Talented kids are seeing their dreams of playing football professionally ruined by Australia’s pyramid-like youth football system.
On paper it seems easy to map out how an eight-year-old becomes a full-time player – moving through all the relevant age groups until they mature into adults.
However, it’s not as simple as its looks due to several variables ranging from the lack of professional clubs to elite programs like the AIS shutting down.
More and more kids are leaving earlier than ever to try their luck in Europe, due to family connections – like the Slunjski trio.
Kristian (19) is a defender, Brandon (17) is a midfielder and Noah (13) is a striker.
They have been in Croatia since 2017 after their father Ivan was frustrated at the never-ending obstacles of the much-maligned youth set-up in Australia.
When it comes to sporting brothers, it’s generally the youngest one that seems to always get the attention.
Noah is playing for one of the best football academy teams in Europe, Hajduk Split, where he is banging in goals for fun. He has started to receive interest from Croatia to play for their junior national teams.
A compilation of Noah’s highlights is on YouTube and you can see why Croatia and Australia are fighting for his services.
His claim to fame was that as a six-year-old, he scored over 30 goals in a season playing against boys two years older than him. Sydney Olympic was his junior club.
Noah’s time in Australia really took off when he was part of the Nick Rizzo football academy in Sydney.
Academies tend to get a bad reputation for being more interested in money rather than helping players progress.
However lots of players who are now in Europe have come from Australia’s private academies in the last several years.
Even at the tender age of 13, Noah’s technical skills seem light years apart from children of the same age in Australia.
Several clubs from the big European leagues are constantly monitoring his rapid ascension.
Older brothers Brandon and Kristian are both making slower progress in Croatia after coming through the junior teams of Sydney United and APIA Leichhardt in NSW.
They were also part of the now defunct Project 22 program, which was a program designed to identify the best nine- to 14-year-olds in NSW.
If the Slunjski trio ever get home sick, they can reach out to a large number of Australians playing in Croatia: Deni Juric, Doni Grdic, Anthony Kalik, Nikola Jardic, Kristian and Gabriel Popovic to name just a few.
They have all significantly improved from a technical standpoint since being in Croatia. The skills taught in Australia have had to be forgotten.
I have made many references of my own junior days in Europe and now being a part of youth development in Australia and seeing my son go through the system currently, there is no hesitation in saying that Australia lags heavily behind Europe when it comes to youth development.
Besides the obvious technical skills and coaching flaws in Australia, the lack of matches played in a season has proven to be counterproductive.
The Slunjski trio can look forward to playing over 40 matches this campaign once you factor in friendlies and cup runs.
Like all youth talents, it’s very hard to predict whether the Slunjski boys will make the grade and become first-team players at European clubs.
What is certain, though, is they are receiving a real football education and, in the older boys’ cases, getting paid to play the sport they love.
I unfortunately can’t say the same about Australian kids of the same age, who are stuck in a system that doesn’t want to change and is designed for failure.