Harry Kewell Croatia
                                                              When will we find the next Harry Kewell ?

As I headed for my regular walk along the beach, on a grassy area in the distance a dozen figures were kicking a round ball to each other across a 25 metre diameter circle. As I got closer, I realized that those kicking the ball were all girls. As I stepped on to the beach, I saw three teenage boys, showing exceptional skill keeping a tennis ball airborne with their feet and head. Returning past the grassed area, half an hour later, a group of boys aged from eight upwards had a small sided game underway, displaying some real football talent.

These scenes were so different from how they would have looked when I arrived in Australia in 1967. If a ball was seen on the beach then, most likely it would have been of oval shape. You certainly would not have seen a bunch of girls kicking a ball around in a park and if young children had organized a football game, in New South Wales there is no doubt it would have been “touch footy” (rugby league).

Boys on Beach Cropped
                                           2020 – Teenage boys juggling a tennis ball on the beach

It can’t be denied that today throughout the country, there are more Australians playing our brand of football than any other version. The women, led by Sam Kerr have put the Matildas well and truly on the football map and this much loved national team ranks well globally. Our male player representation however is minimal in the top leagues of world football and the performances of our national youth, Under 23’s and full international teams over the last couple of years, could be at best described as workmanlike. Australian football hit a purple patch with the so called “Golden Generation” and the very creditable performance in the 2006 FIFA World Cup finals. Why then when there are now record numbers playing the round ball game, are only a sprinkling of our locally produced men impressing on the world stage and why are our national teams struggling ?

If player registration numbers were declining the reduction in the number of local grown stars could be partially explained. However of our rival footballing codes, rugby league is in terminal recession at junior level and the traditional rugby union game has its’ own participation problems. Furthermore, I don’t believe that Australian Rules football, a sport requiring a totally different skillset to football is stealing too many potential stars from the “world game”. Clearly a lack of football participants in the national playing pool is not a contributing factor and in no particular order, I offer these suggestions for the hiatus in our production of standout male footballers ;


Italian Immigrants
                           1950’s immigration and a boatload of potential Apia Leichhardt supporters arrive in Sydney

The influence of football loving migrants has dissipated. Although soccer has been played in this country for over 100 years, the catalyst for increasing the game’s popularity and playing standard was the post World War 11 immigration from Europe. Not only did European migrants add skill and excitement to the local game but their progeny were imbued with a love of football and continued this love of Association Football. The Golden Generation of Australian football and the players of the previous generation were raised on their parents’ and grandparents’ football culture. Since the early 1960’s the Australian men’s national team has included many wonderful footballers, sons of European migrants such as Attila Abonyi, Billy Vojtek, Eddie Krncevic, Mark Bosnich, Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell and scores more. However, as the number of European migrants has diminished considerably over the last 25 years or so, the inherent footballing spirit of their descendants likewise would appear to have been diluted.


While the cost of grassroots player registration at local club level compares reasonably with the other footballing codes, it is at the elite junior level of National Premier League clubs that the cost soars. The registration fee for junior representative football in the Skill Acquisition Program (“SAP”) can range between $2,500 – $3,000 per season. With SAP, there is then the expectancy that young players will train three times weekly for forty weeks. This itself, incurs a huge obligation for a parent having to transport their child to training and matches. There is never a shortage of young players aspiring to play representative football, but could many potential stars be slipping through the cracks because parents can’t afford the financial cost and the time expense necessary to advance their children’s football career?


Street Football
                                                  “Taking it to the streets”

As an English youngster long before any coaching “kicked in”, I would football in the street, park, schoolyard or anywhere that my friends and I could find space to set up a couple of makeshift goals. We weren’t coached but we developed our skills by learniing on the pitch what worked and what didn’t. Through park and street football, the pressures of coaches or parental sideline interference, we learned to play by being inventive and imaginative. These formative years were vital in my football development and that of my contemporaries. Unfortunately, it is not easy today to find a street where there is no passing traffic and parents are loathto let their children play at the park without supervision. Consequently, learning to play football today has become more rigid, less    imaginative and a less frequent recreation. Entertainment wise, Australian children now have a wide range of options. Aside from the variety of sports and activities on offer, there are distractions in the form of electronic devices (iPads, computers, video games etc.). As budding footballers, we didn’t have these entertainment choices which, in 2020 can significantly restrict the time available for children to play football. 


We desperately need to develop and improve the standard of our premier national competitions, the A League and W League, although this is much easier said than done. Initially, if the salary cap was abolished this would benefit both the local player and attract a better quality of overseas player. Abolition of the cap would also allow clubs to retain the best Australian talent, which would drive up the standard of the competition.

To entice young Australians to covet a local professional football career, we need to provide an exciting match day experience in the A League and W League. Critically, games need to be played in smaller stadiums, preferably rectangular in configuration bringing spectators closer to the action. This would help to generate atmosphere and enhance the excitement of the occasion. Free entry to A League & W League games for children would also be a worthwhile initiative.

Big Ground Small Crowd
                        Big ground small crowd – not ideal for A League excitement

The A League does not provide enough opportunities for local Australian footballers. The league’s governing body must seriously restrict the number of run of the mill overseas “visa” players cluttering up the A League clubs. Currently, A League clubs can have five contracted overseas players – far too many. For every imported player of the outstanding quality of a Thomas Broich, the A League has presented scores of Alex Meiers, Mario Jardels and Michael Mifsuds who have effectively used our national competition as a retirement home. We have more than enough local youngsters willing and able to take their place if given the opportunity.

Thomas Broich
                                                 Thomas Broich – An A League diamond

If there were more opportunities for local players and increased income, playing full time professional football in Australia would have more appeal for our talented youth. Furthermore, playing alongside a better calibre of overseas imports would no doubt enhance the quality of the Australian player and therefore the standard of Australian football.


In addition to the visa player issue, the current set up of our senior football competitions is stifling the progress of young players. The A League is currently a closed shop. Clubs are “the untouchables” with no fear of being relegated. This itself is a major impediment to the qualtity of the matches, particularly towards the end of the season. At the other end of the scale, the lack of promotion also dulls the ambition and the potential of a large number of NPL clubs. Sadly, A League clubs have no direct relationship with longstanding Australian football clubs such as Sydney Olympic, Melbourne Knights, South Melbourne or Apia Leichhardt nor with the large number of local district football associations throughout the country. As such, there can be no seamless transition from local club football through the National Premier Leagues to the A League. There is also no A League reserve competition that would allow promising young players to challenge their skills regularly with more experienced players. Although the A League youth teams compete in a truncated competition, in a normal season, these players would play less than half the number of matches than would their overseas counterparts.

Outstanding 16 and 17 year old players need to be playing consistently at the top local level with more senior players. Football history is littered with great players who made their senior debut at 17 (Pele when he was 15 !). The glut of overseas players and the reluctance of many cautious A League coaches to persevere with young players, is setting back the development of our youth players at a critical stage of their careers. The FFA board have indicated that implementation of both a second division and A League promotion and relegation is in their sights but for the good of Australian football, these modifications can’t happen soon enough.   

Jardel PDF
                             Mario Jardel – A League superannuant who failed to deliver

A further problem is that of the promising young player who is encouraged to go overseas too early in their development. The goal is usually to play at “the next level” but what is the next level? Playing in the second division in Switzerland or Denmark or in Saudi Arabia? It is possible that the money may be better in the Middle East but it is debatable whether the playing standard in these leagues is higher than the A League. Is the cost of a disjointed spell overseas, often with mandatory language adjustments and limited game time, worthwhile?

For a long time, there has been a mentality that the overseas football grass is always greener. I challenge this and believe that many players would be far better off pursuing their career locally than wasting their time playing irregularly in average overseas competitions. The disruption to their careers by a failed overseas excursion can be irreparable.


                             Former Australian international Mark Viduka – not a product of the coaching manual

Last but not least in my search for the reason for the dearth of quality Australian players, is coaching. Are the quality and methods of our local coaches to blame for the reduction in exceptional players coming out of Australia? Never before has this country had so many qualified coaches and football academies. We also have a national coaching curriculum to help us along our way, but nevertheless, the playing standard of our national teams is slipping further behind that of a number of Asian nations.

Cromer Park
              Cromer Park – home of Manly Warringah football provides marvelous training facilities

I don’t believe that a lack of funds for our youth development is an excuse. Many football associations have excellent training facilities to offer junior players and just by building more facilities, we are not going to be able to teach the skill of dribbling, passing or shooting any better. Are we becoming hung up with coaching tactics and playing systems rather than the game itself? Are our players being “overcoached” and missing out on the enjoyment I found in my schoolyard football?

From a very early age our football is structured. Under 6 teams have a coach, quite often willing, but sometimes not able to demonstrate football skills at this critical stage of the player’s development. Are our coaches emphasizing the physical rather than the technical aspects of being a footballer and where will we find the next Harry Kewell or Mark Viduka? We have long relied on our athleticism and physical strength to overcome Asian opponents but it has been clear for some time that athleticism is no longer sufficient.

Billy Vojtek Vietnam
               Billy Vojtec – Australia’s “Wizard of the Dribble” in 1967

I firmly believe that our coaches place far too much emphasis on “possession football.” More and more young players are coached to retain possession but not encouraged to attack once possession has been obtained. Possession football discourages dribbling, a critical skill in breaking down defences. We need to develop players who are able to attack defenders down the flanks. We need midfielders and defenders to relinquish their obsession with square and backward passes and look to go forward consistently. It is time for all those responsible for youth development to allow players to express themselves, to be adventurous and to rediscover the art of dribbling. Coaches should also step back and let young players experiment and enjoy some free form football on their own. Set them tasks to go home and practice. Trapping a ball, dribbling and juggling the ball. Most importantly, it is crucial that coaches make every training session interesting, not tedious and done with a sense of urgency. Above all else, the coaches must ensure that training is enjoyable.

                                                                                 Daniel Arzani – an exciting Australian talent

In this country there has always been an abundance of raw material primed to be developed into top quality footballers. With a handful of talented youngsters now playing consistently in the A League, including Riley McGree, Nathaniel Atkinson, Reno Piscopo and Chris Ikonomidis, we are on the right track. Additionally, we have the exciting Daniel Arzani soon to return with Glasgow Celtic from knee surgery so there is reason for optimism. Issues need to be addressed however to steer the Australian football ship in the right direction. Hopefully the FFA board and its’ new CEO James Johnson will have the understanding and the wisdom to make it happen.

Modern day young footballers may not be able to throw down makeshift goalposts on the busy streets of Australian cities. If, however we can provide our young players with the opportunity for a prosperous football career in Australia and ensure that coaches and their training sessions emphasize skill and football invention rather than the athletic aspect of the game, Australian football may start to lay some more golden generation eggs.

© David Jack 2020

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