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Opinion

NSL dinosaurs need to ease off the contemporary Australian footballer

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Expert
25th May, 2020
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1324 Reads

It was a treat to sit back and enjoy the 1970 World Cup Final that SBS slotted into its programming last week.

Despite the pleasure of finally seeing some live football from South Korea and Germany, the cupboard still feels bare and the screening was much appreciated.

The English Premier League appears far from its conclusion, the A-League looks likely to be frantically wrapped up in the month of August and any thought of an international fixture is nothing but a pipe dream at this time.

No doubt there will be an explosion of action in the medium term future, yet for now many football fans will still be relying on replays of classic matches, highlights packages and documentaries featuring their favourite players.

Not that the first World Cup Final of the 1970s was a classic encounter. Perhaps in terms of the tale of the tape it was, with Brazil and Italy entering the match as two time champions and both with the opportunity to own the Jules Rimet Trophy for eternity.

However, Brazil were by far the better side and completed a comfortable 4-1 victory over their European opposition, with Pele farewelling the World Cup stage with a goal in the 18th minute. Despite an Italian equaliser, Brazil skipped clear of the men in blue with three second half goals.

107,412 people jammed into the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City for the final, the world watched on television and Carlos Alberto hammered home an impressive strike in the 86th minute to seal the Italians’ fate.

It was an entertaining match, with Brazil involved that is to be expected, yet it was interesting to note the differences in fitness, speed and pressure when compared to the modern game.

It got me thinking about much of the criticism levelled at the skill level in A-League football, as well as many Socceroos abroad whose skill sets still fail to satisfy many.

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Such criticism often stems from legends of the Australian game; greats who feel that the new wave of Aussies have nowhere near the poise and skill that the players of their day possessed.

Gianni Stensness of the Mariners

How skilful are modern players really? (AAP Image/Kelly Barnes)

It appears consistently in social media, where Facebook groups such as Bring Back the NSL and Australian Football before the A-League, reminisce about days gone by and lament the loss of the effective pathways to the elite level that they feel continue to hamper the development of young players.

While there is no doubt some truth in their words, I have held a long standing belief that much of the criticism is undeserved. After watching the 1970 World Cup final, I realised why.

In short, the pressure on the ball was appalling compared to modern day standards. Outside the front third, players roamed free with little opposition presence around them to threaten possession of the ball.

It was evident during the first half and by the second, players were picking up the ball in the back third, crossing the halfway line and dribbling to within ten yards of the box before being closed down or even threatened by an exhausted defender.

Don’t get me wrong, I contextually enjoyed watching the contest, yet by the final 20 minutes it had become something of a farce and a game so stretched that more goals should realistically have been scored.

It spoke volumes of the vast chasm between the fitness levels of the modern player and those of the previous century.

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It also highlighted the pressure on the contemporary player to possess, control and promote the ball at a speed that players of the past would find difficult to even comprehend.

Contrast that lack of pressure to the modern tendency for managers to frequently demand a manic press in the hope of pouncing on an opportunity born of a loose ball and it is no wonder that many players of yesteryear interpret what they see on the pitch as incompetence.

In reality, such analysis displays little understanding of the modern game; its intensity, fitness demands and the depth of talent across the globe.

An oft drawn criticism of the current batch of Australian players is that there are less competing in the big European leagues. No doubt, that is true.

However, when Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka and Tim Cahill were starring in English football, the EPL was yet to truly morph into the beast that it is today. The league now draws the best of the best from all corners of the globe and has subsequently limited Australian opportunity.

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Tim Cahill

Tim Cahill – one of Australia’s best. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

That is what happens when the world game allows a handful of un-salary capped leagues to grow exponentially and it should not be used in criticism of the Australian talent that continues to qualify and compete at World Cup level; something the men of the pre A-League era managed just once.

The emergence of Daniel Arzani, EPL players Aaron Mooy and Mathew Ryan, as well as Aussies abroad such as Adam Taggart, Jason Davidson and Thomas Deng are examples of the continued production line of talent to emerge from Australia.

All the while, the standard is raised across the globe and the challenge becomes even more considerable for the young boys who earn the chance to venture abroad and advance their game.

When a veteran Australian football ‘journalist’ told me some time back that Perth Glory’s Chris Ikonomidis would have floundered in the NSL, I had to chuckle behind his back. That attitude and much of the criticism oft launched in the modern players’ direction is unfair.

Today’s players are fitter, faster, more agile and possess skills far more impressive than those of their NSL counterparts of days gone by.

The game has changed, the competition improved and the disrespect shown towards the current generation by the dinosaurs of the past fails to acknowledge that fact.