Ola Toivonen has been one of the best players in the A-League this season, but his success only serves to remind Australian football of one of its biggest shortcomings.
There simply is not enough opportunity for A-League clubs to develop their own stars.
Toivonen, who arrived in Melbourne fresh off a strong World Cup campaign with Sweden, is the sort of swashbuckling centre-forward football fans love to watch.
He scores goals and sets them up with consummate ease.
In Australia, his physical style of play is particularly appreciated because his sheer size means he can combine the technically sublime with raw power in such intimidating fashion, as he showed so majestically during Victory’s 2-1 win over fierce rivals Sydney FC.
His inch-perfect free-kick to open the scoring on Australia Day was a master class in striking technique, while his fantastic physical work in the build-up to what would prove the winner from James Troisi showcased the big Swede’s smart-use of his power.
That Victory was able to sell the league and the club to a player so obviously capable of playing at a higher level is a credit to Kevin Muscat and the team behind him, but the consistent failure of Australian clubs – not just Victory – to develop or entrust such a role to a promising young Australian is alarming.
In recent times, the A-League has often been won by the club which manages to scour the globe for the best striking talent ready and willing to spend a season or two Down Under.
Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar, which won back-to-back A-League championships in 2011 and 2012, relied heavily on the exploits of the competition’s all-time best goal-scorer, Besart Berisha.
Berisha would, of course, play a vital role in helping Victory to its own A-League titles in 2015 and, to a lesser extent, 2018.
In 2017, Sydney FC talisman Bobo scored 16 goals in 33 games on the way to glory, with another 36 in 38 games the following season, only for his team bow out of the finals in heartbreaking fashion to eventual champions Victory.
Adelaide United’s 2016 title remains the exception to the rule, with not one of its players finishing in the top-ten goalscorers in the league that season.
Of course, goals win games, so it makes sense that when clubs are looking to fill their marquee and international spots, the first place they’re going to look to add some world-class quality is with players who either score or create goals.
As Graham Arnold said himself during his stint at Sydney FC, the A-League is not a development league – and that’s particularly true when it comes to forwards.
Perhaps after an average Asian Cup campaign, in which the Socceroos’ recognised strikers scored just two out of six goals from five games (Australia only scored in two of those games), Arnold might wish the local clubs did show a better aptitude to player development.
Not only might they produce Australia’s next big star, they might also earn themselves a significant financial windfall.
This season, Victory has secured the best striker of the bunch, but one only has to look at the career of Toivonen to understand the urgency with which the FFA need to create more opportunities for young strikers.
Toivonen was a teenager when he made his senior debut for Degerfors IF, in Sweden’s second division.
His club was in the midst of a relegation battle and his form earned him a move to first-division relegation battlers Orgryte IS. Even though that season ended in relegation, his performances earned him the Newcomer of the Year award, and a subsequent move to Sweden’s biggest club, Malmo FF.
By the time he moved to Malmo, as a 20-year-old, he had 52 senior appearances to his name and would make over 50 more in the next two seasons before securing a move to Dutch heavyweights PSV.
In this time, Toivonen’s transfers earned Degerfors, Orgryte and Malmo over $8 million in transfer fees.
By comparison, Melbourne City’s Lachlan Wales is 21 and has just 27 senior appearances to his name – thanks largely to the ongoing fallout of the dispute between his coach, Warren Joyce, and the club’s marquee striker, Bruno Fornaroli. He departed the Central Coast Mariners for free.
Clubs like Victory and Sydney will always chase the biggest names and more often than not those names will be either attacking midfielders or out-and-out strikers, but this permeates throughout the league, even without the threat of relegation.
Ironically, despite being the best-resourced club in the league, Melbourne City has been the most aggressive in pushing the country’s young talent, either through their own youth set-up or by acquiring promising youngsters from other clubs.
A-League clubs can do a lot better when it comes to identifying and nurturing young talent, particularly those at the bottom of the league who continuously turn to heavily recycled talent instead of scouring the divisions below for a hidden gem, but it’s clear that this is not a problem a ten-team league can solve by itself.
The introduction of two new teams will help, but a professional second division and further expansion, preferably via promotion from the second division, are the only real long-term solutions to Australia’s striking shortage.