The man most qualified to talk about what Australia must do to compete in Asian football is now persona non grata with many observers of the Australian game.
Ange Postecoglou has started the new Japanese season with two league wins and a draw in charge of Kanagawa giants Yokohama F. Marinos, although his high-octane outfit went down to Shonan Bellmare in a League Cup derby in midweek.
Postecoglou was labelled a mercenary by plenty of critics who had no idea he held a long-standing interest in Japanese football years before joining the Tricolore. Australian football’s loss is evidently the J. League’s gain.
The former Socceroos boss has been telling everyone for years now about how Japanese youth teams are light years ahead of our own, but he ran into a problem that seems to be unique to the Australian game.
No one’s listening.
And we’ve now reached a point where standing around scratching our heads as to how J. League teams are so vastly superior to A-League opponents has become Australian football’s signature move.
“Our position in Asia, my view is it’s more fragile than it should be,” Football Federation Australian chairman Chris Nikou told reporters this week ahead of Australia’s impending bid to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
Perhaps when he gets a spare moment he can hop on a plane up to Japan’s second-largest city and have a chat with his close personal friend Postecoglou about what Australians can learn from the Japanese.
Or maybe we should just ask Mitch Duke?
He’s been the Wanderers’ best player since joining from Shimizu S-Pulse, and having spent four seasons in the top two divisions of Japanese football, perhaps he knows a thing or two about how they approach the game?
But the trouble is that any time someone proffers an opinion on the sort of things Australian football needs to do to move forward, they get shouted down or summarily ignored by a plethora of competing voices.
That’s probably why Graham Arnold was roundly criticised by a couple of A-League coaches as soon as he announced his Olyroos squad to play a few friendlies in Malaysia ahead of next year’s AFC Under-23 Championship.
I’m not suggesting that Kevin Muscat or Markus Babbel don’t have a point when they question the value of removing important players from A-League squads to play in underage international friendlies.
I’m simply highlighting the fact that even at the very top level of the game, Australian football’s priorities are all over the place.
Kawasaki Frontale started nine Japanese players in their 1-0 win over Sydney FC in midweek, and brought three more off the bench.
Sanfrecce Hiroshima started ten against Melbourne Victory. Besart Berisha didn’t even make their AFC Champions League squad.
But talking about how Kawasaki introduced Manabu Saito off the bench for him to promptly score the winner against Sydney FC makes for uncomfortable reading, because he learned his football through five years in Yokohama F. Marinos’ youth set-up.
So we just ignore that fact.
Meanwhile, Australian clubs announce grand plans to take A-League games to South-East Asia at the same time as denouncing plans to introduce a 3+1 rule.
Then Nikou says the FFA needs to shore up support from the Asian Football Confederation for a Women’s World Cup bid at least four other Asian nations could potentially bid for.
Our whole approach to Asian football remains a mish-mash of misplaced bravado and blind ignorance.
As things stand, the A-League will soon lose an automatic AFC Champions League qualification spot on rankings points to Thailand.
That’s about our level.
At this moment in time, most A-League players simply aren’t good enough to compete with Asian talent.
The sooner we acknowledge that – and start investing some time, thought and funding into youth football – the quicker we can begin to turn things around.