From kings of Oceania to Asian minnows, behind the Socceroos’ decline


Making waves: Former Melbourne Heart defender Simon Colosimo is FIFPRO’s deputy general secretary.Credit:Vince Caligiuri

They cite myriad reasons why the national team has slid down the Asian pole, the most common of which are:

  • players are not mentally tough enough and lack resilience and determination;
  • seasons have been cut back so much that good young players simply don’t play enough football;
  • the development system that produced the Golden Generation has been dismantled, replaced by a user-pays system of academies that locks out talented teens whose parents can’t afford high-quality training programs;
  • the club culture that spawned Australia’s great players has been undermined, leaving a generation of players who know how to play but don’t always understand the essence of their sport;
  • the collapse of localism and clearly understood pathways that gave the best players a route from their local club through the pyramid right up to national teams;
  • the closure of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) soccer program, the system that educated and nurtured so many of Australia’s top players;
  • the phenomenon of “over coaching”, where sometimes the best and the brightest are straitjacketed into regimented patterns of play, too often lacking spontaneity and creativity;
  • lack of investment compared with other Middle Eastern and Asian countries that splurge vast sums on development systems, domestic leagues and national teams.

The move into Asia

Australia’s move into the Asian Football Confederation in early 2006 was designed to give the Socceroos more games against better opposition, so they would improve more quickly than they were by easily beating Pacific Island minnows and New Zealand in the Oceania qualifying zone.

When Arnold (then in temporary charge as Guus Hiddink was in The Netherlands) led the Socceroos in their first game of the new era in Manama against Bahrain in February 2006, the script went to plan. Australia won an Asian Cup qualifier 3-1 and a pattern was established.

A shirtless John Aloisi celebrates scoring the penalty against Uruguay that put Australia into the 2006 World Cup.

A shirtless John Aloisi celebrates scoring the penalty against Uruguay that put Australia into the 2006 World Cup.Credit:AP

Often it seemed their Asian rivals were a goal down before each game started, so overawed did many feel facing players such as Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Aloisi, Tim Cahill, Lucas Neill and Brett Emerton. Many opponents admitted they had only seen the Australians in English Premier League broadcasts and had hardly dreamed of facing them in competitive matches.

Even then, those in the know suspected problems lay ahead. Following the last-gasp loss to Italy at the 2006 World Cup, Hiddink gathered a handful of journalists in the team hotel (this writer included) and told us that the Socceroos would struggle to qualify for future World Cups.

Hiddink wasn’t immediately correct, but he wasn’t far off: after easy World Cup qualifiers in 2010 under the late Pim Verbeek, Holger Osieck’s side qualified for Brazil 2014 only with a win over Iraq in the last match.

Under Ange Postecoglou they needed the play-offs to get to Russia in 2018, defeating Syria and then Honduras, but the first game in particular was a close-run thing.

Now the Socceroos are battlers in a region dominated by Japan and South Korea, with Iran, Saudi Arabia and improving challengers all around them.

The talent is there, but where’s the mental strength?

Aloisi believes youngsters coming through are every bit as talented as his generation, but wonders if they lack the desperation or mental strength his cohort possessed and whether the A-League provides them with the sort of safety net that didn’t exist 20 years ago.

“Everyone knew that we were good footballers and also that we were physically and mentally strong,” Aloisi says. “A lot of us had to be resilient because of how long we spent overseas (he went to Belgium at 16, Kewell and Cahill left at a similar age) and how many setbacks we had to face. The generation coming through, they haven’t probably got that resilience yet.

“I think it’s great that we have a proper professional set-up and the players will improve technically and tactically. But we seem to have taken away that hardworking, never-say-die attitude.”

The user-pays system

International defender Colosimo was a near contemporary of Aloisi’s and is now deputy general secretary of FIFPRO, the global players’ union based in the Netherlands.

He shares Aloisi’s concerns about the desperation of younger Australians to play at the higher levels, but believes the whole development pathway has structural flaws. In particular, he is critical of the proliferation of private and club academies where admission often depends on the ability of a youngster’s parent to cough up thousands of dollars in fees.

“I think the user-pays model plays a big part,” Colosimo says. “Access is now much harder. To play at the highest level from 10 to 16, it’s quite expensive. It’s building a transactional mindset rather than developing a cultural bond with a local club and playing and developing through that pathway.”

Tim Cahill scores his remarkable volley goal against the Netherlands at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Tim Cahill scores his remarkable volley goal against the Netherlands at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.Credit:AP

Colosimo came through at Carlton in the old National Soccer League (NSL) along with contemporaries Vince Grella (now a player agent based in Italy) and Mark Bresciano, an FA board member. All three first played locally (at Brunswick, Springvale and Bulleen, respectively) and fought to establish themselves as senior players.

“I didn’t play for the state team for three or four years,” Colosimo says. “Vincenzo was also left out at some stage, Mark was a late bloomer, but we came through from a strong cultural environment.”

He also believes – a view partially endorsed by Smith – that kids are over-coached in rigid systems and not allowed to develop the sort of spontaneity that makes a difference in matches.

“Think of Harry (Kewell) as a kid. Imagine in today’s system where he can’t just get the ball and run at players. He would have to slow down, pass the ball, move it,” Colosimo says.

Harry Kewell  celebrates during the 2006 World Cup in Germany after the Socceroos progress to the knock-out phase.

Harry Kewell celebrates during the 2006 World Cup in Germany after the Socceroos progress to the knock-out phase.Credit:Vince Caligiuri

Not enough matches

Smith, Busch and Colosimo agree that Australia’s younger players simply don’t play enough football because high-level youth leagues do not have sufficient fixtures.

“When we were in junior national teams we used to go to South America all the time to play tough opponents,” Colosimo says. “We were in Oceania, so we qualified for those junior World Cups. You can’t buy those experiences.”

Smith adds: “It’s as plain as anything – we don’t play enough football and haven’t done for years now and unless we change that, nothing is going to change.

“We are talking about a couple of generations now. We had a spell when the A-League started for three years when there was nothing all summer. Then the National Youth League started, that was OK for a couple of years when you had about 18 games, then that got cut to about eight. If you don’t provide opportunity to play, it doesn’t matter what you do – you are going to struggle.”

Culture the crucial factor

Sticca is one of the country’s best-known player agents and football entrepreneurs.

He believes – as does Professional Footballers Australia boss Busch – that culture built around community and local clubs was a key ingredient for Australia’s recent success, and that its diminution in the past two decades is a factor in the declining fortunes of the national team.

“In the last 15 to 20 years you have had the NSL collapse, the A-League start, the arrival of private and club academies, the demise of the AIS, so it’s an imperfect storm,” Sticca says.

Australian stars Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic in action during the Socceroos’ 1-1 draw with Denmark at Russia 2018.

Australian stars Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic in action during the Socceroos’ 1-1 draw with Denmark at Russia 2018.Credit:Getty Images

“Football was built on passion, love of the game, teammates, camaraderie. Now you get kids changing clubs, an obsession with winning, pressure from parents, coaches leaving one club and taking half the team with them because they are going somewhere with better facilities or more money.

“The pathway was clearer. You knew that you played for your club, and you climbed the ladder of success through state teams, national championships which led to the opportunity to play for national teams, if you are lucky to the AIS, under-17s, under-20s, Olyroos, then if possible a career overseas and the Socceroos.

“Now there is no AIS, loyalty to club doesn’t exist, attachment is not there.”

PFA boss Beau Busch in his playing days at Sydney FC.

PFA boss Beau Busch in his playing days at Sydney FC. Credit:Anthony Johnson

Busch adds that as Asian rivals keep investing heavily, Australia needs to rethink its development and player production systems.

“We need to be smarter about how we develop our talent, as we don’t have the population base of these other countries,” he says.

“We need to be clever about how we develop our national teams, our leagues, our clubs, our coaching to be able to compete.

“It’s not so much that a huge amount has gone wrong, it’s that Asia has improved so much.

“We removed things like the FFA Centre of Excellence, and we weren’t quite ready for the clubs to assume that role.

“To develop talent, we need to focus on culture. It’s not just about the curriculum.

“When the A-League started it was a divisive time in the game and that rift should have been healed much quicker than it was. Now we need to produce an Australian system, not one that is taken or copied from overseas.

“It may be around street soccer, it may be around coach development, the curriculum, plus a whole lot more. It’s not going to be one thing only.”

Galatas is chairman of the AAFC, the body pushing to create a national second division with promotion and relegation (eventually) linked to the A-League.

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His group argues that would create not just on-field jeopardy – which would toughen players up mentally and physically – but also provide several hundred extra professional opportunities for younger players, many of whom are discarded prematurely because they don’t make restricted-size A-League squads.

“Different players develop at different speeds and different rates,” Galatas says. “We would have more players staying in the game. It is an intangible, but it creates a wider and deeper culture, and I think that’s overlooked.

“I am not saying the second division is the panacea, but it is a further enhancement of our football culture and infrastructure. We just need a handful to come through eventually for the Socceroos as late developers and the game as a whole and the national team benefits.”



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