

          Billy Celeski came through the old Juventus, kicked around the various youth squads, but never made it.

          Kristian Sarkies came through South Melbourne, showed early promise, made it to the training squad in Germany in 2006 and scored a goal in the Victory’s famous 6-0 win against AU, but never made it.

          In 2005, we were in the U17 World Cup in Peru. Robbie Kruse is the only one who made it into our current squad. Spira came through North Geelong and had some success as a socceroo.

          David D’Appuzzo spent his early years at Apia, but never really made it.

          What I notice about this batch of 17 year olds in 2005 is that almost all of them came through either the AIS or state IS, hardly any of them came through any of the ethnic NSL clubs.

          Looking at that small snap shot, maybe the flow from the old ethnic NSL clubs had started drying up by the time the A-League came into existence?

          • June 29th 2018 @ 4:15pm
            Redondo said | June 29th 2018 @ 4:15pm | ! Report

            So perhaps by the 2nd or 3rd generation, immigrant kids drifted away from ethnically-based clubs and activities. Perhaps they went mainstream and the FFA just followed.

            • June 29th 2018 @ 4:47pm
              MQ said | June 29th 2018 @ 4:47pm | ! Report

              True, perhaps everyone was going in the same direction all along (but that actually means that the FFA should not be scared of allowing old clubs like South Melbourne back in).

              Also, it leaves us back at first base, who is carrying the torch that the old ethnic NSL clubs once carried?

        • June 29th 2018 @ 6:01pm
          AusSokkah said | June 29th 2018 @ 6:01pm | ! Report

          Did they move away from football or did they just go to the pathways that offered them the best chance of success which no longer meant staying at the formerly NSL clubs?

          I watched a tv sports segment a couple of years ago that talked to the golden generation about their experiences of coming through the systems and a lot of them touched on the lost generation of coaches because of the death of the NSL and removal of ethnic-based clubs from the top of the pyramid.

          Almost all of that generation would have come through those clubs and expressed dismay that a lot of the coaches, many of them migrants, were lost to the game when the ethnic-based clubs were no longer a pathway to the top. Many, they believed just gave it away without passing that knowledge on to the next generation of coaches.

          It would stand to reason that our current generation has largely come through the period between the NSL (03/04) and when the FFA started to focus on re-educating coaches within the curriculum (2009) and further when NPL was implemented (2013 onwards).

          The Arzani’s of today would have been 10 when the whole curriculum framework had started.

          A child born in 2009 would only be 9 years old now so it’s 10 years before we even see the first kid who has spent his whole life under the curriculum, though if you look at maybe kids who start playing football at age 6 in 2009 they would be 15 now so we should start to the real outcomes of what we’re doing very soon ie players like Christian Theoharus and Jacob Italiano.

      • June 29th 2018 @ 12:43pm
        AusSokkah said | June 29th 2018 @ 12:43pm | ! Report

        Agreed, it’s too simplistic to suggest that the AIS program was what developed these players, as many had already developed through club and state development systems before being picked for the AIS program.

        There are plenty of Ron Smith interviews on various podcasts out there to listen to and he makes some very good points about the program and what it did. What it didn’t do was create players, instead it was more of a finishing school for already talented players, providing them with testing, physical programs, structure and importantly high quality game experience to prepare them for the next level whether that be A-League or an international career.

        Since the FFA and A-League’s inception we now have state federation based talent development programs and A-League club academy programs often playing in the local NPL programs as well as the National Youth League albeit of an inadequate length of season.

        So I believe that there are more opportunities for players to get into elite programs and make it to at least an A-League level than before.

        What’s missing is high level game time and most probably physical conditioning programs for our young players that aren’t yet being provided by the academies or state programs. As has been mentioned before, a single AIS program with a 20 player intake would be inadequate for the amount of unfinished talent coming through and instead we need for the mutiple a-league and state programs to make the step to the next level.

        Additionally a second division (even if separate from A-League with no promotion-relegation) would provide an environment for more youth players to get experience and also for more coaches to get experience. It would overcome the issue with youth players not breaking through into A-League.

        • June 29th 2018 @ 3:35pm
          MQ said | June 29th 2018 @ 3:35pm | ! Report

          Good post. Finishing school is a good description, I agree, the AIS was polishing off what were nearly complete products. It’s not as if youngsters were dropping in on the AIS out of the blue, they were already quite talented.

      • June 29th 2018 @ 2:52pm
        Kangas said | June 29th 2018 @ 2:52pm | ! Report

        M q

        I think the belonging to the ethnic clubs has been less relevant for modern generations since Croatia became a separate nation from Yugoslavia and they would not have thrived in the A league in their old format.
        Correct me if I’m wrong.

        These same clubs still have great experienced coaching and playing talent , which should be passed on through the generations.

        • June 29th 2018 @ 4:03pm
          MQ said | June 29th 2018 @ 4:03pm | ! Report

          there might be something in that – see my long post above.

          It looks like it’s a very complicated question, not easy to answer.

          Of course, maybe that preponderance of Croatian-Australians appearing in the one game (on both sides), was just a one in a million occurrence never to be repeated. Perhaps it represented more the end of an era than something which could be continued ad infinitum.

          Certainly, it’s true that the football coaches from the former Yugoslavia remain in high demand around the world, to this day.

    • June 29th 2018 @ 5:17pm
      punter said | June 29th 2018 @ 5:17pm | ! Report

      Look at the amount of Africans, Eastern Europeans & Sth Americans in the top leagues, especially in England compared to the days of Viduka, Moore, Neill & Kewell to also understand why Aussies don’t play in the big leagues anymore.
      Football has changed since the GG. If those who could remember 2006, the world marveled at 22 pass goal by Argentina, now this is an every game event.
      Australians has always had first poor touches outside a very rare few & football has changed.

      • July 1st 2018 @ 12:45pm
        Pauly said | July 1st 2018 @ 12:45pm | ! Report

        Back in the days of the golden generation, the multitude of South American players went to continental Europe especially Italy and Spain, while Francophone Africans gravitated towards Ligue Un. These players are now flocking to England, the once-traditional stomping ground for Aussies abroad and this will accelerate after Brexit where EU nationals may prefer the lesser paperwork and stay on the continent,

    • Roar Guru

      June 29th 2018 @ 5:22pm
      Cousin Claudio said | June 29th 2018 @ 5:22pm | ! Report

      The lack of development at youth level is the biggest challenge we faced and the most disappointing aspect of Australian football this century. We don’t have the finances or resources to keep up with other nations.

      We have not made any progress since 2005 and the poor results of our youth teams, young Footballroos, U20s and Olyroos would confirm this.

      • June 29th 2018 @ 5:53pm
        punter said | June 29th 2018 @ 5:53pm | ! Report

        Yet they have made every WC since!!!!!!

      • June 29th 2018 @ 6:17pm
        AusSokkah said | June 29th 2018 @ 6:17pm | ! Report

        Judging our progress based on youth teams is flawed without looking at the context of the performances.

        We lost the final of the 1999 u17 World Cup in New Zealand largely by ceding possession to the Brazillians, holding out and going to penalties. Only Josh Kennedy from that team really made a name for himself at Socceroos level, a lot of the products of that team became nothing more than servicable A-League players eg Wayne Shroj, Iain Fyfe, Dylan Macallister, Mark Byrnes, Louis Brain, Shane Cansdell-Serriff, Jess Vanstrattan, Lucas Pantelis and Jade North.

        I’ve watched our progress through all of our AFC and FIFA youth tournament appearances and we definitely are making progress even if the results don’t show it. Our players are far more comfortable on the ball, we play with the intent to attack but a naivety at the back. Often the bad results stem from the same issues as we have at senior level, opponents who sit back and defend or alternatively poor nations who just players at the older end of the age group who are able to physically over power us.

        • June 29th 2018 @ 6:26pm
          p said | June 29th 2018 @ 6:26pm | ! Report

          This is the difference as well, we are changing our style & we are picking more players based on technical ability instead of physical abilities & this brings us back to the field against the Asian countries especially.

    • June 29th 2018 @ 6:22pm
      Nemesis said | June 29th 2018 @ 6:22pm | ! Report

      It’s generally accepted technical training for football must be developed between ages 6-12, which means, apart from Daniel Arzani, the 23 man squad who represented AUS at the World Cup Tournament would’ve started & mostly completed their technical education before the new FFA was formed under Frank Lowy’s Chairmanship.

      So, all the blame for technical deficiencies across individuals in the team can be blamed on everything and anything but not the FFA.

      In fact, we cal look at Arzani as being amongst the success stories of “new football education” that’s been driven by the FFA.

      And, Arzani is not the only one. Italiano, De Silva, Atkinson, Tongyik, Theoharous, Pasquali Caletti, Deng. They’re all technical footballers who all started their technical training after the FFA released its Blueprint for Football Education in AUS – aka tthe National Curriculum.

      • June 30th 2018 @ 8:21am
        jbinnie said | June 30th 2018 @ 8:21am | ! Report

        Nem – Many who have talked on this subject have just refused to do the simple arithmetic that points out what you are trying to point out.
        Actually the problem being manifested now goes back far beyond the Golden Generation ,for as you rightly say the GG’s technical education started long before those lads paraded their skills on the world stage.
        A part of football history has been kept under wraps for so long it has almost been forgotten.
        In 1974 a man came to Australia with one thought in mind,he was going to improve the coaching level in this country by employing a coach in every state whose main task was ,not to coach a team,but much more importantly ,coach coaches. He travelled the country running seminars for any interested parties,be they players committee men,or just interested parties. He very quickly observed the fact that to teach adults the principles of football he needed men who were not only qualified coaches but also qualified school teachers.Makes sense ,doesn’t it ???
        However, as usual ,the establishment in football didn’t take kindly to this use of sponsorship money, (Rothman’s Cigarettes), and ,true to form this educator was quickly burdened with tasks outside his intended path ,such as coaching national youth teams etc
        This was in the years 1975/6 and if one calculates in the manner you have the GG would have been around 6-7 in those years.
        So what was different about this man’s aims and philosophies?
        Nothing really, he preached avidly that youngsters of that age should be playing in small sided games on smaller pitches and in past discussion on here many of the GG have expressed they played on small fields with smaller teams in their early junior days..
        So what happened?.The ASF ran out of money and when cigarette advertising was banned this coach ,and his work, were pushed deeply into the background.
        Then followed a barren spell when football coaching stagnated at the 6-12 level and it came as no surprise to some that in 2008,at great cost, the “new” FFA introduced a Dutch based curriculum heavily based on small sided games with smaller teams,plus the use of a 4-3-3 system for seniors ,a system that the 1974 Socceroo team had used in Germany in the World Cup.!!!!!!
        So is it any surprise that we have had a 20 year gap in youngster development,and even now there is no guarantee that this new/old curriculum is being used widely across the nation. Cheers jb.

        • June 30th 2018 @ 5:21pm
          AusSokkah said | June 30th 2018 @ 5:21pm | ! Report

          I’ve stated elsewhere that people overestimate the coaching structures that were in place at the time and the golden generation actually point to the migrant coaches at their various clubs who were largely responsible for their development. This had largely dissapeared in the final years of the NSL and our 1999 u17 team that made the world cup final produced functional but unremarkable players at best. Even it’s brightest star Josh Kennedy was the last of the old style of target men.

      • June 30th 2018 @ 1:17pm
        Redondo said | June 30th 2018 @ 1:17pm | ! Report


        It’s a myth to say skills ‘must’ be developed between ages 6-12. That’s probably the most effective time to learn skills because kids have far more freedom to devote time to leisure activities. But, the truth is, skills can be learnt and enhanced at any age. It’s not a binary proposition.

        Rep team coaches, at all age levels, should do what Alan Jones did when he coached the Wallabies: identify individual skill deficiencies and make players devote additional time to upgrading those particular skills.

        Leckie is a great example of how a top level athlete can gradually improve over time. He is much more skilful now than when he first appeared in the national team.

        It’s frustrating to hear people say that coaches of top level teams can only work with what they’re given. It’s just not true.

        • June 30th 2018 @ 1:31pm
          Nemesis said | June 30th 2018 @ 1:31pm | ! Report


          Everyone can have an opinion on any topic. I choose to embrace the opinions of people who are experts in any field. So, on player technical development I’ll listen to people who know what they’re talking about.

          The fact you introduce Matt Leckie into this discussion is utterly baffling. Matt Leckie is a wonderful athlete. He’s mentally tough. But, he is exactly the sort of technical incompetent that stifles the National Team. If Matt Leckie had better touch, he’d probably have scored early in the match against Peru and his passing accuracy in the attacking half would have been higher than 58% at the World Cup tournament.

          If you can’t see the difference between the technical competence of Daniel Arzani & Matt Leckie, then this discussion is futile.

          • June 30th 2018 @ 1:55pm
            Redondo said | June 30th 2018 @ 1:55pm | ! Report

            There are shades of grey between black and white. The experts recognise the shades.

            I didn’t say Leckie was particularly skilful, just that he is far more skilful than he used to be.

            Again, shades of grey.